For a few weeks in early 2005, I came under a travel ban imposed by the Syrian military intelligence because of my “unauthorized activities involving contacts with foreign agents and giving lectures at suspect institutions.” This was a reference to my time as a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Mideast Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. when I made a number of public talks and media appearances. I also wrote a number of articles for the Lebanese Daily Star among others that were quite critical of the Assad regime.
With time, the ban was eased and I was officially allowed to travel again, but I was always kept waiting for a special authorization from various security agencies, whether I travelled by air or land. There were times when the permission did not materialize and I was turned back. Theoretically, I was supposed to report to the military and political security branches after each trip, but I never did. When I was finally ordered to leave the country in September 2005 on account of my “rogue” behavior, my wife and stepchildren were processed ahead of me and I had to wait until the last minute before being allowed to board the plane. The security people had to wait for an “OK” from various intelligence branches, or so I was told.
That was in the days before the Syrian Revolution and the international proxy war that it sparked, before the mass incarceration, torture and liquidation, before the mass deportations and ethnic cleaning, before the massacres and barrel bombs, before hundreds and thousands of people like me could be "disappeared" without a trace and often without generating any meaningful protest or condemnation. I was lucky.
There are certainly thousands like us all over the United States: Syrians, Sudanese, Yemenis and others who now have to deal with this heartache. Moreover, the executive order will reinforce the hostility and misconceptions that many US citizens have regarding people from these countries, as well as Muslims in general. This, at a time when hate crimes against Muslims, or those suspected of being Muslims, such as Hindus or Sikhs, are on the rise
While the EU seems unwilling to adopt reciprocal measures at this stage, I cannot help but feel that my family and I finally became US citizens just in time for us to be considered second-class citizens – a group that will for long be suspected and unwanted by a significant percentage of their fellow citizens on account of nothing more than background, even though our ideals and actions may reveal greater understanding of and more commitment to US values than that shown by our denigrators.
These are arguably not the best of times for people who hail from “certain” backgrounds. Add to the mix, the isolation that Arab Muslim liberal activists often face even within their own communities, and this conclusion can be restated in even stronger terms. In practical terms, however, this only means one thing: the struggle for equality and justice must go on.
My personal experience with travel restrictions make me believe that prejudice and desire for more control, not genuine security concerns, are what lie at their heart.
Op-ed originally posted on Deutsche-Welle
Ammar Abdulhamid is a liberal Syrian pro-democracy activist whose anti-regime activities led to his exile in September of 2005. He currently lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife, Khawla Yusuf, and their children, Oula (b.1986) and Mouhanad (b. 1990). He is the founder of theTharwa Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to democracy promotion. His personal website and entries from his older blogs can be accessed here.
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