Leading up to the US Supreme Court hearing on Trump’s travel ban, we’ll hear about the order’s impact on people from affected, Muslim-majority countries, and how advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations are responding. On this edition of Making Contact we begin with the story of a woman who was in flight to the US when President Trump signed his first travel ban.
Special thanks to the Stanford Storytelling Project and State of the Human podcast managing producer, Jake Warga.
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- Nisrin Abdelrahman, Stanford PhD Student in Anthropology
- Zahar Billo, Civil Rights Attorney and Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter
- Host: Monica Lopez
- Producers: Anita Johnson, Marie Choi, Monica Lopez, R.J. Lozada
- Contributing Producers: Nisrin Abdelrahman, Helvia Taina, An-Li Herring, Eileen Williams
- Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
- Audience Engagement Director/Web Editor: Sabine Blaizin
- Development Associate: Vera Tykulsker
- David Szesztay, “The End”
- David Szesztay, “Chords”
- Percival Pembroke, “Symphony, no. 2 in F minor”
“What do you think, dad, should I go?” And he’s like, “You know, I think it’s just better be, uh, safe than sorry.” He was like, “I think, you know, you should go.”
My name is Nisrin Elamin Abdelrahman. I am a PhD student here at Stanford in Anthropology.
I’m originally from Sudan, but I am also a green card holder, I’m a permanent resident. I’ve been living in the US for 24 years.
We started hearing about this possibility of a Muslim ban, and this executive order that might get signed.
[News Reporter] Trump put a temporary ban on travelers from Sudan and six other Muslim majority countries from entering the US.
And my father and I were, you know, in this very small kind of one-bedroom house in this like working-class neighborhood in Khartoum, and glued to the TV watching CNN, trying to figure out what’s going to happen.
[Trump] I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United State of America. We don’t want them here.
On the day we heard that this was going to get signed within the next two days, I decided probably within the span of an hour, that I was going to get the next flight out.
[Trump] we only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love, deeply, our people.
[FX Plane sounds]
Finally get on this flight. Barely had enough time to say goodbye to my, like, immediate relatives. Didn’t get to say goodbye to any of the people, like, that I’d been living with at my field research sites. Even, like, my goodbye to my parents was really rushed, you know. And it’s like those moments when you’re like, my father’s 80. You know he’s healthy, (hamdullah) but at the same time, I don’t really know when I’m going to see him again. So, that was really emotional, so I just kind of like didn’t think about that. and I just like got on the flight. And when I got on the flight, I just started crying [crying]… It just felt really strange, to not know when I was going to see them again.
I was born in Germany. My father was studying in Germany and I grew up for part of my life in Germany. So, I actually never lived in Sudan. I mean, I’ve gone back-and-forth to Sudan when I was a child. I’m kind of like a child of the world. [Laughing] You know, I moved around a lot, lived in different places. My parents moved back to Sudan a couple of years ago, and so doing my field research was actually really timely because I got to spend time with them. Growing up I actually didn’t get to spend that much time with my family, so I’ve been always sort of fall away from each other.
I was in a boarding school in Germany on a scholarship there. Had a hard time. You know, I was one of the few black students in the school. There was a lot of xenophobia at the time because the Berlin Wall had just fallen recently. You know, as these economies were integrating, a lot of people were unemployed and they blamed it on foreigners, and we were having immigration issues. You know, I was like 13 or 14, and I started reading Roots. And then I read the autobiography of Malcolm X. And I just started thinking about, like, how it might be to be somewhere, where — there are like many other people like me. And, so that just sort of went into my head that I wanted to come to the US But my parents didn’t have the money to send me, so kept applying to the sister school of the school that I was in, and then eventually got in and got a scholarship as well. That was actually the boarding school that Ivanka Trump went to.
[Tape: plane seating ambi.]
The flight attendant announced my name and said you know, “Your connecting flight is departing very soon. Since we’re arriving late, please make your way up to the front.”
At this point I’m wearing like full hijab, you know, coming from Sudan.
