Anna, her aunt, the wheelchair lady, her two cousins. Sign made by child of a Boston-area attorney (Photo: Anna Ansari)
Anna, her aunt, the wheelchair lady and her two cousins. Sign made by child of a Boston-area attorney (Photo: Anna Ansari)

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What it really felt like to be caught up in the travel ban

UK-based lawyer Anna Ansari helped her aunt travel to the US amid the chaos of Donald Trump’s travel ban. She tells her story to Helen Nianias

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By Helen Nianias on

The news has been relentless over the last few months, but no event inspired quite so much anger and frustration internationally as Donald Trump’s travel ban. The executive order was hastily rushed out on January 28 – and mayhem ensued. Visa and Green Card holders from seven Muslim-majority countries were denied entry to the USA, left stranded in airports across the world and terrified they would never be able to see loved ones again; terrified that they would be marked out as terrorists because of the kind of passport they hold.

Thousands of people were affected by the ban – a melee of bureaucracy and dog-whistle racism – in ways they had never imagined. One such person was Anna Ansari, a lawyer from Michigan living in London. She had a classic apple-pie Midwestern childhood and never felt particularly out of place, despite the fact her father was originally from Iran. However, she found herself an unlikely hero when her aunt – desperate to go to the US for what everyone knew would be her last visit – tried to travel from Tehran just days after the ban was announced.

A friend from the Yale immigration clinic said to Ansari: “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s not going to be allowed on the plane and she’s not going to be allowed into the country.” Nobody knew what was going on, so when Ansari found that one airline was allowing Iranians on just two flights between Germany and Boston, she believed it was their only chance. She booked herself on a flight to Frankfurt and then on to the Frankfurt-Boston flight to help her 84-year-old wheelchair-using aunt with the journey. “This was like the last transport out of Casablanca,” she says.

Ansari quickly updated a Facebook group for lawyers explaining how she was navigating her way round the ban. Soon, her inbox filled with messages from other people with Iranian relatives, asking Ansari to look after them and represent them in case of emergency. She soon found herself running around Frankfurt airport, holding a sign with different names on it, while looking for her aunt and fielding messages from people looking for her.

“I ended up helping a woman who had a child with a heart condition,” she explains. “The mum was a visa-holder, but the child was a citizen, and she was nervous because there had been accounts of a five-year-old kid in LA being handcuffed for hours. They were very nervous, because they needed to get back urgently, as the child required medical attention.”

A new executive order banning people from entering the US is due next week and Ansari has already heard stories of Iranians in Dubai having their US visa appointments cancelled

Once they had boarded the plane, Ansari tracked down the people she had promised to represent once they landed. At this point, the court had just decided to suspend Trump’s travel ban, but that didn’t provide any peace of mind. “Some people hadn’t been able to get on the flight, so we didn’t know whether customs would let us through. No one knew what was going on, including airline staff – there were still Green Card holders being stopped and interrogated for hours upon entry.”

Some of their fellow passengers had extraordinary stories – the Iranian sisters who were on their way to Harvard were on the flight, along with at least six Syrian refugees. “Nobody slept, nobody read, everybody just sat and waited. My aunt was scared Trump would make her go back to Tehran,” Anna says. “It was potentially a last transport out.”

Once the nervous travellers disembarked at Boston’s Logan International Airport, Ansari waited at the back of the crowd and instructed people to tell immigration officers that they had the right to be there, that they had their documents in order and – what’s more – to gesture behind them and say they had a lawyer present. They were met on the other side by balloons and lawyers and relatives, and everyone Ansari was helping got through, including – of course – her aunt.

Now the shock of the ban has subsided, it’s given way to fear that she was never really accepted by white Americans all this time: “My cousin was egged in Louisville, Kentucky, the day after the election.” Her father was too afraid to put a Hillary sign on his lawn in his Trump-dominated neighbourhood for fear of retaliation. “If he were a white person, would he feel the same way?” she asks. “I now think, ‘All this time, did you not want me here?’”

A new executive order banning people from entering the US is due next week and Ansari has already heard stories of Iranians in Dubai having their US visa appointments cancelled. I ask Ansari why she helped so many people when it would have been much easier to just not, especially when there could be other situations like this in the very near future. “I just think, ‘Who wouldn’t do it?’”

The only thing necessary for the triumph of good is for everyone to do the most they can. Let Ansari’s story be an inspiration.

@helennianias

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Anna, her aunt, the wheelchair lady and her two cousins. Sign made by child of a Boston-area attorney (Photo: Anna Ansari)
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