Mousa al Mosawy’s mother woke him this week with a call from Iraq, frightened and in floods of tears. She was afraid not of attacks at home, but that a new US law could end her son’s education or stop her from seeing him for years.
Donald Trump had not yet signed his executive order calling for “new vetting measures” to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the United States.
But early reports that the US president planned to ban citizens of seven mainly Muslim countries from entering the US looked like they would directly affect Al Mosawy, an Iraqi citizen studying law at Boston College on a student visa.
“My mother was quite disturbed by this,” he said. After he had consoled her and hung up, he began the far more difficult task of quieting his own fears about the executive order on immigration.
It included severe restrictions on immigration from those seven countries, implemented a 120-day halt to all refugee admissions and an indefinite ban on all refugees from Syria.
Al Mosawy, 24, is a wheelchair user and believes he would have little hope of finishing his education or launching a career if he were forced to return home.
“I’m from Iraq, I don’t have residency in any other country, so for me [being forced to leave the US], would mean going back to Iraq,” he said in a phone interview.
“I have a disability and I think if I am not able to stay in this country I will not be able to finish my education. So it would be basically be a full stop to my career.”
Al Mosawy said the conflicting early reports and rumours about how the new controls might work were even more frightening than the draft version that was leaked, which called for an initial 30-day ban on visas for Iraqis. The final order made that ban 90 days long.
It is far from clear how a screening process might work and the overall message sent out by the order is chilling, particularly for someone who has always felt welcome in America.
“It was a stark contrast to what I had experienced previously,” Al Mosawy said. “It’s not like Muslims have not faced persecutions or harassment in the US, I just was privileged not to personally deal with that and felt very welcomed.”
In those Middle Eastern and North African countries affected by the order – Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Iran and Syria – few people were surprised.
Trump’s election campaign was shot through with attacks on Muslims, including proposals to create a registry of American Muslims, plans for a ban and the hounding of a Gold Star family whose son died for his country.
But activists and analysts, many of whom have risked their own lives to push for democracy at home, warn that the order will still damage America’s soft power, built on its role as a champion of freedom.
“For civil society, for democracy, for everyone who believes in freedom, it’s a big blow, and for Americans themselves, not just for the world,” said Farea Al-Muslimi, Yemeni activist and co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.