I’m trying to say you know, “Excuse me can I get through.”
And there’s this man, a British man with his kids, who decides to block me from getting to the front. And I was like, “Excuse me I really need to go, and you know, catch this flight.” And he says, “Yeah we’re all waiting for flights. You’re just gonna have to wait.” And I said you know, “I’m really sorry sir but I really need to get on this flight.” He was like, “We all really need to get on this flight, like, on our, whatever, flights—you’re just gonna have to wait.” And he just kind of looked at me and just refuse- he literally like did, you know physically kind of blocked me from leaving the plane.
In his head, he doesn’t realize like I really need to get on this flight. Like it’s not just like I’m gonna miss getting to work on time, like I really need to get on this flight. And he just — there was no empathy. I mean probably also no understanding of my situation, I don’t know. But I also felt in that moment that he’s looking at me as a Muslim woman.
Actually what I thought about too was his child was there, his son was there and he was looking at me. Like what lesson are you teaching your son.
Get to the flight and the person says, “You know I’m really sorry. Had you had gotten here 2 minutes earlier you would have gotten on this flight.” So I actually know that had the man let me through I probably would have been on that flight and none of this would have happened, because I then had to wait for another 3 hours to get on the next flight.
Growing up in Germany in the late 1980s, early ’90s, I was like obsessed at the time with like Prince and Michael Jackson, and American pop culture.we didn’t see very many people who looked like us resisting.
I was really interested in the civil rights movement and like the Black Panther Party and there was something about it that helped me deal with being a black person living in Germany and dealing with racism.
And I’m going through security, and they’re like, you know ” Oh you’ve been selected, like randomly selected for searching. And usually it happens before you get to the gate. But this is after. So the other person who was with me was Afghani. So we were both kind of joking between us, like “Ok ‘random selection,’ like the Afghani and the Sudanese, you know” [laughs].
We get on this flight. I couldn’t sleep because I was really nervous. Because at this point I had seen on Facebook somebody post, um, about the fact that the order had been signed. So I knew on the plane that this order had been signed. I mean I saw that and I was like, “Shit, like, this was what I was trying to avoid.”
The 7 countries on this list have all been — the lives of people in these 7 countries have all been impacted by US policy, US military intervention, US sanctions. And so we think of them as these enemy nations, but we don’t really think about, on a day-to-day basis, how are ordinary people being affected by these policies, like just, you know, in terms of how they’re making ends meet. These are just people who like, you know, get up in the morning and send their kids to school, like, they’re just like anybody else that you and I know.
On the one hand, I love Sudan. I love, you know, obviously my family, who’s there. And on the other hand, this regime which has been in power since 1989 has been extremely repressive. Especially in parts of Sudan that are marginalized, there are ongoing wars, people are being killed on a daily basis. I’ve seen, just over the last five years in my family own family, people go from having three meals a day to now having like one-and-half meals essentially.
By the time I got on the flight I think I hadn’t slept in like 36 or maybe 48 hours. I was really tired. But I just couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even watch a movie. I was just in my head, rethinking some of these, processing some of these feelings that were coming up for me. And I could barely eat too.
I get to the airport, around 10 in the evening.there’s this citizenship and permanent resident lane that I’m allowed to go in. So I go in, and put my green card in this machine, and there’s this paper that comes out. And if it’s a tick then you just move through. So I was like really hoping that it would come out with a green tick. And there was an X through it.
I remember the day you know, I got my green card, we had a spontaneous party in my office—finally I’m not going to have to ever deal with this again, you know! Still, obviously, I’m traveling on a Sudanese passport so I have to deal with visas, but like, everything got easier after that. Once I had my green card, I physically felt different. It was like this burden was lifted off my shoulders. I remember the first time I traveled with a green card and the officer said, “Welcome home.” And I almost started crying because it was this moment of like, “Wow, like I’ve never actually heard someone say that to me.”
You know, it’s always like, “sorry, I need to bring you to this area for further questioning.”
