Twana Othman runs a television and radio network in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north of the country. The people he broadcasts to have long looked at the U.S. as a friend and are now at the forefront of the battle against the self-declared Islamic State. There are thousands of U.S. troops based there, assisting Iraqi forces in the battle to retake Mosul.
Othman is also a huge fan of American movies, and around the time his son was born, nine years ago, he happened to catch Finding Nemo. “I fell in love with the animation,” he told me — so much so that he named the child Nemo.
In a sign of the enduring potency of American soft power, Othman’s boy would likewise become a devoted follower of Hollywood movies, imploring his father to take him to the U.S. one day. “I promised him two years ago that if he did well at school I would take him to Disneyland,” Othman says. Late last year Nemo met the mark, and Othman applied for and then received visas for them both to travel to the U.S. He bought the tickets, planning to fly to California this month. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news,” he says.
And it’s not just his son who is disappointed. For Iraqi Kurds, President Trump’s travel ban has come as a low blow, given that they’ve been such loyal U.S. allies. “It feels like a divorce,” Othman says. “Even if the decision is lifted, our relationship will not go back to normal.”
Indeed, there is a terrible feeling of something irrecoverable around the executive order. Even as the administration walks back some of the harshest measures put into place last week (agreeing, for example, to let green card holders into the country), around the world people who had looked to the U.S. are wondering if the relationship can be repaired. In theory, the ban was supposed to seal out potential terrorists. In actual fact, it has ensnared some of those in the Middle East — human rights activists, students, Kurds, translators who worked with American forces — who leaned most ardently in the direction of the United States.
Among all those caught up in Trump’s crackdown, few are as vulnerable as the many Iraqis who worked for American forces there, acting as their local eyes and ears and, often, sacrificing everything in the process. Hashim worked as an interpreter in Baghdad from 2004 to 2008, after the initial U.S. invasion had opened the gates to internecine war in the city. He asked that I not use his real name for fear doing so could compromise his application to resettle in the U.S. “Even now I could be killed,” he tells me on the phone from Baghdad, if someone finds out about his past role. “We were seen as traitors for working with the Americans.”
Often, Hashim says, he ended up fighting side by side with U.S. troops, using the AK-47 he was given to defend himself. “We were protecting them too,” he says. Working from a huge base in southern Baghdad known as Camp Falcon, he was deployed to some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, including Dora, Amariyah, and Haifa Street. Camp Falcon became known as the “graveyard for interpreters,” he says, because so many Iraqis working there were tracked down by insurgents and killed, or died in firefights.
Hashim first applied for refugee status for himself and his immediate family in 2013; in the past few months he’d reached the final “resettlement” stage of the process. But when he switched on the TV news, he heard that Trump’s executive order had come into force around the world. When he logged in to check on his application, the website had already been updated to inform him that all refugee arrivals into the United States had been suspended.
Hashim, his wife, and their son completed the mandatory medical screening late last year. His sponsor, a friend in Michigan, had been told to expect them within months of signing the necessary papers. His younger brother is already there, and working for a car parts manufacturer, after being accepted under the same resettlement program last summer. “He is already paying taxes,” says Hashim proudly, though he adds that “now he is worried if he will ever see us again.” It’s a common refrain from families worldwide who’d hoped the United States would be their savior but now fear it will tear them apart.
Hashim says he understands the fear of terrorism. Still, the belief that last week’s executive order is punishing precisely America’s allies is one that echoes in interviews throughout the Islamic world. “I don’t have an argument with Donald Trump. He has the right to protect his country,” Hashim says. “We are the ones fighting terrorism.”
Even for those for whom the ban has been lifted, it has been a harsh awakening: Now it feels as though they are returning to a very different country. Ali Abdi, an Iranian, is a Yale University student and former human rights activist who was trapped in transit in Dubai when the ban came down.
“I can’t return to Iran, and now I worry if I will be welcome in America either,” Abdi said by phone from Dubai. “For a while I worried I was stateless.” Since the lifting of the ban for green card holders, Abdi has a country again. But the country he’s coming back to isn’t exactly the one he flew out from just a few days earlier. “It is very difficult to think of America as a home if it becomes defined by racism and xenophobia.” (Abdi did add that he was heartened by the protests against the immigration ban. “America has many faces,” he said.)
Meanwhile, back in the United States, on the same weekend the president sent down his order, the Trump family gathered in the White House movie theater for their first screening. The choice? The sequel to Finding Nemo, Finding Dory. It’s all about families trying to stay together in the face of borders and bureaucracy.