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Iraqi in Seattle: 'This is not a country that I want to give up on'

Murtadha Al-Tameemi
KUOW Photo/Jason Pagano
Murtadha Al-Tameemi

A few days before President Donald Trump signed the executive order halting the arrival of immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, Murtadha Al-Tameemi was in Vancouver, B.C., about to watch his brother perform in a play.

His phone rang. It was an immigration attorney he worked with calling him. That was unexpected.

She asked him, “Where are you?”

“I’m in Vancouver for the evening with my family,” Al-Tameemi answered.

“Come back right now.”

The attorney told him that Trump planned to sign an order banning people from Iraq from entering the U.S. as early as the next morning.

“We’d heard during the campaign that things like this might come down,” Al-Tameemi said. “But people reassured me that there are so many checks and balances in the system that one person can’t change things so drastically overnight.”

Al-Tameemi came to the U.S. when he was 15 as part of an exchange program sponsored by the State Department that specifically brought in students from Muslim-majority countries to help bridge understanding after 9/11.

His mother and brother are refugees in Canada. They fled Iraq after Al-Tameemi’s father and another brother were killed in a suicide bombing.

Al-Tameemi had a decision to make after the call ended: Leave now and return to Seattle, or stay with his family and risk not being able to get back across the border the next day.

“I thought about it and I decide there was no way I was going to miss his performance,” he said. “I missed out on a lot of his childhood and I wanted to see this milestone.”

The next morning, Al-Tameemi arrived at the airport at 4 a.m. – five hours before his flight – so that he could clear immigration early and get back in the country before the order could take effect.

Al-Tameemi works as a software engineer in Seattle for Facebook. He’s spent the last 10 years splitting his time between the U.S. and Canada, where he went to college.

He’s been speaking up against the travel ban, saying it offers up a convenient propaganda tool for ISIS and other terrorist groups because it serves their narrative about the U.S.

He said that because of his family’s history with tragic violence, he takes as much interest in the security of the country as anyone else – maybe even more.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that understands the impact of that more than people like ourselves, people that are fleeing it,” Al-Tameemi said. “I don’t want any of the things that tore my family apart and threatened our lives back home to be anywhere near here.”

As far as the argument about “bad guys pouring across the border,” Al-Tameemi doesn’t buy it.

“That’s absurd. There’s nobody pouring in,” he said. “If you’re Iraqi, or Iranian, you don’t breeze through the airport.”

He has an H1-B visa, very difficult to get. He crosses the border frequently and said that each time it takes two border guards to clear him. Last time, the process took four hours.

“The answer is not to put a ban, the answer is to fix the system, because it really shouldn’t be something that is this broken,” he said.

He said an overhaul is needed so that all the agencies share information and talk to each other, which would speed up the process and increase security.

“If the government was a Silicon Valley startup, this would never happen – you would not have a company where you have four hours of one person’s time invested in something so inefficient that you could easily replace and automate and leverage technology to solve,” he said.

For now, Al-Tameemi has halted his plans to travel internationally for work. He’s also being cautious about planning trips to Canada.

When asked if he would consider leaving the U.S. to join his family up north, Al-Tameemi said it’s tempting when the government takes an official position on rejecting people like him.

“It’s discouraging,” he said. “But at the same time these thoughts are easily offset by the support and the solidarity that people are expressing across the country.

“That reminds me that this is not a country that I want to give up on. This is not a country that is going to give up on people like myself.”

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

Year started with KUOW: 2012
Year started with KUOW: 2005