By Shen Lu
America feels like a “huge prison” to Hadia Zarzour now.
Zarzour, 37, a Muslim Syrian who holds a green card and works as a mental health therapist in Chicago, can’t leave her host country at the moment, nor can she reunite with her family due to come next week, whom she hasn’t seen for years, thanks to the immigration ban that President Donald Trump signed on Friday.
Astonished, angry, dismal, Zarzour protested along with thousands at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Sunday against Trump’s new immigration policies.
Trump’s executive order blocks Syrian refugees from coming into the United States indefinitely, suspends the entry of refugees from any country for 120 days, and bars immigration admissions from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days on national security grounds. These countries are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
“I just feel like the whole world is unstable,” said Zarzour, who’s a co-founder of Syrian Community Network, a nonprofit organization for refugees, in an interview. “It reminds me of the dictatorship of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. So it’s very, very sad to see it happening here in this free world.”
It is also a feeling of being bullied.
“Human rights is really like a joke and we really don’t matter,” she continued. “What matters is the leadership and the power.”
The sweeping travel ban has sparked protests in major airports and landmarks across the country. Authorities took more than a dozen travelers into custody Saturday at O’Hare, the second busiest airport in the nation, in response to the executive order. The detainees were later released after a federal judge temporarily halted deportations.
A swell of activists rallied for a second consecutive day Sunday outside Terminal 5 at O’Hare, carrying colorful handmade signs, demanding that Trump rescind his ban and calling for release of the remaining detainees.
Trump fired his acting attorney general, Sally Yates, on Monday night, after she defiantly refused to defend his executive order. Protesters are planning another rally at O’Hare Wednesday.
As of Sunday night, two travelers remained detained, said Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network, at the rally.
Elected officials and advocates spoke at the rally in condemnation of Trump’s “racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic” policies.
“We are a fair and welcoming county and we have every intention of remaining that because that’s what makes our county great and that’s what makes our country great,” said Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. “We gather here to specially and specifically say that there is no room in our county or in our country for any hatred, any religious intolerance or discrimination. It is unAmerican.”
Zarzour said she was advised not to leave the U.S. until the uncertainty settles. Acknowledging that she is much better off than fellow Syrians back home, the former Fulbright scholar said her compatriots are in dismay.
“I mean refugees are victims, so they don’t know what to do with themselves,” she said. “Especially for the Syrians, why we are like a tool everyone is using us and saying, ‘We don’t want you?’ We are really victims. We are not terrorists as they claim to say in the media. We are paying the price of dictatorship for the whole world’s benefits.”
Chicagoans in solidarity
Ira Piltz, a Chicago-based lawyer, volunteered to help incoming travelers at O’Hare Terminal 5, returning from vacation.
“I want to make sure that people know that they have a right to counsel,” Piltz said. “Immigrants that have a status, either a visa or a lawful permanent resident status, are entitled to due process. And those on refugee status also have a right to have their claims evaluated.”
Piltz said he thought the order was “overbroad and vague,” calling it “bad policy.”
“I have no problem with regulated immigration, but we have a rule of law,” said Piltz, whose wife is an immigrant from South Africa. “Just because you are the president, you make a promise in a campaign, doesn’t mean you get to circumvent every legal process and every safe card that exists to make sure the laws a) make sense, and b) can be carried out in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good.”
Demonstrators of various ages and ethnicities called for action by everyone.
“Get involved,” said Emily Jones, 29, a political activist from Indiana. “You can’t afford to stay on the sidelines anymore. Everyone likes to think, ‘If i had been alive during Nazi Germany, I wouldn’t have been one of those Germans that just sat there and did nothing.’ You are living that time now.”
Rebecca Rossof, 70, a retired teacher and veteran protester, said she was deeply troubled by Trump’s latest actions.
“I’m very worried, and I am very disappointed in my country,” she said. “I’m obviously old. I’ve been through a lot of protests in the 1960s, but there is a certain urgency about what’s going on now because it’s so fast, the impacts are so significant, and it seems to be so chaotic and unthought-out.”
Saddened, Rossof became a monthly donor to the American Civil Liberties Union for the first time on Saturday.
“I wanted to make sure I support their good efforts because these are big constitutional issues that are coming along,” she said.
The ACLU reported a record $24 million of donation over the weekend, six times its average annual online donations.
“I’m hoping this is only a nightmare”
Criticism has also come from Silicon Valley. A parade of executives of tech giants, from Facebook to Google, from Microsoft to Amazon, have condemned Trump’s immigration ban.
Lyft, a car-hailing startup, pledged to donate $1 million to the ACLU over the next four years.
Zarzour said she was grateful for the generosity and solidarity Americans across the board have expressed.
“I think these actions, even a protest like this, is what keeps us going as Syrians and Muslims because we feel the support and we feel like heard,” Zarzour said. “And that’s very important.”
Trump defended his travel ban via Twitter, as usual. In a Monday posting, he said: “There is nothing nice about searching for terrorists before they can enter our country. This was a big part of my campaign. Study the world!”
If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the “bad” would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad “dudes” out there!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2017
Yet Zarzour hasn’t lost hope.
“I’m hoping this is only a nightmare and this will change by the determination of the people and hopefully keep America as a host for refugees and immigrants and a place for their safety,” she said.