Washington. January 27, 2017
In compliance with Executive Order 13769, signed by President Donald Trump six days into his presidency, dozens of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries were prevented from boarding airplanes bound for the United States or turned back at airports within the United States, in order “to protect the nation from foreign terrorists”. To the world, this smacked of racism and created a debate about capricious discrimination. To me, it was a flash to my days knocking on doors, as I imagined what the affected individuals must be going through.
Damascus. Summer 1987
I arrived around 3:00 am, thinking I was early, but I was behind a queue of around 20 people, even though the doors would not open for another six hours. As I waited until they opened at 9:00 am, the queue grew to several hundred people. This was not in my country, Lebanon. The reverse of what happens today, when hundreds of Syrians are in a queue at the US Embassy in Lebanon, this was in Damascus, as the US Embassy in Lebanon had closed for visa issuance, probably because it had been blown up one too many times. It was dark, so I couldn’t read a book, and this was long before the invention of smart phones, iPads, and Kindles. Besides, I was too nervous, and started to strategize the scenario in my head.
As I was war-gaming this conversation in my head, I was interrupted by a loud voice speaking in an ostensibly American accent, which snapped me back to the present reality. Was he speaking to me? Apparently. He looked Lebanese enough, but his accent was native, as if he were born and bred in America.
“How long have you lived in America?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve never been there,” he replied with a distinctly American drawl.
“But your English is so… so perfect… so American… how did you pick it up?”
“Oh, I just watch a lot of American TV shows and repeat everything they say.”
I spent the next few hours chatting with different people, each sharing their tips and techniques for “passing” the interview. I met several people who were applying for the 10th time. Some showed me their passports stamped with “Canceled without Prejudice”. Others are stamped with just “Canceled”. I suppose the owner of the latter did not realize that if there’s a stamp that reads “Canceled without Prejudice”, that must mean that his visa was “Canceled with Prejudice”, and so no matter how many times he would apply, the answer would remain the same.
A journey through US immigration borders, from 1987 to 2017.
Every few minutes, someone would come out. A pandemonium of 10 or 20 voices would scream out: “Did you get it? Did you get it?” I began unofficially tracking the test results, which started to feel like an Oscar ceremony. About 19 rejections out of 20. Holy cow! How would I beat those odds? Every hour or so, a “winner” would emerge, and everyone would congratulate the victor, and interrogate him/her on the “technique” for winning.
Five hours later, I was sitting in front of an immigration officer. He began firing off a bunch of questions at me.
“Why do you want a visa to the US?”
“I’ve been admitted to one of the top university programs in the United States as an Applied Mathematics major,” I responded. I then looked at him, beaming proudly, and expecting that this would stop the interview in its track, and he would immediately stamp my passport: “Approved – Red Carpet Treatment!”
Completely ignoring my boastful banter, he asked: “Do you have the money to fund your self?”
“Yes,” I said, as I pulled out my father's deeds to various real estate holdings, which really were illiquid and unsellable, and, in fact, occupied and confiscated by one of the various militias during the Lebanese civil war, but for some reason, I thought would convince the officer.
After a few more hours, I was designated the lucky one out of 20, and he approved my visa. I walked out, my young heart beating fast with the adrenaline rush of euphoric victory and made my way through the chanting crowd outside, and caught the first cab back to Beirut.
New York. August 2, 1987
I arrived in New York. I’d heard so much about the city. One thing about our Arab culture is that it’s full of experts on everything.
“New York is full of Jews who hate us. They will strip and cavity search you,” one expert friend said. “It’s full of blacks who will mug you,” another claimed.
I recall feeling perturbed and apprehensive as I stood in line at immigration, waiting my turn, afraid of what was lurking outside. Would I be mugged outside the airport? In the city? But before all that, another test lay ahead, as the immigration officer had the authority to over-rule the embassy decision and send me back.
I arrived at the immigration officer's window, and he asked me where I’m from and a few other questions. He asked me where I was staying, and I told him a hotel somewhere. I recounted my story. Then, to my surprise and shock, he told me that his shift was almost over and he volunteered to drive me to my hotel on his way home. I accepted and he took me out for a drink, after which he dropped me back at my hotel.
This was my welcome to the US, on August 2, 1987, and my first experience with shattering stereotypes.
I wonder if things like this still happen today.