Fear, uncertainty

Travel ban will keep Syrian student’s parents from commencement; may even bar him from U.S. return

By Billy Liggett

Omar Hourani left Syria in 2009 at the age of 17 to join his brother and sister in the U.S. and one day, he hoped, earn a degree from an American university. His time at Campbell has been difficult, and not for the typical stresses that accompany the college experience.

Hourani has had to watch from afar as his country has fallen apart during a brutal six-year civil war that has devastated the capital city of Damascus — where his mother currently lives — and has led to the rise of ISIS, today considered the world’s most dangerous jihadist group.

His latest worries, however, are American-born. President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order banning all visitors and refugees from Syria and suspending travel from other Middle Eastern countries has cast serious doubt on whether his parents will be able to see their son walk the stage in person. Even worse, it’s possible Hourani — just months away from earning an MBA in accounting — could be banned from the country due to an expiring passport and uncertainty of his own ability to re-enter the U.S.

“It’s tough to hear that you might not be able to return and finish your final semester,” says Hourani, whose passport expires in April, a month before his scheduled May graduation. “I’d been worried all semester about my parents not being here, and then out of nowhere, I find out I may not be here either. It’s stressful.”

As of the printing of this publication, Hourani says he hopes he can return to Jordan — where he received his passport and a country not included in the proposed travel ban — sometime this spring to renew it and return to the U.S. to finish out his final weeks of school. Even if this complicated process goes well and he can return, Hourani still worries that his mother in Syria and his father in Kuwait won’t be able to visit for his commencement (Kuwait also isn’t on the travel ban, but his father is Syrian).

“My mother doesn’t have a green card, so it’s doubtful she’ll be here,” says Hourani. “I’ve been in college since 2009. She’s been waiting for this day for a long time.”

His biggest fear is that she’s in Syria at all. While tensions and fighting in Damascus have eased in recent months, the city was at the center of Syrian’s civil war beginning with the Battle of Damascus in 2012. Bombings and rocket launches (both from and at the city) became the way of life for its citizens.

“It’s a new reality. This is how Syria is,” Hourani says, matter-of-factly. “My mom is used to it. The other day, I asked her how her day was, and she said, ‘Oh, I woke up because of some bombings nearby, then went back to sleep.’ The view from her home is a war zone. When she looks out over her balcony, she sees a part of the city that’s almost been completely destroyed.”

Hourani and his siblings have asked their mother to leave, but he says she loves her home and her city. She’s optimistic things will continue to get better.

“She wanted to visit a friend the other day, but there had been a bombing in that area,” Hourani says. “So she had to think about it — she still wanted to visit that friend because she was afraid the friend would be sad or angry she didn’t show up. She actually had to think about it.”

In his time at Campbell, Hourani has taken up writing for the University’s student newspaper, The Campbell Times. He’s had a regular opinion column that often provides his views on American politics and their effect on Syria and the Middle East. When (or if) he graduates this May, he will begin work as an accountant for his father’s company in Kuwait.

The Arab Spring

In 2015, Omar Hourani wrote a column in The Campbell Times about life in Damascus before the civil war in Syria, before the turmoil. The following is an excerpt:

Outside the old district, Damascus was an energetic city that never slept, and the Damascenes loved life. Restaurants, cafes, parks, amusement parks — all stayed packed until the mornings. Even on school nights, I would leave the house at 1 a.m. to get snacks, only to find the shops crowded, even by families and children. This has never ceased to amaze me.

By tradition, all families and friends visited each other’s houses, sometimes unexpectedly. The Damascenes had boasted proudly of their history, traditions and nation.

Nevertheless, this picture of stability was more like a desert mirage, hiding a sinister reality. People would grumble about deteriorating living conditions, and there would be hushed whispers of government corruption and embezzlement.

The Arab Spring was instigated. This was all a ticking time bomb waiting to burst.