Late last month, Connie, a flight attendant for a major airline, was preparing to board a plane leaving New York when she began hearing rumors about people held at airports following Donald Trump’s executive order barring refugees and Muslim travelers from entering the United States. The president claimed the ban was about terrorism, yet even legal permanent residents were reportedly being detained. It sounded far-fetched to Connie and her co-workers. “People were like, ‘No, that’s not really happening. There’s no way they’re holding up green card holders or people that have already been awarded visas.’” But later she got home and started reading the news. She realized it was true.
Connie, who asked that her last name and the name of her employer be withheld, since speaking publicly about the travel ban would lead to repercussions at work, was born in South America, arriving in the U.S. when she was 2. She has lived in different parts of the country and traveled all over the map, but for the past few years, she’s been based in Atlanta. As a flight attendant, she has developed a sense of empathy for her passengers. “We encounter so many people on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “You always wonder what kinds of walks of life people come from and what experiences they’ve had.” Beyond the initial shock and confusion, the fallout from Trump’s travel ban has been severe on airport workers, she says, many of whom share in the heartbreak and outrage that have led to mass protests, but are unable to express it. “It definitely takes a toll on us.”
The ban, which was immediately challenged in courts nationwide, was halted last week following a ruling by a federal District Court judge in Seattle. On Tuesday, at a hearing before a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Department of Justice lawyers fought to reinstate it. In oral arguments that were live-streamed for the public, DOJ attorney August Flentje argued that the president has vast powers in assessing terrorist threats; when asked by one judge if such determinations are “unreviewable,” Fientje answered yes. The judges seemed unconvinced by the Trump administration’s argument but whatever the ruling, many speculate the matter will reach the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, even as families cleared to enter the U.S. are reunited with relatives and loved ones, much fear remains about what comes next.
Connie was working at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport on Sunday, January 29, when thousands of protesters arrived to rally against the ban. Eleven people had been held at the airport over the weekend, including a young child and an elderly woman, who had since been released. People came in droves, chanting, waving signs, and staying until it got dark. Inside the airline lounge, employees quietly discussed the protests. Many were supportive, Connie said, but were cautious about saying so. “It’s a really weird environment when you’re in uniform, because you have to be very careful about the way you word things, especially when you’re out in public.”
As a progressive, Connie is not new to politics or organizing. She went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and has spent the past several weeks making phone calls to her local representatives in Georgia. But Trump’s executive orders shook others she knows out of their complacency. “You can definitely see people waking up — people that weren’t talking about Trump pre-election, who are taking what he says seriously. And they’re getting nervous.” Among her co-workers, many of whom carry foreign passports, people worry about their own families as well as their passengers, wondering what other countries Trump might try to target. “We worry about the places that we go and how they’re going to treat us being Americans.”
Long before the election, Connie had been deeply dismayed by videos and reports of people being escorted off airplanes just because they were speaking Arabic. As a flight attendant, she says, “that’s where you’re kind of at a crossroads between your own personal human decency and respecting that you’re not representing yourself when you’re in uniform, you’re representing a multibillion dollar corporation.”
In the days after Trump won the presidency, she says, she confronted a colleague who whispered concern about a pair of Arabic-speaking men during a flight to Chicago. The flight had been delayed for hours due to mechanical issues, Connie says; one of the men had approached her, saying they were going to a funeral and were worried they might miss it. The plane eventually took off; as they approached the city, one of the men asked if they could move from their seats in the far back rows to empty seats closer to the front, so that they could exit quickly. “I was like, ‘Absolutely,’” she said. Moments later, her fellow flight attendant quietly asked about the men, telling her that passengers were expressing suspicion. Connie was angered by the insinuation. “If I felt like I was in a position where I was going to put my passengers, my job, my life in danger, then I would say something,” she said. “And this is not what’s going on here.”
With people constantly fed so much misinformation by Trump, it is inevitable that some will feel paranoid, she says. Especially in the South, in the states where people voted for Trump, “I think that now it’s so important for people to stand up and say, ‘No, that’s wrong.’”