And so, in that moment, I was just like, “Shit,” like, “I’m back to this?” You know, after so long. Just that fear, that anxiety, even that holding area, I’d been in that area many times before, I’d been questioned many times before. I handed him my green card, and he looked at it and he said, ” Can I have your passport?” He looks at the passport, turns it around because it’s, like, um, and he says ok, just you know sit tight for a minute. And he goes to his supervisor who’s standing on the corner.
My green card actually says Germany on it. And at first the supervisor says, “Well you just process her like a normal green card holder. And then as he was, literally, as he was walking back, the person called him back and said, “Wait a minute,” um…Actually you need to ask her to go in for further questioning.” Wow, actually, like, again, if I had gotten here maybe 20 minutes before, I could have just gone through.
And the first part of the questioning was fairly familiar. Where are you coming from? What were you doing? The educational institutions I had gone to. The languages I speak. He asked me about all the countries that I’ve been to. And so I started you know listing the countries that I’d recently been to. And he said no, like in your entire life.
The officer told me, “I don’t know much about Sudan, so, um, I want to hear you talk about the situation in Sudan, like talk to me about the political situation in Sudan.” And then because then he started asking me about whether or not I knew about radical groups in Sudan. You know whether I knew people who had radical views. And he was taking notes. At some point he came back to me and asked me for my social media handles. Then at some point they were getting tired. It was maybe 1 or 2 in the morning at this point. And they need to shut down that terminal so they had to transfer us to another terminal.
We then sort of got handed over to the customs and border patrol folks who you know didn’t know anything about us. So these two women officers lelod me into a room. And they told me to put my hands against the wall and to spread my legs. And then they did a body pat down. And it was really uncomfortable actually. And then they said they had to handcuff me, because they were transferring us from this terminal to the other terminal that was a 24-hour terminal, since they still didn’t know what was going to happen to us. And knew that at that point I was getting handcuffed. Because even if they were saying, “Oh we don’t know what’s going to happen to you” we’re getting led to this van, like that I could end up at a detention center. So I started crying, and the woman who handcuffed me was a black woman. And I saw her visibly like — visibly like react to me crying. And it was like an interesting moment, because the other officer who was there with me was not black, was like cold faced. Like no reaction. I mean I was literally shaking, like I hadn’t cried like that in a while just because I was scared. And they were going back and forth and eventually the handcuffs came off and we were in the car together, like she was still really shaken by it , and I like leaned over to her and I said like “It’s ok, like I knew you were just doing your job, you know?” [voice breaks] “Um, because I don’t know it was just like this — I felt like it was in a way a weird moment where we were like both dehumanized. I could just see like, there was just something in her that was like,
you know where she connected to my, like, sense of fear, and like, was empathetic to that.
You know I think this historical moment is obviously generating a lot of extreme feelings in people. Including in this person. And I think there’s this fear that then gets projected on to people like me.
When we talk about “This is necessary to keep our country safe,” when we ask black people in this country that question, historically, when have black people had the right to feel safe in this country,?
It just makes me angry because… I just feel like it’s dehumanizing to be told like, what you went through is, is, that needs to happen to keep our country safe [crying]. Who has the right to feel safe? Who doesn’t?
(breaths) So then we got transferred to this other 24 hour area and we were with other people being led in, like an Iranian and Iraqi citizen who — they were in handcuffs too. And you know, one of them was this like, nerdy, Iranian, PhD student who was just — I felt like, I felt his pain, because he was like, what the hell is going on, he was there to go be with this professor at Cornell for a couple of months and had a visa and was just like, really confused, and there was this other Iraqi man whose wife and child were waiting outside for him, and he, I think, had been waiting for forever for a visa to get reunited with them, and with- like, just feeling all of those emotions in that room was really intense. And I was trying to help him translate, but the officers wouldn’t let me.
