A few days after turning 25 and covering a decade of war and bloody conflict, finding safe haven has become my life’s mission. I arrived in the United States after a long journey, only days after seeing my youngest daughter fight for her life after an injury sustained during an illegal airstrike in my Gaza neighborhood.
When I brought my daughters back to the United States, it felt like a familiar place with memories of their childhood. I’ve always feared being labeled an “immigrant”, a title I never asked for. After all, I have already had the title of “refugee” throughout my life in Gaza, a city whose people assumed I was one of their own. While I never truly knew what “home” felt like as a fourth-generation refugee, war in Gaza made me realize I would not want the same for my daughters. Taking them to the US felt like our safest option.
For my family, this seemed like a second chance for a decent life after striving for just HALF a chance during life under siege. Life started to slowly smile at us, in the US. I learned how to adjust from what I had into what I’d never dreamed of having. I started to look the other way when I was teased about my hijab or when I was insulted for speaking in a language other than English. I resisted the temptation to lecture people about history or to call them out on their ignorance when they asked me, “How it was back in Pakistan?”
I managed to recover from “career suicide” as a conflict photographer, shifting my clients and assignments to first world stories, highlighting them as third world storyteller. American friends became my family. Despite not having anyone to celebrate our holidays with, my children enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving and the beauty it represented. Nothing mattered more than knowing where home was.
I never felt compromised like friends back home in Gaza said I would…not until Trump came into the picture with his hate and threats. Random and inaccurate accusations started to disturb our lives. With the US being our home now, I knew that after the Paris attacks I’d need to choose my battles as a photojournalist and a single mom. Keeping that balance became a completely different issue than what I’d ever been familiar with in my life.
While my hijab faded away, I am still a Muslim. My children and I were forced not to speak in our native language outside our house for fear of persecution. These were only minor changes, but my children are Americans, and forever will be. They are Americans with an immigrant mother. This is nobody’s fault, just life.
When Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, I held my breath not wanting to fear the unknown. But once the executive orders began showering the nation, it became harder. As a photojournalist, I usually try to remain neutral, but not now. Not when my family and our freedom is on the line.
This past Friday, my daughters were helping me pack their bags with un-needed dolls while preparing our trip to the Netherlands, where I was invited to attend World Press Photo‘s judging panel. This was a great honor; one I never could have imagined while living under closed borders and occupied territories.
As the number of the president’s executive orders increased daily, so did my anxiety. Enough for me to reach out to a lawyer who I knew was passionate about the political situation. I asked her what I thought were the most unbelievable questions: Would I be prevented from returning? Would the fact that I don’t have the same nationality as my daughters matter? Even though I have permanent residency, would I still need to worry about re-entering the country? Her hesitation, and the fact that she needed a long list of information from me, confirmed that this was bigger than I could have expected. Her knowledge of the law wasn’t the issue, but rather the fact the executive order was unconstitutional.
Regardless, I continued packing. A few hours before the flight, I received the call with news that even though the immigration ban was specifically targeted at Middle Eastern countries for which I don’t belong, per US law, being a Palestinian in the US means I have no country. Instead, I’m a citizen of an occupied territory, which puts me in the grey area under this immigration ban.
“But what about my Green Card??” I asked. “I’ll still be detained? I can work. I’m legal!”
It turns out that although I’m legal, I can still be detained and deported. In my unique case with no family in the US, I would be subject to separation from my American children and our fate would be unknown.
Shocked, I hung up and called Lars Boering, the acting director of World Press Photo in Amsterdam. Attempting to sound professional, I explained my predicament, that couldn’t risk everything for a career opportunity that now threatened my freedom and my family. To my relief and in a calm voice he asked me not to risk anything and reminded me of what my career has always been about: the freedom of the press and what we’ve been deprived of in war zones. We agreed to lose this battle and for me not to attend as judge this year, due to the circumstances.
I had flashbacks to every photo exhibition I have been unable to attend, and all the awards I have not could receive in person. Now my American dream that I’ve fought so hard for is jailing me for being a legal, permanent resident.
The President wins. We live in fear again. I can remember how it felt the last time my freedom was jeopardized. Now I have a new idea of democracy, and it doesn’t apply to all humans equally under the law.
I remain legal, as a permeant resident, while my president’s ban is not.