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For One Iraqi Refugee, Staying Optimistic Is the Only Way Forward

Chicagoans from each of seven countries listed in President Trump’s travel ban explain how the executive order has changed their lives.

Thaer Al Hasnawi says he understands President Trump’s attempts to increase security and remains optimistic the order won’t bar people with green cards.   Photo: Alyssa Schukar

Thaer Al Hasnawi, 43, was resettled as a refugee in the U.S. in August 2015. He worked at international nonprofits in his home country; now, to pay the bills, he’s working a security supervisor at DHL and volunteering as an interpreter at Catholic Charities in Chicago.

Why did you and your family come to the United States?

We’re from Iraq originally. As you know there is a lack of security, education, all aspects aren’t so good. It’s sad. So although I had one of the perfect jobs over there, I decided to take this adventure for my kids so they will have more peace and a better education.

What kinds of things were you living with, day to day, that made you want to move out of Iraq and come to the U.S.?

There are lots of bombs, car bombs. You can get injured or killed just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even kids on their way to school get bombed or attacked. I was one of the people who refused to move out of the country, because I believed that if everybody [left], then who would stay behind to help the country? But then day by day, year by year, I saw that there was no improvement in the situation. I decided to leave because back then I was working with organizations, especially American organizations, so my family was eligible to apply for immigration resettlement program.

How long did you wait when you applied for resettlement? What was the process like for you?

The whole period from when I applied to when I came in was about four years. And there’s no guarantee for anything. Your case could be rejected or you may be killed or dead before then. My sister passed away before she was able to immigrate to the U.S.

How does it feel to see Iraq included in the travel ban, with the administration saying we have to protect ourselves from these seven countries?

I understand the media in general, globally, are looking at these countries as sources of terrorism. But the population of Iraq is peaceful. It’s intruders from other countries who have found spots here and here to rise up and poison minds and drive them to terrorism. So being an Iraqi and being rational as well, I would say more security screening is a good solution to my concerns. I don’t want anything to come to harm in this country; I left my country because of that and I don’t want that experience to happen again here.

And I don’t blame the passport officers at the borders trying to figure out how to implement it, or when, or against whom or what, according to the law because the guidelines were foggy. The order was not very clear—they needed to present more details and how to implement it. That way we would have less chaos and everyone is aware of everything going on, to maybe reduce the panic.

Has President Trump’s executive order impacted anyone you know?

I know Syrian families who recently arrived and whose families are still waiting in Jordan. And when they arrived, they asked what the procedure is to bring the rest of their family. The refugee organization had to tell them, “We’re sorry, we don’t know yet.”

People who heard about it were in extreme shock. I know some of them were planning to go back home for a visit or something. Even my wife was planning to go back home for a visit, but then we dropped the whole idea because we don’t want to see the family taken apart. There was fear, lots of rumors. Personally, I need to be optimistic. It keeps me alive. You may pray that nothing will be real bad, because in my opinion, those who already got the visa or even the green card, the U.S. government already gave them their permission to enter the country. So I’m staying optimistic about these things.

How do you feel this is going to most impact you and your family?

Frankly, I don’t think it will impact my long term and short-term goals. For example, we would love to visit our families back home but also we don’t want to lose all the things we’ve built here, even if it is tiny. But we would love to bring our families over. My parents are still [in Iraq], and my brother and his family are still there. They applied [for resettlement] at the same time as us. My father was not approved because in 1950s or something he was a communist. And of course my mom couldn’t come with my father’s case. So my brother stayed just to take care of our parents.

If someone in a position of power regarding the executive order sees this article, what would you want to say to them?

We’ve been told and we’ve learned that the U.S. is a country of immigrants. So lots of people are coming here to live the American dream, which is maybe true, maybe not. But I know that this country means no discrimination for race, religion, or whatever. I would love to see that continuing. I understand the reasons that the president had to think about all this, but I believe there are lots of ways to deal with that. Generally speaking, the majority of immigrants are people who fled their home countries looking for a better life or safety, or a better education, or so on. They have lots of faith in the U.S. and I would really request from the government to stand with that idea.

We’re all supposed to be in this country together working towards a common goal. But now we’re watching the politics and the dialogue go from having a good debate to breaking down into arguments that are basically my side verses your side.

How does that make you feel, watching that happen in this country?

I understand that politics is the same everywhere around the world. There’s always your side and my side. But it differs in my country, if you’re not on my side then you’re the enemy and I will kill you or at least target you. If you choose not to be on either side, then you are on the very poorest layer of the population.

I really wish that people started thinking while using a different mindset—another way of finding solutions, like really getting to the source of problems.

This interview was conducted on January 30 and has been edited for length and clarity. See interviews with Chicagoans from each of seven countries listed in President Trump’s travel ban here.

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