Iowa City’s Sudanese community navigates Trump’s travel ban rhetoric

Leading the way Community organizer Hanadi Elshazali in front of her office. Photo by Zak Neumann

Hanadi Elshazali will always remember what it felt like to go to work on Nov. 9, 2016 — the day after the country elected Donald Trump as its 45th president. She’ll remember the chaotic silence as she entered her office at the Pheasant Ridge Neighborhood Center of Johnson County, the muffled whispers that made her feel as if someone had died. She’ll remember the phone ringing over and over all day: Should I move to Canada? Should I gather my documents together? Should I take my children out of school?

Elshazali works exclusively with Iowa City’s Sudanese American community. After the election, she worked with many people who went from being hopeful about their future as immigrants in the United States, to not knowing how much longer they had before they were going to be kicked out.

“After the election, it was a big mess,” Elshazali said. “We didn’t know how this is going to affect the country, what he’s going to do with immigrants. It seems like [Trump] wants it to be only white people.”

Fears were heightened by Trump’s Jan. 27 travel ban executive order, which barred citizens from seven countries, including Sudan, from entering the United States for 90 days. The original ban also indefinitely barred Syrian refugees. This order (and a revised order that replaced it) were blocked by federal judges, but continue to pop up in the news as they are battled out in court. The actions created a tangible danger within Iowa City’s Sudanese American community.

Zainab Makky, 19, grew up in Iowa City. Her parents are from Sudan, and made sure that she always felt connected to her Sudanese identity. Makky said that even though she is an American citizen, she felt deeply unsafe and offended when the travel ban was signed.

“I was pissed and sad for my beautiful country, Sudan,” she said. “It did not make sense to put Sudan or any country on a travel ban list. There was no deeply rooted reason as to why aside from xenophobic reasons.”

Makky’s mother had dreams of her sisters, Makky’s aunts, joining them in the United States.

“She wanted us to meet our cousins and meet our uncles, and just to establish a connection with each other,” Makky said. “But now it doesn’t seem like that is going to be our reality any time soon.”

For University of Iowa student Ahmed Hassan, 26, the ban represented what he feared most from the Trump presidency: action. At 13, Hassan and his family moved from Sudan to Iowa City. He had relatives who were legal green card holders and were held at O’Hare and John F. Kennedy international airports for two days due to the travel ban.

“I never thought [the ban] would actually go down. I actually never thought it would get as far as it got,” he said. “It seemed like it was all just news to me, beforehand. Like it was the media making things bigger, exaggerating what Trump would actually do. But then he actually did do it.”

Fatima Saeed, who has lived in Iowa City since 2002, said she was scared that she would come home one day and people would be gone.

“We didn’t know what to do and a lot of people around here did not want to even leave their apartments because they were so scared,” she said.

Trump’s rhetoric about Muslim immigrants has included a suggestion during a New Hampshire campaign rally that Syrian refugees should be kicked out of the country because “they could be ISIS” and saying in a CNN interview that “Islam hates us.” Many in Iowa City’s Sudanese community say this rhetoric has had an impact.

Illustration by Marcus Parker

“There’s always been racial incidents, before Trump or after Trump, but it seems like he magnified all the hatred,” Hassan said. “It seemed like it happened more often after Trump got sworn in. I just think it’s the vibe that he brings out in people.”

This vibe has changed Hassan’s daily interactions in Iowa City. He walks with his head down to avoid the sideways glances and racial slurs that he says he was tired of confronting.

“I’m more careful,” he said. “It’s always been known that you’re different as an immigrant. But now it’s more apparent that we’re not like others. That seems to be distancing rather than bringing the community together.”

Saeed, who often wears a bright yellow hijab, said she remembers being approached in K-Mart after the election and hearing, “You know now that Trump won they’re going to send you all back.”

Elshazali spoke of similar experiences her clients had, like notes on cars outside the mosque saying “Go back to Africa.”

Protests and Education

In response to fears expressed by members of the Sudanese community, Elshazali reached out to the University of Iowa Legal Clinic to organize a March event called “Know Your Rights” at the neighborhood center. The presentation focused on educating the community about the rights of green card holders, who are protected by U.S. laws and under the U.S. Constitution.

