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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Beyond the Ban

Santa Feans from targeted Muslim countries feel new pressure on old wounds in the wake of Trump policy

February 22, 2017, 12:00 am

Santa Fe is home to a small Muslim community of about 450 people in the greater county area, according to estimates in a private survey called the 2010 US Religious Census. Despite those modest numbers, Muslims in the City Different tell SFR they received an outpouring of support when federal officials enacted an executive order last month suspending all refugee resettlement and temporarily banning travelers—including visa holders—from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

As some people remained stranded at international airports thronged with protesters, more than 130 locals from Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and other groups packed the Mosque of Al Rahma in Santa Fe’s South Capitol neighborhood to stand with their neighbors. Mayor Javier Gonzales and the Santa Fe Police Department phoned mosque officials, according to Joe Hamad, a volunteer and worshipper, and personal phone lines also rang to the tune of solidarity.

“We keep getting calls from people we don’t know just to say, ‘If you guys need anything, let us know,’” says Azher, an Iraqi-American who works in a local school. “This kind of support is what gives us hope that, in the end, good will prevail.”

Yet, Azher and his wife May asked that SFR not publish their last names. All that support can’t counteract their instinct toward self-preservation.

A federal court in California recently held up a temporary restraining order on Trump’s ban. That move followed a deluge of lawsuits and impromptu demonstrations at airports across the country, including the Albuquerque International Sunport.

As of press time, the Trump administration was exptected to release a new version that targets the same seven countries, but exempts green card holders.

While the executive order shocked many Americans, people from some of those nations who now live in Santa Fe tell SFR they weren’t surprised. After all, Trump originally proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” back in 2015. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, ran Breitbart, a news site that often traffics in fear of Muslims.

Trump brought the same rhetoric to New Mexico in May, falsely accusing Gov. Susana Martinez of allowing “large numbers” of Syrian refugees to relocate to New Mexico. “If I was governor, that wouldn’t be happening,” he said to cheers. At the time of Trump’s speech, fewer than 10 Syrians had resettled in the Land of Enchantment.

Martinez, meanwhile, opposed President Barack Obama’s plan to accept a limited share of Syrian refugees fleeing ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the bloody civil war in their country, stating that there must be “a very clear plan in place to properly vet” them. Martinez didn’t mention that such a federal policy already exists. Refugees seeking entry into the United States encounter a painstaking screening process that includes interviews, background checks and fingerprinting. Jumping through those hoops, installed by the United Nations and multiple federal agencies, takes up to two years.

But contrary to the messages coming from the White House and the Fourth Floor of the Roundhouse, not to mention a recent rash of hate crimes directed towards mosques across the country, Muslims in Santa Fe say they have yet to encounter any Islamophobic sentiment in their hometown.

During his annual State of the City speech last week, Mayor Gonzales reaffirmed his earlier stance that Santa Fe remains a place for refugees “fleeing the world’s most oppressive and most violent places and looking to our country to honor the promise engraved on the Statue of Liberty.”

The city’s demographics mean that most of the recent political discourse, however, is focused on thousands of immigrant residents from Latin American countries who lack permission from the federal government to be here. The concerns of our small Muslim population, most of whom aren’t facing the same paperwork complications, may seem myopic in comparison to the threats that loom for undocumented people that make up a large swath of the local workforce.

But Trump’s policies dictating who comes in and out of this country—whether it’s a deportation plan or travel ban—feed off fears in the same vein. Only the target changes.

SFR spoke with Muslim locals from three of the seven countries listed in Trump’s travel ban, all of whom are naturalized American citizens. Their experiences in this country differ widely, but each story holds unique significance in this moment.

May pulls out her phone and loads up a video showing the University of Mosul, before and after ISIL invaded the city and transformed the historic research institution, her alma mater, into a battlefield. As the Iraqi-American woman peers at the screen from her perch in a Southside coffee shop, the sequence jarringly transitions from scenes of student life to black-clad militants shooting machine guns over rubble and piles of ashen books. May recounts how not just this place, but her entire country, transformed over decades of war and terror, most recently under the control of ISIL.

