In 2014, two years after graduating from Columbia University, Abdulla knew for sure he wouldn’t go back to his home country: After writing a report on the state of press freedom in Kurdistan for the Committee to Protect Journalists, he received threats and was advised never to return.
Under president Barack Obama, the US granted him asylum some eight months later. Earlier this year, he finally received his green card.
President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending entry into the country for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries doesn’t just affect visa applicants but also those holding valid immigrant or nonimmigrant visas.
According to the ban, immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen is suspended for 90 days from the day it was signed, January 27. A Department of Homeland Security official who spoke to Reuters on Saturday said this includes green cards holders, who are legal permanent US residents.
In light of this order, Abdulla’s wife, who still lives in Iraq and has been waiting on her visa application since September, will not be granted the document for at least another 90 days.
Once a year, Abdulla is able to travel to meet her, always in a third country.
He had booked a trip to join her in Lebanon next week, but due to the ban, if he leaves the country, Abdulla will not be able to get back to the US, and has had to cancel his travels.
“I haven’t committed any wrongdoing in this country and I consider myself more law-abiding than most US citizens,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday. “It’s really sad to see how this executive order is like a blanket ban on everybody.
“Just because I was born in Iraq, even though I am Kurdish and the Kurdish people are the most effective fighters, partners of the United States and the free word fighting against Islamic State, that doesn’t count,” he said. “I’m the same as a terrorist basically, I cannot come back to the United States if I leave.”
Abdulla, who runs the Washington bureau of Rudaw, one of Kurdistan’s biggest media corporations, realized that the ban was going to directly affect him when he received a copy of the text from the White House press department.
“I really don’t have words to express how I feel,” he said. “Effectively, I have become a prisoner in my host country.”
Such a feeling, he said, is not one he would have expected to experience in the United States of America, which he had always viewed as a savior.
“In Kurdistan we always had a beautiful image of the United States,” he explained. “In 1991 it was the United States basically who came to our help when we had been gassed by [Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein and subjected to genocide. It was the US, with the Western world, that provided a no-fly zone and safe haven for us.
“And then, in 2003 as well, when Saddam Hussein was removed from power, that was really a moment of joy for us, because Saddam Hussein was our greatest enemy in the 20th century,” he continued. “I always loved being in America. It’s shocking to see that even in the United States you can’t be as free as you hoped.”
Abdulla told the Post he is unsure about his possibilities from now on.
Although a federal judge in Brooklyn granted an emergency stay for citizens in transit from the seven countries named in the executive order, the initiative only applies to those detained in airports, but not to his situation.
Although Abdulla’s wife wants him to leave the US and move to another country with her, he is reluctant to do so.
“I feel like I built my life in the United States and I don’t want to ruin everything and start over,” he said.
“On the other hand, I don’t want to abandon my wife.”
He said he has also been weighing going to study in Canada and bringing his wife along as his dependent.
Sudanese 39-year-old Nisrin Elamin, who holds legal US residency, is a Stanford University PhD student in anthropology and has lived in the US since 1993.
When she landed back at John F. Kennedy International Airport from a trip on Friday night, Elamin was detained for about five hours.
Elamin told Reuters she had been in Sudan for academic research and boarded a plane on Friday morning.
After presenting her US green card at JFK, she said she was questioned, patted down and handcuffed.
“It was an uncomfortable pat down, they touched my breast area and my groin area,” Elamin said in a phone interview. “Then I got handcuffed and I just started crying.”
Elamin said the handcuffs were soon removed and it appeared authorities were using them to escort people between areas of the airport. She was released, but she worried about leaving the country again and about her parents in Sudan, whom she hoped one day to help immigrate to America.
“It scares me that I’m not able to see them if I want to,” said Elamin, who lives in New Jersey.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees entry at airports, in a statement later said it will “treat all of those we encounter humanely and with professionalism.”
Like Abdulla, Shirana Navabha, a 57-year-old US citizen originally from Iran, has canceled her plans. Navabha was scheduled to fly to Iran on Sunday, but has decided not go after Tehran said it would stop US citizens entering the country in retaliation for Trump’s action.
“I told everybody that I’m coming, everyone was so excited and now I’m not going, it’s just frustrating,” Navabha, who lives in Dallas, said by phone.