Five years ago, when Mahmoud Al Chamaa was just 15 and in high school, he traveled one last time from Damascus, Syria to Brookfield, Wisconsin. It was one of many summers he visited his uncle in the United States, but with growing instability in Syria, his family pressed him to stay.
“It was very hard for me to choose to stay here,” said Al Chamaa, now a student at UW-Milwaukee. “Inside of me didn’t want to stay because I didn’t want to live without my family, and now I can’t see them anymore.”
Now, he’s feeling fear he hasn’t known for years.
Donald Trump’s new Executive order has raised some uncertainty in Al Chamaa. He feels safe while he’s here, but he’s scared to leave the country. His spring break trip has been cancelled as well as a wedding in Lebanon, where he planned to see his family.
“I don’t know when I’ll see my mom again. If she gets sick, I can’t just go see her now.”
Others like Saja Albuarabi, a PhD student at UWM on an F-1 visa from Iraq, are also concerned about traveling for fear of being sent back. Albuarabi says she won’t attend any conferences this semester because she is afraid of being deported back to Iraq, which would cause her being dropped from her PhD program at UWM.
Omar Saleh, an officer with the Muslim Student Association on campus, says there is a difference in feelings between domestic students, and international students, like Al Chamaa and Albuarabi.
“I was born here in the United States, said Saleh. Even though I might have friends affected by this, I don’t have immediate family affected by this”
These are some of the faces and voices of UWM students affected by the travel ban.
As he sits in the union, Al Chamaa openly talks about a topic that is sensitive to him and 102 other international students currently studying at UW-Milwaukee on visas: President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration. The order, which is currently suspended by the Department of Homeland Security due to a judge’s temporary order, temporarily bans immigration from six nations for 90 days, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Immigration from Syria was banned indefinitely, although the Trump administration later clarified that none of its orders applied to those with green cards. “The-ban,” as many have coined it, was the source of chaos and confusion for days, as anyone outside of the United States’ visa was suspended immediately and looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Al Chamaa’s constantly worried about his parents and his sister in Damascus, and with the Executive Order, officially named “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” his uneasiness is only growing.
“It’s a fight between the Syrian regime and the Syrian Army. It kind of depends on the day, sometimes the outside is fine, but sometimes there is stuff like bombings,” said Al Chamaa “There is no one safe right there. You can’t just say you’re going to be safe.”
Al Chamaa has lived here for five years now. He’s a junior at UWM and majoring in Chemistry. The word he uses to describe himself is “friendly.”
“I never had any problem making friends,” he recalls his first day in high school at Brookfield East. Everyone was really accepting. I played soccer in high school and that helped me make friends right away.”
Growing up in Syria, it was really safe, he recalls walking down the street at 3 a.m. and people always out on the streets, “like a big city.” But slowly after the ‘Revolution’ began, large protests happened regularly, and people were afraid of being arrested.
When he decided to stay, his uncle adopted him. A judge, understanding that he would be going back to a dangerous lifestyle, allowed him to complete the adoption with one trial and his parents over Skype- making him a permanent resident
Next year he finally becomes a naturalized citizen. He still lives with his uncle in Brookfield; his uncle is a doctor who’s lived in the United States since 1994. Next year, he will finally become a naturalized citizen.
Moving his life to Wisconsin at just 15 has allowed Al Chamaa to get the education that wouldn’t have been offered to him in Syria, and it’s simple to discern that it’s not a privilege he overlooks.
“I don’t regret it […] because right now, if I was there, I wouldn’t be able to study, with what’s going on. I wouldn’t be able to go to college. I’d probably finish high school.