When ISIL took over the city of Mosul in the fall of 2014, militants forced her family and all their possessions out of her childhood home. They fled to central Asia. Three of May’s friends, one doctor and two lawyers, didn’t get a chance to escape before they were killed. Some of Azher’s relatives, her in-laws, also fled for refuge in Europe and East Asia. Others stayed in the city, living for months without electricity or running water.

“Those people were running for their lives. They’ve lost everything: their homes, their livelihoods, their businesses,” Azher says. “Can you imagine anyone who would want to abandon everything behind and go thousands of miles away to a place where they don’t know the language or culture, unless they had a very powerful reason to do so?”

When Azher left Iraq back in the ’80s, he did so under relatively peaceful circumstances. He decided to study in the United States after reading about the country’s strong education system. “As a young man, anybody would like to investigate the world and see what is going on,” he explains. After studying at the University of Mosul, Azher arrived in Arizona on a student visa and chose to pursue a graduate degree at the state’s flagship university in Tucson. The warm weather reminded him of Iraq and helped him acclimate to his new surroundings. So did the warm people. “I was very impressed with the way people dealt with me as an individual who doesn’t speak very good English,” he says. “They didn’t even know where I came from. People were very friendly.”

After the Iraq-Iran war broke out, killing many of his friends, Azher did not feel compelled to return to his home country. “You don’t want to kill or get killed,” he says. “I just don’t believe in violence or in war or killing. That’s something I feel very strongly about.”

Azher instead completed his Master of Science degree. He then got to work teaching at a local community college before returning to the University of Arizona as a staff instructor.

He says he never felt unwelcome or discriminated against during his time at the college. Not even in the immediate wake of 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when early media reports had speculated that the perpetrator was Muslim. A student approached him and asked, “Why are you people so violent?” He chose to make the news a teachable moment.

“When we found out it was committed by Timothy McVeigh, who was an American, I called her and said, ‘See? Now you said to me something not very nice.’ I told her not to rush to judgment in the future,” he says.

In the mid-’90s, Azher visited Jordan, where he met another University of Mosul grad, May. They moved back to the United States together and got married. In August 2001, the couple relocated to Santa Fe. Three weeks later, terrorists from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates flew two planes into the World Trade Center, sending America into two wars, creating a pretext for a surveillance state and ushering in an era of Islamophobia unseen in modern history.

However, Azher says he didn’t personally encounter any of the hate that pervaded post-9/11 America. “On the contrary, the support I got from people at work was overwhelming—even from some of the students,” he says.

He felt the same support when Trump rose to power, pledging to ban Muslims from entering to the United States. The outpouring came again when the president carried out his promise on his 10th day in office. “We have received so many phone calls,” he says. “The support from this community was overwhelming, and in my opinion, [that is] what makes America great.”

Still, Azher is keenly aware of the fear that swept other parts of the country—the same fear Trump fed off of in his bid for the White House, claiming without evidence that the Syrian refugee resettlement programs could be the “ultimate Trojan horse” for ISIL and other terror groups.

Azher chafes at the irony.

“Muslims have suffered more from [ISIL] than anyone else,” he says. “We’re talking about my hometown. My university, which housed over 30,000 students, has been literally destroyed by these criminal individuals.”

When Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, held a campaign rally on the Plaza in the fall, Mohamed Sassila walked a couple blocks from his rug shop to see the Libertarian presidential candidate speak.

Johnson had recently flubbed when asked what he would do about the conditions in Sassila’s hometown in Syria, Aleppo, a city considered by international observers as the site of the greatest humanitarian crisis of the decade.

Mohamed Sassila’s rug shop off the Santa Fe Plaza is a long way from his hometown of Aleppo, Syria.
Anson Stevens-Bollen

“I always excuse American ignorance of the Middle East, Syria or the Arab world in general. They don’t have access to the right information,” Sassila says. “Johnson shocked me, though, because Aleppo had been mentioned in the media so much.”