The clinic addressed questions, like what to do if law enforcement or immigration enforcement show up at a home or workplace and whether it was safe to travel to Sudan. But it also aimed at restoring a sense of belonging, both in the public sphere and in the Iowa City community.

“Everything that’s going on is complicated and hard to understand, even for us as law students,” said Jessica Donels, one of the law students involved in the clinic. “When something’s hard and complicated, it’s scary and it makes you feel powerless. So by teaching people about these things and trying to make it understandable, we hope we’re giving them their power back.”

A number of protests in Iowa City following the election also provided a renewed sense of community. Hassan said the protests have made him hopeful that the Iowa City public as a whole is supportive, despite the increase in xenophobia that he has experienced.

“The amount of people that came out to show support, and the amount of different people that came together, for me that was extremely important,” he said. “It seemed like there were so many people that were from all different communities and backgrounds, but yet they were all there for the same cause. Seeing it was so positive.”

After the election, Makky said that she had many people come up to her and make sure she felt welcomed and safe.

“I’ve gained so many friendships from people sympathizing and opening their hearts,” she said. “Many people didn’t realize how racist America was until the election, and when they did, they rejected it. We had marches and protests, and I saw Iowa City in a new light after the election, and it was a good light.”

Reaching Back

For the Sudanese community in Iowa City, the focus now turns to the future. The election is over. They’ve seen the vitriolic actions that followed it, but they’ve also seen the solidarity of protesters. They’ve seen the president threaten immigrants, but felt the support from citizens and organizations working to protect them. The community has reached out to them. Now, says Elshazali, it’s time for them to reach back.

“For us, the next step has to be getting involved. We have to make our presence known in Iowa City, more than it is right now,” she said.

Robin Clarke-Bennett, an educator at the University of Iowa Labor Center, is helping to make this goal a reality.

On a sunny Sunday in April, in the midst of all the political turmoil, Clarke-Bennett stood in front of a projector in the common room of the Pheasant Ridge Neighborhood Center.

The room was packed, standing room only, filled with dozens of members of the Sudanese community. The atmosphere was relaxed: the crowd was interspersed with women wearing colorful hijabs; one man was sporting a celebratory Fourth of July shirt with USA emblazoned across the front. A teapot of hot chai tea steamed on the coffee table.

This wasn’t a Sunday get-together or tea party. It was a civics lesson.

The attendees were scribbling notes as Clarke-Bennett explained the different levels of government, occasionally stopping to answer questions about things like the difference between the county supervisors and the city council, or the role of the school board.

Clarke-Bennett has been teaching civics workshops for the labor center for years, but this was her first lesson with the Sudanese community.

“The goal of the workshop is to familiarize people with the levels of government in the United States, the way that laws are passed and to familiarize people with their own elected officials and how to reach out to them and communicate with them,” she said.

Clarke-Bennett said she believes the workshops will make getting involved in local politics more accessible.

“In every community across our region, there are powerful leaders with wisdom and perspectives that need to be heard, and so I think it is important that the Sudanese community is organizing and connecting with other leaders in the community and meeting amongst themselves to think about what priority issues they’d like to bring to the attention of elected officials,” she said.

Ideally, these workshops are meant to not only get the Sudanese community engaged in local government, but also become a part of it themselves.

“People who come to our country from other countries bring rich traditions with them that make us a better community,” she said. “The Sudanese community has brought a strong sense of unity and civic engagement, an emphasis on education, respect for seniors and a family-oriented approach to life, and I think we can learn a lot from them.”

This message has resonated with Makky, the young 19-year-old who grew up in the Iowa City Sudanese community. She plans to use her role as a Sudanese American to affect change in the city that she grew up in and grew to love.

“After the election, I kind of took a step back, and did some self-reflection about who I wanted to be and who I was now,” she said. “I realized that I wanted more people to know my identities. I wanted people to know that I am a proud Muslim, that I am a proud woman and that I am a proud Sudanese American. I want to get even more involved in this community and show them what a Sudanese and Islamic American looks like, and not what Trump’s image has portrayed me as.”

Julia Davis is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Iowa, specializing in scientific and political coverage. In the past, she has reported for PBS, USA Today, the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and Iowa Public Radio. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 223.

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