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'Psychological trauma and stress': The lasting impact of the 'Muslim ban'

President-elect Joe Biden said he'd reverse the Trump administration's travel ban on his first day in office. For many families, the damage has already been done.

It has been over two years since Hussein Saleh, 34, has seen his wife and sons.

"It's not easy. You know, I call. I try. I talk to my kids every day," said Saleh, who works at his cousin's gas station near Midway Airport in Chicago.

His boys, ages 4 and 7, are used to only hearing their dad's voice through a phone. They're over 7,000 miles away in his home country, Yemen.

"They say, 'Daddy,' you know, 'when are you coming?' It's hard. I tell them, 'Very soon, very soon I'll come and bring you here with me.'"

Saleh is a U.S. citizen, but his wife and boys can't be here with him. In fact, they've never been to the United States.

"I grow up here, you know. I've been here since I was 13. That's almost 21 years," he said. "You know, this is my country."

After he and his wife met and married in Yemen and had two boys, they began to start a life together in the U.S.

But in 2017, the year they applied for visas, the so-called Muslim ban went into effect.

The executive order, which barred entry for refugees and residents of seven Muslim-majority countries, was one of the Trump administration's first big policy moves. The travel order was found to be discriminatory in court, but the administration reissued it a few times — adding more countries, some of them non-Muslim — until the Supreme Court upheld it in the summer of 2018.

Hussein Saleh and his two sons.Courtesy of Hussein Saleh

Now the travel order blocks citizens from 12 countries — Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Tanzania and North Korea — and some Venezuelan officials and their relatives from obtaining a broad range of U.S. visas.

The Trump administration has cited national security concerns as the reason for the ban. However, data show that over 80 percent of terrorist attacks in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, have been perpetrated by U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Joe Biden can, and is expected to, rescind the order on the first day of his presidency this week. But for many, the policy will have long-lasting effects that can't be undone.

Haya Bitar was in high school when the travel order went into effect.

"I remember watching it on TV, you know, him being inaugurated, him saying those words, 'I'm blocking Muslims and primarily Syrians from coming,'" said Bitar, 20. "Just absolute shock. It's definitely changed my life."

Bitar's family was hoping to leave the Middle East for a better life. She was born in the U.S. and is an American citizen, but her parents and her sister are Syrian.

"We couldn't go anywhere. We can't go back to Syria because of the war. We can't go to America," Bitar said. "It was definitely very, very stressful, extremely anxiety-inducing for all of us as a family."

After a three-year process, Bitar's family was able to immigrate to Canada. In the future, she hopes to reunite with her grandparents, her aunts, her uncles and her cousins who all live in the U.S.

"I do have hope that the Biden administration is going to rescind the ban and make that a priority. There are millions of people just on edge, waiting," Bitar said. "Those four years, the amount of psychological trauma and stress that caused us, it's going to stay with us."

Haya Bitar, left, with her family in Canada.Courtesy of Haya Bitar

In 2018, Moayed Kossa, 30, a pharmacist from Syria, got the best news of his life: He had been accepted to an MBA program at Bay Atlantic University in Washington, D.C.

"I was so happy, because you feel yourself made the step toward your dream," Kossa said. "It's the optimum situation, maybe, for any student in the world to have a visa, to have a scholarship, to be accepted in university in a good place."

Kossa started preparing for the big move.

"I booked my flight. I prepared my bags, and I started to prepare to quit my job," he said.

A few days before his flight to Washington, he got a call from the U.S. Embassy in Jordan, where he was working at the time. At the embassy, Kossa said, his student visa was canceled because of the travel order.

"I never forget this moment, the extreme sadness and the frustration as a human being I felt because I was deprived from the right of education," he said. "I was so close to achieve my academic dream and career."

Kossa said the experience changed him as a person.

"I was shocked, really, and silent. I become a person who is silent at work, with friends, with my ex-girlfriend, even. Because it's not easy. Suddenly they said, 'No, we are sorry — canceled.' Why? 'There is a travel ban. There is a regulation or law in the U.S. called the travel ban, and your nationality that you never — that you didn't choose, it's like the color of your eye, something you don't choose — is the reason why you can't go.'"

Kossa reached out to the university for help, but it said there was nothing it could do.

"I lost a scholarship, I lost the acceptance, I lost the financials I paid to compete for a scholarship, for services, mailing services, for example. But the biggest loss was really psychologically, as a human being, because you see that sometimes life is not fair with no logic," he said.

Moayed Kossa.Courtesy of Moayed Kossa

Even if the travel order is rescinded in the next few days, immigration and human rights advocates demand that the new administration do more.

"In committing to rescinding the Muslim ban, President-elect Biden must rescind policies that further that ban by discriminating against Muslims," said Manar Waheed, senior legislative and advocacy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Waheed worked for the Obama administration before she joined the ACLU in Washington. She said rescinding the order would be just the beginning.

"If we're truly to end banning Muslims, it is much bigger than one order," Waheed said. "It goes to all of the people that have been denied opportunities and access in the last nearly four years. It goes to rescinding every policy, practice and regulation that has been attached to and come out of the Muslim ban. And it also goes to ending the banning of Muslims through other immigration policies, whether we're thinking about surveillance, the monitoring of communities or addressing the hate crimes that people are facing on a daily basis that have dramatically escalated in the last four years."

Waheed said she hopes the Biden administration will do right by those whose visas have been denied or canceled because of the order, as well as families who have been waiting for years to get responses to their applications.

"Will they waive their fees, for example? People who have been waiting for years on end, will they be expediting those people through their processes?" she asked.

The State Department said that in the first 11 months the order was in effect, it denied over 35,000 visa applications because of the policy. Only 6 percent of applicants subject to the order were granted waivers.

For Saleh, Bitar and Kossa, there is hope that things will get better. But their faith in an American Dream has faded.

"You know, this is my dream now, just having my kids and my wife here with me," Saleh said.

Bitar, who is an undergraduate student studying political science in Canada, said: "I do see myself hoping and working towards that, to have a future in the U.S. We have tried so hard to immigrate to the U.S., to contribute to the U.S., and it's always, even before Trump for the Muslim ban, you know, doors have always been shut in our face."

Kossa said: "After this experience, I feel it's not 100 percent guaranteed. Even if you are successful, even if you are qualified, even if you pass everything, even if you are a student, sometimes it doesn't — it didn't work for me."