Still, Sassila attempted to shake hands with the candidate, but didn’t manage to get his attention. “I have nothing personal against the guy,” he says.

For many Americans, Aleppo became a buzzword most associated with Johnson’s failed campaign. But for Sassila, who has lived in Santa Fe for more than three decades, his living connection to the city’s real human tragedy is deep.

When the Syrian revolution broke out years ago, Sassila was optimistic about his country’s future. But protest descended into war, sparked by a violent crackdown ordered by President Bashar al-Assad. Rebel groups rose against a government with little regard for civilian lives.

The war came to Aleppo in 2012, when rebels took control of the city. Some of Sassila’s family escaped through Greece and Turkey before eventually finding refuge in Germany, but two of his cousins died during air strikes. Late last year, the city capitulated to government forces, creating a vacuum for Assad’s soldiers to commit atrocities. The United Nations warned of “a complete meltdown of humanity.”

When asked whether he worries for the safety of family members in Syria, Sassila tells SFR: “We Muslims have a very strong belief that we don’t worry. We believe that Allah, the only God, decides when we exist and when to end our lives. This is out of our control. So we don’t worry about death.”

When Sassila came over from Syria in 1984, it was two years after the ruling Ba’ath Party cracked down on a years-long rebellion against the government. Sassila obtained a student visa and flew to Miami, Florida. The culture shock immediately overwhelmed him.

“You don’t know what to expect. Coming here, the people are very liberal. What do you see? Topless beaches and night clubs,” Sassila says, letting out a hearty laugh. “It was a huge difference. You have strip clubs on every corner. To them, that’s normal. But for us, women cover themselves.”

Sassila attended the University of Miami for one semester. But tuition was too expensive, so he enrolled at Florida International University, where he pursued a degree in electrical engineering. There wasn’t a mosque in town, so he and other Muslim students used a university classroom for prayers.

Santa Fe’s Muslim worshipers gather at a mosque in South Capitol.
Steven Hsieh

After graduating, Sassila moved to Santa Fe to help another Syrian man run Desert Blossom, a jewelry store on the Plaza. Seven months later, in 1991, he opened his own shop.

Sassila sold jewelry and run-of-the-mill gift shop products at first, but eventually swapped the turquoise earrings for oriental rugs. His hometown, after all, had produced generations of weavers tracing back centuries.

“Rugs are a passion of mine,” he says. “It’s something I have knowledge of.” Sassila traveled the world—Afghanistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan—picking hand-woven rugs for wealthy tourists. He named his store Silk Road Collections, after the ancient trade network that for centuries connected many of the civilizations from which Sassila buys his products.

Sassila became an American citizen in 1999, after passing what he says was a “piece of cake” test and taking an oath of allegiance at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

The first time Sassila cast a vote, he did so for for Barack Obama in 2008. But the president fell out of Sassila’s favor for what he viewed as ineptness when confronting the crisis in Syria. The Obama administration provided arms to moderate rebel groups, but some analysts believe he could have done more to prevent catastrophe. “He is one of the worst presidents in American history for foreign affairs,” Sassila says.

That disenchantment led Sassila not to vote in the last presidential election. And he wasn’t surprised when Donald Trump announced his travel ban last month. “American policy has always been hostile to Muslims and Arabs,” Sassila says. “What he is saying is not new to me.”

When Syrian refugees started arriving in Albuquerque, Sassila drove down to help them get oriented. When asked for specifics, Sassila demurs, saying he does not want to insult the five families he’s reached out to by bragging about his deeds.

“When you do something good, you do it softly, quietly,” he says. “I feel like that’s my duty, without any question, to help as much as I can. It’s a must. It’s not leisure. It’s not an option. I think most Syrians feel the same way.”

Sally Tavassoli’s father, a shopkeeper, had high hopes for life after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Those hopes quickly dissolved. Not long after the Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the country, Tavassoli’s uncle was captured and struck with lashes. Agents burned down his record store for selling Western music.