And I felt like in that room we were really treated more like criminals than in the previous holding area. And it was like we couldn’t sit next to each other, we couldn’t talk to each other. None of us were brought food and we had been in there for a couple hours. At some point I asked if I could eat my sandwich and they said yes but it had to be like in plain sight and-
And by this time it’s like 3 in the morning.
They call you up not by your name but they’re like “Sudanese green card holder!” you know. And I walk up and he says, there was some paperwork that he was signing, and he’s looking at a computer screen, and he got a message I guess telling him that they could let me go. Because nothing, and he said, quote unquote derogatory came up in the system against you which I’m assuming means there’s no criminal record and the interview didn’t raise any red flags. But he said “If I were you I wouldn’t travel. Unless you want to go through this whole thing again. Yeah, and he handed me my passport and was like, “You’re free to go.” And I was like, looking around, like, “For real? I’m free to go?” And I just grab my passport and like ran out you know? [laughs, sighs] And, I don’ t know — I was so full of adrenaline and so happy to be let out that I didn’t even, like, really fully process what had happened.
I just went to my mailbox today, and I got this letter. And I can read it, I guess. “Dear Muslima, I’m terribly sorry you were inconvenienced on returning to the US But recognize that you come from a country, Sudan, that was designated as long ago as 1993 by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism. Recognize also that Americans don’t owe you anything and that you’re fortunate to be here receiving an education. Coincidentally, I’ve been to Sudan, a shitty-ass shithole run by a maniac. Khartoum stank of piss and most likely still does. But I have no trouble getting Johnny Black at prices even lower than what one generally finds in Cairo. Like I always say, if you want a ready supply of whiskey, go to an Islamic republic. The next time you fly on a jet or use a computer or a smartphone, won’t you take a moment to incant a prayer for the poor, maligned white man? After all, you live in a world that he made.”
It was signed, and you know, address on it and everything. Anyway, it’s just–I just got it like a couple minutes ago, so [laughing]… I mean I’ve gotten my share of like hate mail, like Facebook and email, and You know for every, like, hateful message that I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten probably 5 to 10 messages of support and love.
And people say to me you know, [voice breaks], like, “I’m glad you’re the one who’s speaking .
[Democracy Now Audio clip]
My uncle, he’s 98, I was on the front of the newspaper in Sudan too, and he clipped all of the, like, newspaper articles and like listened to the Democracy Now interview and he said you know, “Um…like, she speaks in a way that people have to listen!” There’s a way in which my dad says, “They hit the wrong person. They thought probably you know this barely 5 foot tall you know [laughs] Sudanese woman was going to keep her mouth shut, but my daughter’s not going to keep her mouth shut you know [laughs]” So there’s that, I mean I’ve been an activist my whole life, I’m used to speaking out against injustices.
[TV news Clip]
I felt a lot of and guilt actually. You know, I think shame around the fact that I have a lot of privilege that a lot of people who have been put in this position don’t have, right, just being a green card holder, being someone who, you know, is, affiliated with Stanford. I’m sure actually even in my detention there’s a way in which I got treated better than other people who couldn’t pull, you know, that affiliation out, right? So…
what happened to me is something that happens on a daily basis to people coming through borders. What was exceptional about it is that I have a green card, and of course I was one of the first people to be detained under the order, so there was a lot of media attention on my story.
I was at a teach-in yesterday. one of the panelists with me was a, is a Japanese American man, he was 83 years old. He was talking about his internment as an eight-year-old, he was interned for two years in Colorado. After I spoke, he, you know — held my hand, and he said… you know, he said he was really proud of me for like speaking out. And, he said, “I want you to not internalize what they’re saying about you. Because it took me a lifetime to undo, you know, what I internalized as a child.”
There’s like a narrowing of belonging that’s happening. And I think what we need to do as human beings in the US is to… like broaden that.
And we have to use that to say, because of our history, we now need to move forward and resist in a different direction. Like we can’t move back, you know? People have, you know, sacrificed so much for us to be at this point and there’s still so much for us to do, and we can’t let, yeah we- we can’t let people take that away from us.