Sophomore Hanny Issawi remembers his last visit to Syria. He climbed to the top of an apartment complex to gaze at the country’s rolling hills. He ate fancy dinner at a mountain-top restaurant. He was ten years old, and Syria was beautiful then.
Today, Hanny wakes up to images of his parents’ home country in ruins on the morning news.
“The building that my mom grew up in is now rubble,” Hanny said. “The memories [there] are gone.”
His uncle and cousins are anchored in a safe suburb of Damascus, Syria’s capital. They aren’t planning on coming to America anytime soon, but after President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Jan. 27 banning travel from seven Muslim-dominated Middle Eastern countries – one of them being Syria – that option may disappear altogether.
They know the ban isn’t explicitly targeted at Muslims, and understand that its intentions are to protect the U.S. – they want to protect it too. But the Issawis fear that its discriminatory implications, that Muslim refugees aren’t welcome in America, are all the world will see.
They see this because they’ve felt discrimination themselves. But because of Hanny’s mother, Hanna, and her efforts to show her children equality, the family embraces their heritage.
Since Hanny’s parents moved to America in 1993 to pursue medical careers, they have never looked quite like their neighbors. Living in Prairie Village, they’re the minority.
Hanny’s friends tease him at East. They bring up 9/11, they ask if he’s carrying a bomb. He doesn’t take it personally because he’s used to it.
“It’s kind of just a punchline,” Hanny said.
In 2008, Belinder Elementary School held a mock presidential election. Hanny voted for Obama, which made sense, as one of Hanny’s classmates explained, because they were both “different from everyone else.”
“Somebody would say something to Hanny like, ‘Who’s your uncle? Osama Bin Laden?’” Hanna said. “[That’s when I would] get offended.”
Before these remarks, Hanny never looked at himself as different. But slowly he began to criticize his dark skin tone and dark, curly hair. He dodged the “Where are you from?” question and if asked, would vaguely answer “the Middle East,” or “somewhere in Asia” because he was ashamed of his culture.
But he’s not anymore because Hanna’s preached equality to her children. If Hanny was ever to be mistreated, she would make sure he’d take it to the office. If he didn’t, she would.
“I don’t want him to think that he doesn’t have the right to defend himself,” Hanna said.
Hanna has taught Hanny to walk through his front door, see their golden, Arabic tapestry that reads “Praise God, I Believe in God and No God but You” and feel proud. He likes the picture of the Quoran hanging on his wall.
“I wear [my culture] on my sleeve,” Hanny said. “I’ve grown to appreciate that I’m different.”
Hanna’s headstrong mindset was formed by her once-peaceful home in Syria: she’s never worn a hijab because she doesn’t believe that her attire determines her faith. She fasts during Ramadan and attends her mosque on holidays. Her family eats Arabic food on occasions: falafel, hummus and shawarma.
After graduating from the University of Damascus in 1991, she left her nine siblings in Damascus to move to Kansas. She was 19 years old. Here, she completed her residency at KU Med with limited knowledge of the English language. Her transition from Syria to Kansas was, at first, intimidating.
It got under her skin when a coworker first heard her accent and remarked, ‘How do they hire people like that?’ But after proving herself at Shawnee Mission Medical and Sunflower Medical, she has no inhibitions about her culture.
“Yeah I have an accent, so what?” Hanna said. “I have more than 3,000 patients. Those patients are not going to come to me if they’re not comfortable.”
And they are. Her patients used to pronounce Issawi like “Eesawnee” or “Ishwawee.” She told them to think “I sowwy,” like an apology. They laughed. When they heard about the travel ban, they embraced her and apologized on behalf of America. She laughed.
“I’m [an] American citizen and [Trump] cannot do anything about that. I can go anywhere,” Hanna assured them. “And I can go back.”
Hanny’s sister, East alumnus Danya Issawi had her mother to teach her this. In an article she wrote for USAToday College, she recalled her experiences with discrimination. In it she references Trump’s plan to have a registry of all Muslims in the nation, a registry she compared to Jewish ones in Nazi Germany.
Danya was studying abroad in Spain when Trump’s executive order was passed. She asked her mother if she would be allowed to travel back to the U.S.
“I said ‘Yes,’” Hanna laughed, remembering Danya’s concern. “‘You’re pure American. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.’”
Hanna reminded Danya that, as a natural-born American, she had the right to travel home, or anywhere for that matter. But if the travel ban is reinstated after its current temporary restraining order, and if she chose to visit her family in Syria, she wouldn’t be allowed to return to the U.S.
Although the Issawi’s family in Syria is safe for now, they aren’t exempt from the effects of the civil war.
Before-and-after photos show Hanny’s uncle’s hair, once full and dark, turned wispy and grey after just one year of working in a warzone hospital. Hanny’s cousin was playing soccer on his rooftop in Syria and the building was bombed – he died. Another uncle was walking through streets, hit by a rocket and killed.
Hearing stories like this and having been apart from her siblings for five years, Hanna decided to visit her family in Syria last July. She didn’t want to bring her children because she knew crossing the border posed the threat of being taken by the government, or worse, ISIS.
There she found the once-crowded brown sand beaches where she took her family to be vacant. Each street had a check point of either ISIS or the government.
“It [was] chaos. ISIS [was] everywhere,” Hanna said. “It was [a] very peaceful country until 2011 and everything [has changed].”
With thousands of refugees seeking an escape from this danger, the Issawis worry about the way the travel ban makes America look. A ban like Trump’s, Hanny said, is exactly what ISIS wants to happen – a “them versus us” mentality.
“If Trump just accepted the refugees, then the ISIS threat would be way lower,” Hanny said. “I’d imagine that more [refugees] are going to turn to ISIS now because they [couldn’t] fall back on somewhere safe like here.”
The state of the ban remains changing, but is not currently being enforced; a temporary restraining order. Trump has said he may reconsider rewriting the executive order.
Because the Issawis can’t be there for their family, they send them money once a month to keep up with the high cost of living through the war. They keep in touch every day through messaging apps like Whats App, Viber and Facebook. Their family is not trying to come to America, but Hanna worries for the refugees who need to.
“My family or friends or anybody, those are human beings,” Hanna said. “They’re not chairs, they’re not tables [and] they’re losing their lives. And to close the door on their faces [is] ridiculous.”