Make our family whole again

We must fight efforts to normalize discrimination

On Friday evening, President Donald Trump instituted a broad travel ban on visa-holders, Green Card carriers, and general travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. I saw the news while I was participating in the MISTI program in Jordan, and my thoughts immediately went to my Iraqi roommate, my Iranian classmates, and my Muslim friends. I was horrified to think that they may be stuck somewhere outside our country, unable to come back to our home at MIT. I thought of the group of Syrian refugees that I am teaching this month, all science and engineering students, and how it would be my responsibility to explain to them why someone believes they are a threat. I already imagined how the exchange would unfold: Why? Because you’re Syrian, and those people you ran away from are now being used to target you elsewhere. Yeah, I know it’s not fair. No, many of the people back home do not understand. Yes, unfortunately they do think of terrorism when they think of you. Yes, I understand that Syrian refugees in America have never committed an attack.

The day before, I was with my MISTI partner Cyndia, eating dinner with one of our students, whom I will call “Ahmed” in this article. Ahmed is a Syrian refugee living in Jordan, just down the street from our apartment in Amman. We were having Syrian-style shawarma together, engaged in a lively debate about why Lord of the Rings was, truly, epic. Cyndia made a reference to Mean Girls, and we laughed hysterically about it. Ahmed, having never seen the film, did not understand. We told him he had to watch it, and being a devout lover of American cinema, he watched it that night. He texted me when he finished and said that he was excited to talk about it in the morning. The next day, Ahmed walked up to me, but instead of asking about the movie, he asked, “Why do people in America hate us? I heard about the executive order this morning, and saw these YouTube videos of Americans saying we were taking their jobs and burning the Quran. But I don’t understand why.”

You can attempt to explain how there was an economic downturn, and people lost their jobs, and how there was a “white backlash,” and how liberals lost touch with the common American, and I actually did try. I drew diagrams on the board with my class explaining how the economic recovery was unbalanced, and how segments of the population lost faith in the mainstream media, all using economics and math. And it took me a good thirty minutes before I realized — what am I doing? This literally has nothing to do with the young Syrian students who are sitting in front of me. They did not cause Americans to lose jobs. They did not hurt anyone. They ran away from conflict to escape the fighting, not to go and bring it somewhere else. All they wanted to do was learn, get a job and support a family. And I had to do everything I could to maintain my composure, because it suddenly hit me full force how completely misunderstood they are, and how tragic it is that innocent people are caught in such a colossal tidal wave of misinformation and ignorance. And I thought not only of them, but also of my classmates back at MIT — 38 Iranians, one Iraqi, five Syrians, two Sudanese, and one Somalian.

Isn’t it crazy that someone out there just labeled our friends and MIT family members as security threats, and denied them access to our country? These are people with whom we live, study, and socialize. They are not terrorists — they are normal, fun, smart people who study at MIT and care about making the world a better place. And it’s not just the people who are physically separated from us — Niki Mossafer Rahmati and Fadi Atieh — it’s everyone on our campus who is from the affected countries, it’s everyone on campus who is an international student, and it’s frankly every Muslim student in our MIT family too. How can someone, with the stroke of a pen, deny our family members the right to an education, here where they belong? How can someone suggest that because of where you were born, or how you pray, that you do not belong here with us?

The thought of walking into an MIT classroom when the government has barred other members of our community from doing so is horrifying. These baseless restrictions should not have been imposed on anyone, not the students of MIT, nor the Syrian refugee who earlier today broke out in screaming tears when I got to be the one to tell him that he and his family might not be able to finally make it to Michigan in a month, despite the fact that he just got his refugee visa.

And it is here that I need to talk about normalization. At the end of the day, barely anyone in the American population actually knows a Muslim person. About one percent of the American population practices Islam. And out of Americans who do know a Muslim person, even fewer know individuals from the seven countries mentioned in the order. So, when Trump signs his order, he knows that not as many people are going to turn out as did for the protests that occurred after his election. He finds an obscure piece of a long law and twists its meaning to something different, to justify a ban on a specific group of people. And he makes the order general enough that when people complain about specifics (say, restrictions on Green Card holders), he can backtrack and make exceptions. And when he does, he can throw out new information that others can use to say how the protesters are wrong. And slowly, little by little, bit by bit, he makes the small exceptions that are needed to gradually reduce the number of angry people until they are insignificant. People get used to the idea of the executive order — it gets normalized. And what will we be left with? A travel ban on seven Muslim countries, which can be expanded to include others — and by the time hardly anyone is protesting the original order anymore, who will be left to object when it gets expanded to the rest?

This travel ban is supposedly aimed at keeping Americans safe. But it does nothing of the sort — Since 1975, no murders and very few attacks were committed by terrorists born in any of the restricted countries on United States soil. It is like building a wall with Mexico — it does not actually keep undocumented immigrants out, especially when the population of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has been declining since 2007. Rather, it serves to create a barrier between us and them, Americans and Mexicans, Americans and Muslims. It is the physical manifestation of the walls that people wish to use to divide us, based on lies and misinformation. I encourage you to check what Breitbart has to say about the protests - they blame them on terrorists, and cite them as proof of how Muslims are tearing apart the country. They argue that Islamic societies create terrorists, although most terrorist attacks in America are perpetrated by Americans and an FBI report indicates that most terrorists are not Muslim. It is a method used to create division, to instill fear, and eventually, to normalize discrimination against our neighbors. We must never allow this to happen.

We are one MIT family, one country, one world of many peoples, and every one of us must find the time and do our part to sustain this reality. We must publicly demonstrate our resolve and our determination to make our family whole again. All of our students must make it home, all of our students must feel accepted and valued, and all of our students must know that we will always fight for each other’s right to exist and thrive at our institution.

Until that happens, we must march and take direct action that will contribute towards our peers coming home. We do so not only through marching, but also by picking up our phones, calling our local representatives, calling our federal representatives, and talking to anyone who will listen to our demands that our students will be allowed back here to MIT. Do not be distracted by temporary court injunctions; do not be distracted by the Trump administration’s revisions of the order; instead, recall the faces of your fellow Muslim classmates and pick up the phone. If you are not sure how, resources exist to help you. The online version of this Tech article has a link here, which includes necessary logistical information and sample script. Find your congressional representative online, call their office number, and relay to them your reaction to this ban. Remember your classmates that are physically separated from you — see the faces of Niki and Fadi, and pick up the phone every day until they come home. And once they’re home, imagine this ever happening again, and remember the pain that you feel at the thought of our family being torn apart — and continue to march on the streets and pick up the phone until the entire order is repealed.

Matthew Davis, a member of the Class of 2017, is the former President of the MIT Undergraduate Association.