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Libyan Doctor, Studying to Improve His Own Country, Worries American Democracy Is at Risk

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

Sabri Elmansouri is pursuing a master’s in public health at Benedictine University.   Photo: Alyssa Schukar

Sabri Elmansouri, 32, is a radiologist from Libya, currently pursuing a master’s in public health at Benedictine University. He entered the U.S. on a student visa in 2015 in order to learn more about public administration to help his country rebuild after Arab Spring protests toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Has the travel ban affected you personally?

To be honest, even before this executive order, as a Libyan, we’ve had problems. Before the revolution, our visas were for five years and multiple entries. But now our visas are just for one year and one entrance. So I didn’t see my family for the past two years. I miss many family members, and some of them have died. After this executive order, everything has become more difficult. In the next quarter I’m going to try and take more classes to finish as soon as possible because no one knows what will happen.

How much longer do you think you’ll remain in the U.S.?

This is my second year of study, because the first year was to improve my [English]. So for the master’s degree I just have one more year and I should finish it. But for the medical licenses, I have three exams and I would like to finish all of them before the end of 2018.

Are these recent events impacting your studies at all?

I’m still getting As, but it’s affected me because I try to complete assignments or exams and when I start to answer the questions I end up thinking about the future. Maybe someone will come to the class to take me away? I don’t know what will happen.

Can you tell us about what you want to do when you go back to Libya?

I want to learn professional management skills to fix the defects in Libya’s medical system. That way I could be a doctor and a minister of health, with a degree that gives me the ability to deal with problems like health disasters. There are some of the common things, like obesity and diabetes, that are very common in Libya. So I would like to change everything, from the bottom to the top.

Were you sponsored by the Libyan government to come here?

I have a scholarship from the ministry of education and they pay for my monthly allowance and for my studies. The government gave sponsorship to many revolutionaries to take them from the revolution to civilian life. So many of them are in Canada and America studying, maybe more than 10,000 people. Everyone is waiting for us in Libya to come back and bring what we learned in order to improve our country and our health department.

What would you want to say to someone who is in a position of power to do something to change this executive order?

The problem could be the communication between the Muslim community and Trump, or between those countries and Trump. It could just be that he doesn’t know enough about Islam to understand the religion. Maybe we’re not doing enough as a Muslim community to let people know who we are. We want the same things for our families and friends as the rest of the world. How would you feel if you were in another country and they did something like this to you? How would you feel? What would you do?

How do you think people in other countries are perceiving President Trump’s actions since he was inaugurated?

This hateful language, it will not do anything for America. This may increase the bloodshed in Libya, to be honest. There are already people who hate each other in our countries. So if another country hits us with this hateful language, it will increase the bloodshed in the Middle East and new victims who could die in America from hate crimes. A lot of countries can be affected.

What about the fight between Trump and the courts right now? The president has tried to delegitimize opposition to his executive order, calling the court’s decision to place an emergency hold on his travel ban “ridiculous.”

I think, if the American people understand what happened to Libya and some other countries that have had dictator regimes, they would understand that they made a mistake to put Trump in the president’s chair. Because number one, you’ll lose your freedoms, because he will start to make new policies where no one can talk about him, no one can even debate about anything he’s saying. You can lose the freedom in the media, in magazines, in everything. Number two, he’ll restrict the journalists who write about things related to his family and his policies. The third thing that happened in Libya, if you were a politician and against the government, you were put into a prison or you died. This will happen to the United States if the people don’t protest.

This is the start. I don’t know if [voters] will elect him again for a second term. Because America has a constitution, there are limits on Trump. But in time, those limits could disappear.

How did you feel the day after the order was signed, when all the protesters went to airports and lawyers showed up to offer legal aid?

I can’t imagine that this is just the third week of Trump’s presidency. I can’t imagine. Everything is going so quickly. When I see some judges try and protect us, and do something to prevent this order, I feel comfortable, really. Especially in Chicago, I have found a lot of people support us. People have been telling me to try and take it easy, to not worry and to keep focusing on my studies. And this is an example of why the United States has great institutions, and how the people will die to protect this constitution. And maybe there is hope in the next few days, maybe.

At school, among your fellow students and your professors, have they been supportive of you knowing you’re from Libya and what’s going on?

My university is a Catholic university. And at this university about 24 percent of the students are Muslims. One of my professors, in ethical philosophy, he’s one of my supporters. He always cares about me and about my friends in class. He said, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay. As an American we know this will not happen.” And my advisers also—and all the university staff—I feel, as a Muslim, there’s some Catholic people trying to help us. This shows to me how interfaith people connect with each other to be strong.

This interview was conducted on February 10 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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