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How Trump’s Executive Order Has Fostered a Culture of Fear

Trump's travel ban has created an atmosphere of suspicion and prejudice, according to one Syrian refugee.
Photo of Zubair Rushk and Etan Shukri in their wedding clothes

Zubair Rushk and Etan Shukri.

The Trump administration's travel ban is estimated to directly affect about 90,000 people who have valid visas to enter the United States and 20,000 refugees. But the reverberations may also touch those who caught their flights to America long ago.

Zubair "Zack" Rushk, 34, is an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, double majoring in global studies and peace, war, and defense. He moved to America in 2010 as a refugee from Syria. He is an American citizen. This past October, his wife, Etan Shukri, joined him as a green-card holder and permanent resident. "I was so lucky to bring her here before the election," he says.

The pair may have made it under the wire, but the election and travel ban have changed their lives, Rushk told Pacific Standard over the phone yesterday. Below, our conversation with him.

How did you end up in the U.S.?

I was in Syria until 2004. In 2004, I opened an illegal school to teach kids Kurdish language, culture, and history. At that time, people weren't allowed to speak or teach Kurdish.

Three months after I opened this school in my house, the government found out and they put me in jail for seven months. After I was released — after losing, like, 80 percent of my memory due to torture — I got a second letter from the government, asking me to attend a military court. In this kind of military court they will charge people who have political issues to, like, 10 years in prison. My only choice was to escape from Syria. So I escaped to Lebanon.

When I arrived in Lebanon, I applied for refugee status, which takes three years to get from the United Nations. I did between 10 to 15 interviews with the U.N., and they sent me to a rehabilitative center to recover from torturing and prison. After I got my refugee status, they transferred me to the International Organization for Migration. They did two interviews and a background check. After that, that group transferred me to interview with the U.S. embassy for resettlement here. When I went to the U.S. embassy, they asked me for a medical exam and a mental exam. They did all kinds of fingerprint and eye scans. After 18 months I got called: accepted. I came here on May 1st, 2010.

I want to mention something important here: Among the people who apply for refugee status, not all of them get it. A very small percentage of them get an interview with the U.S. embassy. The idea of making it extremely harder for refugees to come here? It is already hard.

So you and Etan are both Kurdish?

We're both Kurdish. Kurdish is a different ethnicity than Arabic. We are Muslim, but religion is not our big topic.

How do you and Etan meet and get married?

She and I were neighbors in Syria. I met her for the first time when she was around 10 years old.

I left Syria four years after I met her. We kept in touch through our families; my family and her family are so close. Over time, our love developed and we became close friends and decided to go a step further, but, at the time, many Kurds in Syria did not have citizenship. She did not have citizenship in Syria, so she could not apply for a passport, so we could not apply for her to come to the U.S. It was a love without hope.

In April of 2011, after the revolution started, the Bashar al-Assad regime gave all Kurds citizenship. After that, we started planning for marriage. In 2013, I met her in Turkey and we married. But we spent only 10 days there before I had to come back here again and she had to go back to university in Syria.

I started the application when I got back from Turkey. The whole immigrant visa process for her took three years.

Does the travel and refugee ban affect you and Etan in any way, now that you're in America?

Yes, it's affected us very hard. On the 21st of March, it's the Kurdish New Year, Nowruz. There's a large Kurdish community in Ohio, so we planned to go there, but we canceled our plans because we were afraid they would not let her on a plane. So we have to drive from North Carolina to Ohio.

Trump signed his order on Friday. The same day, I got call from the Federal Bureau of Investigation saying that some of my neighbors contacted them and asked them to check on me. So the FBI knocked on my door and started asking me a lot of questions about the Facebook that I use, the phone that I use.

I'm planning to move to a different location or even a different city. I don't want to be at home or go to school and have somebody watching me all the time. I do not have a problem with the FBI watching to protect the nation or protect the community, but I have a problem with people in the community calling the FBI on me. That's the really hard thing for me to accept.

What are your dreams for your future?

To raise a family that will feel like it belongs to the country. When I was Syrian, because I was a second-class citizen, I didn't feel that I belonged to the country. When I started living here, I felt I belonged to this country. I want to work hard to raise a good family and make my children proud to be U.S. citizens. Today, everything's changed. I don't know if I will be able to tell my children: "This is your country. This is your land."

This interview was arranged through Church World Service, the relief, development, and refugee assistance arm of the National Council of the Churches of Christ. It has been edited for length and clarity.