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Many Muslim Travelers Are Anxious After Latest Travel Restrictions


The latest version of the Trump administration's travel ban starts next month. It will be indefinite, and it will still affect mostly people coming to the U.S. from Muslim majority countries. Past iterations of this ban have separated families and alarmed civil rights advocates. For many Muslims in America, it is just another in a series of policies that make travel a daunting experience. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.


MOHANAD ELSHIEKY: And speaking about timing - what a great time to move to this country.


LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: That's Mohanad Elshieky performing. He's a Libyan comedian in Portland, Ore. He moved here three years ago and is in the process of getting asylum because he got death threats from extremists for his work with foreign journalists, including Americans. And while traveling was already nerve-wracking with a Libyan passport. Since the travel ban was rolled out nine months ago, he's afraid to get on a plane. So he hasn't seen his family.

ELSHIEKY: Now they can't visit. They can't go to another country for me to go visit them because I cannot risk it.

FADEL: Technically Elshieky could leave the country with permission, but he's worried that he won't be allowed back in. His parents and three of his siblings can't come here because they're Libyan, and the country's on the banned list. So they didn't see him graduate from college in June, and he feels unwelcome in his new home.

ELSHIEKY: I didn't really expect that - to be in 2017 and have people argue whether I deserve a chance in life or not. That just really hurts.

FADEL: His experience is not unique. Traveling while Muslim even as a U.S. citizen has been an anxiety-filled experience since, well, 9/11. The Council on American-Islamic Relations says watch lists and no-fly lists disproportionately target Muslims, and visa waiver restrictions have focused on Muslim majority countries.

Since the travel ban was introduced in January, CAIR says nearly half the calls it's getting with concerns about traveling are from American citizens or green card holders. It's not just the fear of being turned away that make Muslims hesitant to travel internationally. It's the possible interrogations. Tarek Ismail is a senior staffer at the City University of New York School of Law's CLEAR Project which works with people affected by counterterrorism policies.

TAREK ISMAIL: People are worried that they may go through three, four, five hours of questioning about their backgrounds, about their religious practice, you know, have their phones taken and searched.

FADEL: And so people are missing funerals, graduations and weddings, people like Arash Bayatmakou's family. He thought he'd never be able to walk again after his spinal cord injury. But at his wedding this summer, he stood on a walker the whole ceremony. His extended family from Tehran was not there to see it. Bayatmakou is a citizen, but members of his family live in Iran, and Iran's on the banned list.

ARASH BAYATMAKOU: The fact that that option was just completely taken away from them simply because of their passport and their heritage and their nationality is just really sickening and upsetting to me.

FADEL: And then there are citizens separated from their spouses like Rabyaah al-Thaibani, a community organizer from Brooklyn.

RABYAAH AL-THAIBANI: It's hard enough being in a long-distance relationship and then to have your own government, like, really make it even a thousand times worse, you know?

FADEL: Al-Thaibani's husband is Yemeni and fled the war there. They married in 2016, and she applied for him to come to the United States. But with the ban, which includes Yemen, everything is stalled. So she had to visit him in Malaysia where he's taking refuge.

AL-THAIBANI: I was scared. I sent an email out to all these people that have been, like, around me, know what's happening. Like, hey, here's my itinerary. I'm arriving this time. If I don't text anybody or if you don't hear from me after a certain time, come look for me.

FADEL: Al-Thaibani sends those emails every time she travels because one day she worries she won't get through. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.