“That’s when we realized that it would be totally different,” says Tavassoli, who was 4 years old at the time. “We realized the new regime would be an Islamic Republic, so we left.” Fearing persecution from the country’s new, ultra-conservative rulers, millions of Iranians fled, forming large diasporas in Germany, Sweden and the United States.

Sally Tavassoli’s father, a shopkeeper, brought his family to the US amid the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Sally, pictured here as a child, lives in Santa Fe today.
Courtesy of Sally Tavassoli

Tavassoli, along with her mother and father, wound up in Houston, Texas. They applied for and received asylum under President Jimmy Carter’s State Department. (As opposed to refugees, who apply for residency before arriving in the United States, asylees are granted protective status after living in the country for some time.)

Immediately, Tavassoli’s father started thinking about business. His steakhouse failed after two years. A roller rink in the Houston suburbs proved more successful. Around that time, Islamic militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage for more than 400 days. Backlash against Iranian immigrants followed.

“One time, a falling-out happened and someone got fired” at her father’s business, Tavassoli recalls. “I remember coming into work with my dad the next morning, and spray-painted across the parking lot were the words ‘Iranians eat shit.’”

Suddenly, Tavassoli became conscious of her own national and ethnic identity in a way she hadn’t before. “I think I was about 6 or 7 then, and I had a really good friend that was Hispanic. I even started to lie to her. I told her my family is Greek. I reconnected with her 10 years ago on Facebook, and she still thought I was Greek. I totally had forgotten about that. There’s probably a whole group of people who still think I’m Greek.”

When Tavassoli turned 12, her parents divorced and she moved to Orange County, California, with her father, who opened a successful men’s clothing store. “And that’s when I saw other people were like me,” Tavassoli says. “We spoke Farsi in school together, and then it just became okay. It was very liberating. We had a secret language.”

After graduating from high school, Tavassoli attended college on and off. She was living in Texas on Sept. 11, 2001, and was dating a white man at the time.

“George Bush sent troops to Iraq. I was very scared because my whole distant family is in Iran. I remember saying to my boyfriend, ‘Oh man. That’s really close. I hope they don’t unleash nuclear weapons.’ His answer to me was, ‘If it has to be done, it has to be done. In order to tell people not to mess with America.’ And I was like, Okay. Same old story. That’s when I became more politically aware.”

Tavassoli became even more engaged as she pursued an education degree at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. She worked on the side for an outreach program called the Center for Human Origin and Cultural Diversity, where she facilitated student field trips to a facility exploring the human race’s common ancestry. “My mentor encouraged me to speak up about being Muslim. At that point, I had never really associated with being Muslim.”

In 2011, Tavassoli moved to Santa Fe with her husband, a Syrian physician. She immediately got to work at the Dragonfly School as an elementary teacher. Moving from the Midwest, she was happy with the city’s diversity. “It’s a very open-minded town,” she says.

[Santa Fe] is a very open-minded town.
-Sally Tavassoli, Iranian-American Santa Fean

When President Trump came along on the campaign trail, she didn’t take him seriously. “I was, like everybody else, kind of entertained by it,” Tavassoli says. Another part of her underestimated the people of her own country. “C’mon, this isn’t America,” she thought. “This isn’t the people. This is just some loon.”

When Trump announced his travel ban last month, Tavassoli didn’t worry too much about her father, who’s a dual Iranian-American citizen currently living in his birth country, “chasing money.” Her mother and sister, also dual citizens but living in the US, plan on visiting Iran for a wedding this summer. But when SFR spoke with Tavassoli before the federal courts acted on Trump’s order, she feared disconnection from another close family member: “my grandmother, who has never been granted citizenship because she kept failing her test. I probably won’t see her again unless I go over there,” she says.

“Recently people have been coming up to me to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Our hearts are with you. I’ve been thinking about you all weekend.’ It takes me off guard a little bit, because I’m not directly affected. What I want to say is, I’m sorry for all of us. Don’t be sorry just for me. This is a reflection on all of us in this country,” Tavassoli says. “I say thank you. I try to be gracious. But, really, deep inside, we’re all in this together.”


 

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