Ripples from Mideast Travel Order Reach Alabama Professor

Baher Sabah, a plastic surgeon from the Iraqi city of Babylon, was looking forward to his trip to America. “He loves America,” said Sabah’s uncle, Safaa Al-Hamdani, a biology professor at Jacksonville State University. “When he has come to the United States for any reason, it was just like he won the lottery.”

On tap for Sabah was the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery’s annual scientific meeting on Feb. 9-11 in San Diego. He had his airline ticket. He had his visa and, at the scientific meeting, he would have access to workshops, live patient demonstrations, displays of the latest technologies and, of course, lots of networking opportunities. All in all, said Sabah’s uncle, “a golden opportunity to advance himself.”

Now, as a result of President Donald Trump’s recent executive order temporarily halting travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, Sabah has put his visa, his ticket and his golden advancement opportunity on the shelf. And he is not alone. By Thursday, four other Iraqi surgeons also had cancelled their reservations to the conference. Though there appear to be some exceptions who could enter the U.S. — on what news reports have described as a “case by case” basis — Sabah and the four other surgeons did not figure they would be among them.

Safaa Al-Hamdani, a biology professor at Jacksonville State University.His uncle, a native of Baghdad and naturalized U.S. citizen who has taught 25 years at JSU, feels badly for Sabah, as well as other Iraqis affected by the Trump order. The others, he said, include interpreters and facilitators who worked with U.S. troops there during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the subsequent occupation, and those who are now alongside the U.S. troops assisting the Iraqi military’s efforts to wrest Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from the brutal grasp of the Islamic State or ISIS. Many interpreters and their families will have to leave Iraq, Al-Hamdani said,  because “they are target number one for ISIS,” but they cannot get sanctuary in the U.S. because they are being “collectively punished for no reason” under the Trump order.

“Thousands of people are being collectively punished for absolutely no reason,” he said. “It will not make this country secure. We are more intelligent than to have collective punishment for people in the name of security.”

What Executive Order Says

According to its text, the purpose of the order, issued last Friday and under challenge in the courts, is “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” The order suspends all refugee entry into the U.S. for the next four months, and refugee resettlement from war-ravaged Syria indefinitely. In addition, according to a summary by The Detroit Free Press, the order halts for the next three months “entry into the U.S. by citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – on immigrant or non-immigrant visas. President Trump also cut the number of refugees to be allowed into the U.S. this year from 110,000 to 50,000, meaning that if and when the suspension is lifted on refugees, fewer will be resettled.”

Related: Birmingham, City of Immigrants: Newcomers Follow Opportunity, Face Slurs, Find a Home

A part of the order states,  “Numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas, or who entered through the United States refugee resettlement program. Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States.  The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.”

The ban order drew protests from around the U.S., with critics saying it is unconstitutional, targets Muslims and runs counter to the values of a country that prides itself on being a nation of immigrants. Other critics said the order was drawn up hastily and caused confusion because of the lack of guidance the administration gave to those who were to enforce the order at the nation’s ports and airports.

Recent polls have shown nearly half of the American population support President Trump’s action. Al-Hamdani said that with the order, Trump is telling his base that he is delivering on a campaign promise he made when, citing some polling results, he called “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” until the nation got a better understanding of the “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”

“Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension,” Trump said in a Dec. 7, 2015 statement. “Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

Hatred is not what Safaa Al-Hamdani said he feels toward his adopted country, and he has never detected hatred among the Muslim-Americans he knows.

‘They Love This Country’

“The Muslims in this country, they love this country because they are so appreciative of the opportunity they’ve been given,” he said. “I mean, I have not seen one person say ‘America is bad to me.’  They come here, they have equal opportunity, they have a job and they build themselves (up) and their kids go to school and we worship in peace and the interaction between us and the different Christian groups is fantastic. Why would we want to destroy this?”

“I’m very comfortable here,” Al-Hamdani said. “Discrimination exists in every city, but my colleagues, they are very generous and very understanding. They are open-minded. There is no problem, really.”

Al-Hamdani saw plenty of generosity, from individuals and institutions including UAB, when, during the height of the U.S. war in Iraq, he organized a volunteer campaign to send thousands of textbooks and other educational materials to universities in his native city of Baghdad. Al-Hamdani has five sisters and a brother who are still residents of Iraq. His nephew, Sabah, is married to a daughter of Al-Hamdani’s brother Ali, who died of cancer several years ago.

At UAB, as at other colleges and universities in Alabama and around the nation, administrators have been reviewing President Trump’s travel ban order and trying to gauge any impact it might have on their institutions.

“As one of the most diverse universities in the nation with students, faculty and staff representing roughly 110 countries, there are valued members of our community from those countries named in the executive order,” UAB officials said in a statement issued Tuesday. “We are not aware of any specific incident regarding student, faculty or staff travel that has been directly affected by the executive order at this time.”

According to Pew Research Center estimates, Trump’s order, in its scope, “would affect about 12% of the world’s Muslims … In fact, of the seven countries named in the new immigration ban – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – only one, Iran, is among the 10 countries with the largest Muslim populations.”

In 2010, according to Pew, “there were an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, making Islam the world’s second-largest religious tradition after Christianity.” Muslims made up about one percent of the U.S. population in 2015, or about 3.3 million out of a total of 322 million. That share is expected to double by 2050. Asfaque Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, estimates that about 5,000 devout Muslims live in the Birmingham area.