One week after the protest in Atlanta, across the state border to the north, Fuad Sharef Suleman and his family were scheduled to arrive at Nashville International Airport, after an 18-hour journey from Iraq. It was Super Bowl Sunday and the game was well underway, yet some 200 people had come to the airport that night to greet them. Suleman had been traveling to Tennessee with his wife and three children when Trump’s ban was announced; they found themselves stopped by authorities in Cairo and sent back home. Suleman was devastated. He had worked as a translator in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, which turned him and his family into a target. They waited two years for a special immigrant visa to come to the United States. When the visas came through, Suleman and his wife sold their home, quit their jobs, and took their kids out of school, ready to settle in Nashville.
In the days after they were barred entry, attorneys, elected officials, and activists with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition called on U.S. officials to allow the family into the country. Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish population in the United States; many city residents wrote letters and called politicians to voice their opposition to the ban. At an evening rally and vigil on February 1 — part of a statewide day of action that saw events from Memphis to Chattanooga — a speaker announced to cheers that the pressure had worked: The Suleman family would be arriving in Nashville within days.
Among those who came to the airport Sunday night was Suyapa Faulk. She stood at the very front of the crowd, holding a sign that said “Welcome” in Kurdish. Faulk is originally from Honduras, but she moved to Nashville in 1993, speaking English with a slight Southern twang. The year she arrived, the city received an influx of Iraqi Kurds targeted by Saddam Hussein, who had waged chemical warfare against the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Working at the Head Start program in Davidson County, Faulk got to know a lot of the small children who arrived with their families. She came to love them all, she says, but “I can’t deny it, my very favorite one was a child named Beimal.”
Born in a refugee camp in Turkey, where her parents lived for years, Beimal grew up in Nashville. As the years passed, Faulk occasionally ran into her around the city: at the middle school where she tutored for a time; at Edwin Warner park, a go-to gathering spot for Nashville’s Kurdish community. Last year, Faulk was hospitalized at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center when she spotted one of her former Head Start students, now an adult, who told her that Biemal was there too, just a few floors away, now working as a nurse in the intensive care unit.
“It was Biemal that taught me how to write Latin Kurdish,” Faulk said, showing me her sign. To Faulk, Trump’s travel ban felt personal, not just because of her own immigrant background, but because of the kids who defined her arrival to the U.S. almost 25 years ago. She realized how much it meant to her that she had helped welcome refugee children to her adopted home. “I am so proud to be able to welcome this Kurdish family,” she said about the Sulemans. “I just wish I could take them into my home and let them live there.”
Just before 8 p.m., the crowd broke out in cheers as Suleman and his family came into view. They began to wave; his wife, Arazoo Ibrahim, held a bouquet of flowers, their daughters held large pink teddy bears, and their 19-year-old son carried a football. As the family received hugs and handshakes, people began chanting, “Welcome home! Welcome home!”
Looking happy and tired, Suleman spoke briefly in the ticketing area. “Today is a very important day in my and my family’s life,” he said. “It marks the first day of my new life in Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States of America.” He thanked everyone who had supported him and his family over the previous week — “especially my fellow Nashvillians,” like Mayor Megan Berry and Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, who stood by as he spoke. Nawzad Hawrami, of the Salahadeen Center, a mosque in South Nashville, welcomed the family to “small Kurdistan.”
With the family exhausted, TIRRC co-director Stephanie Teatro said good night to the crowd, thanking them for their “Southern hospitality.” As people left the airport, Nashville Metro Council Members Brett Withers and Mina Johnson lingered. Withers, one of two LGBTQ elected officials in the city, recalled the struggles of the gay community decades ago. “We had a saying then, ‘Silence Equals Death,’” he said. “And that’s where we are today.” Johnson, the first Japanese-American member of Nashville’s Metro Council, invoked the upcoming anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 executive order that led to the internment of Japanese people on U.S. soil. “We have to make sure that never happens again,” she said. “I’m so happy that Nashville is leading as a welcoming city. I just want to be sure that’s what we are.”