Traveling to America while Muslim

Sulaika Abokor, a Somali-born elementary-school teacher in London, dreams of “a road trip from Seattle to California.” The 34-year-old was planning a vacation to Seattle this summer to see a friend who was recently married. She fell in love with the green, outdoorsy city when she last visited in 2010. But, because of the Trump administration’s travel ban prohibiting most visitors from six predominantly Muslim countries, she now says, “That’s not going to happen.” 

Contrary to recent reports of the United States being inundated with international travelers this year, with international arrivals and travel-related spending in the U.S. up in 2017 compared with the same period last year, a subset of travelers — British Muslims — is rethinking its plans. While no statistics in Britain are available, a significant number of British Muslims say they are eschewing U.S. travel in light of the ban, according to Muslim officials and anecdotal evidence from interviews in Britain.  

“This concern is unlikely to be held just by a small minority of British Muslims,” said Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, the country’s largest Muslim organization. “Some British Muslims don’t want to go to the United States because of the hassle of traveling there.” There are concerns, he said, “because of the fears of what might happen when they travel or arrive there.”  

Abokor is among them. Like me, Abokor is a British citizen who has a dual nationality; the other is from Somalia, one of the Muslim-majority countries singled out by the ban. For her, a trip to the U.S. is “no longer attractive.” She said she does not feel confident enough to try boarding a flight to Seattle.  

“I don’t want to risk being turned away or having a hard time getting in,” Abokor said. “A place that does not want my people, then you don’t deserve my tourist money.” 

Among my circle of friends and acquaintances in London’s Muslim scene, especially those of us who have dual citizenship, traveling to the United States is now fraught with uncertainty, fear and insult because of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which was partly revived in June after a Supreme Court ruling. The temporary ban, which had been blocked for months by lower courts, has upended many lives, including those of vulnerable refugees from around the world. Some working professionals have had concrete plans to visit in the coming months. But we worry about taking the risk of being questioned for hours at a U.S. airport or, worse, being sent home. For some of us, America is no longer a welcoming destination.  

Abokor said her U.S. travel plans came to an abrupt end following the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Trump administration could mostly enforce his original executive order issued one week into his presidency in January. She said the climate of traveling in the U.S. feels too disturbing.  

The Supreme Court on July 19 temporarily upheld broad restrictions against refugees entering the United States but allowed grandparents and other relatives of U.S. residents to come while legal challenges to the ban move forward. 

I feel for Abokor. As a 32-year-old British-Somali journalist living in London, I found myself caught up in the travel ban chaos. When the ban went into effect in January, I was in New York City on a fellowship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I needed to fly back to London on Feb. 4 to visit family, but I wasn’t sure I would be allowed back into the U.S. because of my dual citizenship. I was intensely questioned by customs and immigration officials at Kennedy International Airport. (My passport stamps showed travel in recent years to Somalia, where I have family. I fled Somalia as a child refugee because of war, violence and famine, arriving in London at age 9. I later became a naturalized British citizen.)  

At JFK, I was eventually allowed entry into the country. It probably helped that I carried a letter from Columbia University attesting to the fact that I was on a weeklong Dart Center Ochberg fellowship focusing on trauma and the reporting of violence, and that I also had the correct visa. Even so, when I returned to the U.S. in March, I was so worried about how I might be treated that I called friends so they would know where I was in case something happened to me.  

“Traveling while Muslim” is the reality that many of us face these days. I hope to return this fall to the U.S. to see friends in New York, but I wonder whether I will be able to keep panic at bay when my plane lands and I must face customs and immigration officials. In those anxious moments, I am reduced to my ethno-religious origin. Not an individual, I am seen as just a Muslim — viewed only as being a possible threat.  

Sadly, as fears of global terrorism have heightened, my experiences this year do not count as my worst. In May 2015, when I flew to New York to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday, I was taken aside at JFK and told to sit down, then questioned by one official after another. It was a humiliating and terrifying experience. But this year’s travel ban, shutting out citizens from entire countries with Muslim majorities, has shaken me to my core.  

What is especially disheartening to me and many of my Muslim friends is that our British-ness, our love of English breakfast tea with buttery biscuits, our obsession with soccer clubs (mine being the Arsenal club in North London), our British slang and mannerisms that lead our Somali parents, rolling their eyes, to call us “fish and chips,” valid travel documents, none of these protect us.  

Versi, with the Muslim Council of Britain, said recent high-profile cases involving Muslim travelers, including a teacher on a field trip and a family heading to Disneyland who were stopped from travel to the United States, have further alarmed British Muslims.  

“When individuals hear stories of people being stopped, this changes their perception of the openness of the country, which might have been associated with the United States in the past,” Versi said. 

Adam Matan, 30, feels he is in a quandary because of the travel ban. A director at a Somali-run organization, the Anti-Tribalism Movement, in London, he is not certain he will be able to visit the U.S. as planned in September for a business meeting. This is despite having a valid visa and holding a British passport.  

Like me, he is British-Somali, and he has traveled to Somalia for his work many times in the last two years. Because of this, he would not be surprised if his visa is no longer valid under the Supreme Court’s ruling. He said U.S. Embassy officials in Nairobi, Kenya, whom he has gotten to know over the years, agreed with his assessment.  

“It’s daunting; everybody is confused,” he said. “No one knows what’s going on, and you don’t want to take the risk of going to the U.S. to get turned away at the airport. It’s making me put my plans of travel to the U.S. on hold.”  

Matan, a frequent visitor to the United States, now frets about travel there. “My first worry is, will I get the visa? The second worry is, will I be rejected at the airport or would I have to go through extra checks or be kept at the airport? That’s a very frightening experience for people who already have valid visas.”  

That sentiment is shared by Farrah Hassan, 27, a biomedical scientist in London. Hassan, who also was born in Somalia, was set to fly to the U.S. in September for a three-week vacation to Virginia, where she has family, and to New York, which she has long wanted to see. “I was about to book my flight on June 27, but then I got a call from my aunt in Virginia. She told me not to book the flight, because I might be rejected.”  

Hassan said she had been saving for the trip for two years. “I had the budget to go,” she said. “But I don’t want to spend all that money on a flight, get my hopes up and then get turned back to the U.K. There is no point in trying my luck to go to the U.S., if there is a possibility of getting rejected at the airport. It’s an unfair situation.” 

Abokor, the elementary-school teacher, said she is now more inclined to bypass U.S. travel altogether and head north to Canada. She is considering a vacation in Vancouver, having visited Toronto in October. “America is losing out.”  

For many Britons like myself, U.S. travel feels like a gamble with fate, a precarious position to willingly put ourselves in. The legal fate of the travel ban is scheduled to be decided by the Supreme Court this fall. Until then, many of us will be up in the air.

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