With the stroke a pen on Friday, President Donald Trump wreaked havoc at major airports and entry points in America and many airports abroad. That day, with no warning, seemingly little planning, and no heed for the consequences, the president ordered an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees’ entry into the United States, a four-month ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—and a three-month freeze on the entry of all citizens from these countries. Overnight, men and women from the listed countries were told, in effect, that even if they possessed a visa to enter the United States or held a green card granting them permanent U.S. residency: Don’t show up. We won’t let you in.
Refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries like Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, do not have the luxury of, say, choosing between a vacation in Nice or St. Tropez. They abandon homes, jobs, friends, and family, because they are fleeing civil war, slaughter, hunger, and worse. Did those counseling the president—men like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Michael Flynn—give any thought to their plight? Did it not occur to them that there were already people with visas and green cards at airports across Europe and the Persian Gulf, or on planes heading to the United States when the president issued his order, people who are now being delayed, detained, or turned back?
In retaliation to the bar on the entry of Iranians into the United States, Tehran announced on Saturday that it would likely limit the entry of Americans into Iran. Currently, there are several American dual nationals being held in prisons in Iran, on charges of espionage and undermining Iranian national security. This will make it much harder for the American relatives of these prisoners to advocate on their behalf. What happens if other Muslim countries follow the Iranian example?
In the 37 years that I have lived in the United States, I have seen waves of refugees coming to America: Iranians fleeing the revolution in their country, Lebanese fleeing a murderous civil war, Iraqis seeking escape from war and destruction, Somalis, Eritreans, Ethiopians, and others. Even as a child growing up in Iran, I came to see America as a place of refuge for the oppressed. Among my mother’s friends were Europeans with relatives in America, including families of Jews who had fled the Nazis from Germany, Poland, and Hungary. As a university student in Austria in the 1950s, I came across the flood of refugees following the Hungarian uprising against Communist rule. Most of them made their way to the United States.
As a journalist in Tehran in the 1960s, I knew of the Russian dissidents and Russian Jews whose departure from the Soviet Union for America was negotiated by the U.S. government. America secured the release of the famous Russian dissident Natan Sharansky. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, passed by congress, facilitated the emigration of Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union. Later, forced to leave Iran after the Islamic revolution, I accompanied my husband who was to teach at Princeton University. At Princeton, I became close friends with the Polish-American wife of a Lebanese-American economics professor. During World War II, when she was only 14, her family was deported from Poland, subjected to hard labor in Russia, then left at the Iranian border. They made their way to Britain, and, eventually, she made it to America.
Despite the Iran hostage crisis, when 52 Americans, mostly diplomats, were held hostage by the country for 444 days, I and many other Iranians were nevertheless made to feel at home here. In 2007, when I was arrested in Iran and spent over 100 days in solitary confinement, it was in part the outpouring of American public support that secured my freedom. No one cared about my religion, beliefs, or original nationality.
This is the America that became my home: a land where you were welcomed and treated fairly, where you could freely express your opinion and practice your religion, where the rule of law applied to everyone, not just the chosen few. Today, I keep wondering what is happening, what time we’re in, in this America.
In my mind, I keep seeing the old German refugee couple in the film Casablanca, eagerly waiting for transport to America. In preparation, they are practicing their broken English. “What watch?” the husband asks his wife, wanting to know what time it is. We too may well ask: “What watch?” What time is it in our country?