Cleveland's Muslim Immigrants Are Worried About Trump
"I don't want to be banned. Where would I go?... I'll have to learn how to swim across Lake Erie and sneak into Canada."
Donald Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the US and surveillance of mosques, and talked openly about a database of American Muslims. A few of his supporters have held anti-Islam rallies, or yelled death threats at Muslims, or committed hate crimes against them. So as the Republican National Convention kicks off in Cleveland, it's unsurprising that the local Muslim community is a little wary of tens of thousands of people—many of them Trump fans—coming to their city.
"I think my community is afraid. They are concerned about coming downtown," said Isam Zaiem, a Syrian American who immigrated here 46 years ago and helped establish the Cleveland chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). "My daughter is a lawyer who practices downtown and wears a hijab. She's not scared, but has jokingly said that maybe I should walk with her when she's commuting to provide protection. I'm always concerned about her safety because she identifies as Muslim wherever she goes."
The worry Zaiem touched on is pretty understandable considering that reports of attacks and threats against people within the Islamic community have been on the rise in the months since the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan in Paris in November of last year.
This climate of fear has been especially tough for young Muslims who have come to this country seeking asylum like Lynn Midani.
The 25-year-old loved living in Damascus. "It's the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world," she told VICE. "Being there is like being in a history lesson, but there is the modern life too, with taxis and restaurants. Just walking the streets was one of my favorite things to do." But by the time she came to the US four years ago to visit her sister, who had just married an American, the civil war tearing her country apart had become too dangerous for her to return.
"I couldn't go back because there were bombings all the time... I had to stay here and figure out how I was going to start my life over," she said. "I didn't get to say goodbye to my family members, I didn't pack, I didn't do anything, because I thought I was just visiting."
Midani, at least, had reached relative safety in America. Many of the Syrians she knew were not as fortunate. "The first year I was here, I didn't sleep," she said. "One time, I was so overwhelmed by the thoughts of my family in danger, that I fainted and hit my head. I couldn't see for a few seconds. I think I had a concussion. And it was in that moment that I knew I was killing myself by trying to be there when I was here."
Though Muslims like Midani are often fleeing the dangers of war and Islamic terrorism, parts of the European and American right have started seeing refugees as something like carriers of a virus. Though President Barack Obama's goal of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country is a paltry number compared to the masses crossing borders to Europe, and though those refugees are carefully screened, many Republicans think this policy is too lenient. Many Republican governors have refused to settle refugees in their states, and during the primary, multiple candidates blamed last year's Paris terror attacks on Muslim immigration.
No Republican candidate stoked the fears of Islam and Muslims quite like Trump, and his ascension to the top of the party naturally worries people like Isam Zaiem, the CAIR leader, who says Trump signals something troubling about the state of the country.
"America has gone into a deep hole," said Zaiem. "It is sad that Trump, someone who openly speaks as a bigot against all kinds of people, has the chance to become the president. It makes me wonder which direction our country is going."
This fear of Muslims in America has had a profound impact on Midani's experience. It was hard enough living in the US while knowing that so many of the people that she loved were still in harm's way in Syria. But that pain was magnified by the fact that she initially found little love and support here from Americans. Instead, she felt ostracized.
"Right when I came here on vacation, I experienced it. People in Memphis would come up to me and ask me if I lived in a tent or if I rode a camel. I'd have to say, 'No, I live in an apartment, and I've never seen a camel in person.' I realized pretty quickly that people had all these preconceived notions of me."
Ziam views this as a product of ignorance. "The sad part about it is that most of my fellow Americans do not know Islam or a Muslim personally. So, it is difficult to humanize us," he said. "But if you know from experience that these people are human like everyone else, when someone tells you they are crazy or that they hate us, you're not going to take it so seriously."
Midani says that people have accosted her in rage while she's trying to pray, and bosses have gone out of their way to deny her time to observe her faith. This only gets worse in the wake of terrorist attacks like the one that hit Nice, France, last week.
"I had been tutoring a student in French at Cleveland State University. And after the first attack in France at the Bataclan, he came to our tutoring session and said, 'Are you going to kill me now?' I tried to explain to him the difference between ISIS and me and how everything they do is the opposite of Islam. In Islam, if you kill one soul, it is like you killed all of humanity. I wanted him to know that ISIS is killing more Muslims and Syrians than anyone else," Midani said. "The whole thing hurt me so much because he knew who I was, and he still felt he could say that to me. The experience showed me that everything that happens with ISIS or terrorism, it affects me."
Attacks on civilian populations seem to be terrifyingly common at the moment and have been carried out by maniacs with their own motivations and sicknesses. But when the perpetrator is a Muslim, it can lead to a backlash against people like Zaiem and Midani.
"Most Muslims have learned to say, 'Oh God, please don't make him a Muslim,'" said Zaiem. "People assume automatically that because some killer has a Muslim name, they killed based on their faith and not because they are mentally ill. Only white people do things because they are crazy. If you are a man of color, then you're motivation has to be completely different from their perspective."
For Midani, constantly dealing with these notions for the past four years has been exasperating. "It's very unfair that you can't live one day of being normal and not being judged," she said. But it's something that she feels she has to fight by building bridges with people and sharing her story, because the ramifications of this ignorance and fear surrounding terrorist attacks are just leading more people to Trump. And if he wins the election, she worries her entire life could change yet again.
"I don't want to be banned. Where would I go? I can't go anywhere with my Syrian passport. Not a single country would accept me. I can't get a visa... I'll have to learn how to swim across Lake Erie and sneak into Canada." She laughed. "It's funny how unrealistic that sounds now, but it could actually be my reality."
Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.