Trump ban adds to years of border hassles for Somali-Canadian Olympian

Trump ban adds to years of border hassles for Somali-Canadian Olympian

‘There has to be a better way to address fears,' says long-distance runner Mohammed Ahmed

By Mohammed Ahmed for CBC Sports
February 3, 2017
Mohammed Ahmed, right, and his brother Ibrahim, centre, have both been affected by Donald Trump's travel ban. (Photo courtesy Mohammed Ahmed) Mohammed Ahmed, right, and his brother Ibrahim, centre, have both been affected by Donald Trump's travel ban. (Photo courtesy Mohammed Ahmed)

On the night of Thursday, Jan. 26, I was in Flagstaff, Ariz., with my training group, sifting through my Twitter feed.

I stumbled upon a few tweets mentioning  an executive order from the new Donald Trump administration. The order would completely halt immigration from seven Muslim majority countries. My immediate reaction, like most people’s, was shock and confusion. What? Can he do that? I remember hearing about “checks and balances” in the system, and I remember thinking, “surely a decision that has the potential to impact so many lives cannot be unilaterally enacted overnight?”

I went to sleep that night hoping that it was all a big joke, a continuation of that week’s theme: "Alternative facts." However, in the morning, I watched his tiny hands, with a few long scribbles, pen to fruition the words that had been coming out of his pursed lips for a year-and-a-half on the campaign trail. My teammates and I ate our breakfast quietly, each of us glued to our phone, trying to make sense of it all.

The effects of the executive order did not hit home until after I got back from my morning run. I opened my phone to find multiple Facebook messages, Twitter mentions, DMs, and texts asking how the ban applied to me, if at all. People let me know they were thinking of me in this political nightmare. One of those messages was from my younger brother, Ibrahim, who is completing his master’s degree at Florida State University, having already gotten his BA at South Utah U. His text message included a screen shot of an email from his Lawyer. It read: "Bro, bad news. Because of the executive order my work visa is in jeopardy."

Ibrahim had secured a job offer with Ernst & Young in San Francisco. The work is scheduled to start in August, well before he completes his master’s degree. E&Y has been working with Ibrahim to secure an H1-B visa. Although the email tried to put a positive spin on the news, holding out hope that business immigration would go unaffected by the ban, it is ultimately at the government’s discretion.

Border harassment has been a constant for Ahmed. (Photo courtesy Mohammed Ahmed) Border harassment has been a constant for Ahmed. (Photo courtesy Mohammed Ahmed)

Overwhelming uncertainty

The government decides who it issue visas to, and Ibrahim’s Somali heritage could hinder his chances. What seemed certain the day before became unclear overnight. The executive order adds an overwhelming uncertainty to the lives of so many people.

After I replied to a few messages, I began to calculate the real effects this ban will have on me directly. The worst case will be denial of entry to the U.S. simply because Mogadishu, Somalia is  my birthplace. Even the best case involves more scrutiny as I cross back and forth between the U.S. and Canada to visit family. This is something that I'm not unfamiliar with.

Ever since I was 15 years old, I have been traveling across the Canada-United States border for competitions and training. Living so close to the U.S. border in St. Catharine’s, Ont. — less than 30 minutes from the Peace Bridge — I would often drive to Buffalo Niagara International Airport with my track and field coaches. I would often be harassed and scrutinized at the border patrol and airport — it was almost a rite of passage. I have been flagged by airlines and had to wait at check in counters for my name to be cleared by airport security. I have been denied boarding passes to connecting flights. I have been selected for extra screening more times than I can count.

In my high school days, the running joke for our track and field team at the Niagara Olympic Club was "Moh, when you are going over the border, make sure you travel with Sharon, they won't question you as much if you are next to the "blonde-hair white lady." Jokes aside, it was an added bonus that Sharon Stewart (one of my high school running club coaches) was feisty and always quick to my defence when I received unwarranted scrutiny from officials.

We can almost joke about it now, but there was nothing funny in my initiation to harassment at the border. It was 2009. I was on my way to an official recruiting visit at the University of Washington with my high school coach, Alex Acs. Here I was, an awkward, lanky high school senior, beaming with confidence.

An NCAA Division I school was flying me in for a visit. But as our car approached the border, without warning, I was  yanked out of our vehicle by a pair of 200-pound officers. They were yelling at me and Alex to get out of the car, as if we were enemy combatants. Turns out, there was another Mohammed Ahmed or maybe Ahmed Mohammed, who was a suspected terrorist. (It also didn't help that Alex wore a thick gray beard. I'm sure the situation would have ended more happily if I had Sharon next to me, lol.)


Cultural differences

I have now resided in the United States for seven years. Five in Madison, Wis., while I studied at the University of Wisconsin, and the last two years in Portland, Ore., where I train with the Nike-sponsored Bowerman Track Club. The relatively small cultural differences between America and Canada make it easy for both these places to feel like home. I have made many great friends in America that I would like to continue to have contact with when I move back to Canada. But with so much uncertainty still, it will be some time before I have a clear understanding of the ban’s lasting effect on me.

I understand there are legitimate fears over security, but there has to be a better way to address those fears than by marginalizing an entire group of people. This is something the great Somali poet Suldaan Timacade stressed:

dugsi maleh qabyaaladi waxay dumiso mooye

There is no comfort or warmth in tribalism except for destruction.

I am not an expert on foreign policy and I don’t pretend to be, but at face value Trump’s ban does nothing to improve security concerns. More than anything the ban re-enforces the extremists’ narrative that America is at war with Islam.

This ban has the potential to serve as a recruiting tool for extremists among young Americans who already feel disconnected and isolated from the rest of society. Enacting a “Muslim ban” seems counterintuitive. Aside from the destructive repercussions this executive order could have domestically, the ban hurts the very people who are most affected by extremism…those seeking refuge in America.

I am glad to see people are protesting, and lawyers are volunteering their time to fight against this injustice. When my professional running career comes to an end, I hope to go to law school. Hopefully I will be able to make a difference in issues exactly like the one we are currently facing.

(Large photos by Mohammed Ahmed and Getty Images)

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