Nearly a century after my family were torn apart by a US travel ban, history is repeating itself

Forced to grow up separated from his relatives, my Syrian-American grandfather thought racist immigration policies were in the past. He was wrong.

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It’s no wonder that the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties are back in the popular imagination: The United States a hundred years ago was eerily similar to the paranoid “Build the Wall” America of President Donald Trump.

Like today, xenophobia dominated the political discourse, with the native-born population clamouring for restrictions against immigration. With the foreign-born population in 1918 nearing 20 per cent – a similar number to the United States under Trump today – there were renewed concerns of immigrants taking native jobs and diluting America’s racial homogeneity. In the aftermath of World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, there were also fears that foreign “radicals” and “revolutionaries” could destabilise the United States. (Those fears were not entirely unfounded: A Polish anarchist immigrant had assassinated US president William McKinley in September, 1901.)

Under public pressure, congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 that established strict quotas on immigration from Central and Southern Europe, and banned Asians and others from immigrating to the United States.

Though the law was popular among nativists, it caught my Syrian ancestors on the wrong end of the stick. My great-grandmother, a Syrian Christian, had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Her son, my grandfather John Barber, was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1911. Having married young, my great-grandmother hoped to bring the rest of her five children from Syria to the United States after she had received her US citizenship. She was stymied in her hopes by America’s restrictive immigration policies. Arabs, Indians, Japanese and other Asians were declared “non-white” by the Supreme Court in high-profile cases and were banned from admission to the United States. In a sad chapter of American history, some even had their citizenship stripped and were forcibly deported. 

My grandfather grew up with his mother, a lonely child cut off from his roots and closest siblings. He was a tough and troubled kid, who took up boxing in his teens to defend himself against a hostile world. He skipped college so that he could support his ailing mother during the crippling Great Depression. Though he married a Syrian-American, he pined his entire life for a deeper connection with his roots, and with his Syrian compatriots. Syria was an itch that he could never scratch enough.

My mother – who married an Indian academic at the University of Pennsylvania and moved to India in the late 1960s, where I was born – remembers him flipping through the phone book looking for Syrian names when they were travelling around the United States. He’d randomly cold call Syrian-Americans, inviting himself over to their homes for Arabic-style bonding over hummus and stuffed vine leaves. As a college student, I also recall him dragging me over the Thanksgiving break to a concert by the American singer, Paula Abdul, whose ethnic roots are Syrian. He tried to go backstage after the show claiming he was a “relative” but was rebuffed by security.

My grandfather’s loneliness began to ease only in the 1950s, when restrictions against non-white immigration to the United States were finally lifted, and he was able to invite over his brother, and his brother’s family, to Pennsylvania. Other relatives also began immigrating in the 1960s and 1970s, sponsoring their parents and close relatives through “chain migration”, until there was a strong Syrian-Christian community in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley numbering in the tens of thousands. Most of them worked in Bethlehem Steel and other factories. It was the heyday of the American middle class, when blue-collar workers were able to purchase a home, and enjoy other trappings of the “good life” on their salaries. Their children, like my mother, and my aunt, a stockbroker, received a higher education and mostly became white-collar professionals. Today, the Syrian-American community in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley is among the more prosperous immigrant groups in the region.

Towards the end of his life, my grandfather finally became the patriarch he had always dreamed of being. Surrounded by loving relatives who called him Gido (the Arabic name for grandfather), he spent his evenings entertaining, or shuttling between his relatives’ houses for a game of cards, or a Syrian feast. He no longer had to find solace and companionship in the anonymous pages of a phone book. He died a content man at the ripe old age of 90, surrounded by his children, and numerous loving relatives from the old country.

A hundred years after my great-grandmother first arrived in the United States, however, the ghosts of xenophobia past have again begun to haunt my Syrian-American relatives. With Trump’s “Muslim ban” against immigration from seven countries, including Syria, having taken into effect last year, the country’s population is once again locked out of the United States by bigotry and fear.

“The whole Syrian community is up in arms over Trump’s new immigration law,” complains my uncle Sader Issa, who immigrated to the US in 1965, and lives in Pennsylvania. “I’ve lived here my entire life and love this country. Why are we being demonised now?”

He breathes heavily into the telephone before adding, “You’re beloved Gido would be turning in his grave.”

Syrian acquaintances of my uncle flying to the United States last January with immigration papers in order were turned away at JFK, and had to fly back to Damascus. They were only readmitted back to the United States after the intervention of the governor of Pennsylvania.

“Political pressure does help of course,” says Issa. “We are American citizens and our votes matter after all.”

It was once common for young Syrian-Americans to find partners back in the old country, and bring them back to the United States. That’s no longer an option under Trump’s restrictive immigration laws.

Sadar’s nephew, a distant young cousin of mine, Simon Issa, is an American citizen who fell in love with a lovely bride back in Syria, whom he had met in Beirut, one of the few places she could still travel. He was hoping to bring her back to the United States, away from the madness of the Syrian civil war. However, despite spending thousands in legal fees, his dreams have been dashed.

“I’m heartbroken,” moaned Simon on a recent telephone call. “I spent over $3,000 booking plane tickets, and a hotel for our engagement in Beirut only to discover that it wouldn’t be possible to get her a fiancé visa under the new laws.”

Simon has now cancelled his trip to Beirut and also regretfully broken off the engagement.

“We don’t have a future together anymore. Not in America at least,” he admits bitterly.

Unfortunately, my cousin Simon is not the only one whose life has been shattered by Trump’s Muslim ban. CNN and other news outlets have also run stories of American citizens unable to bring their spouses back from countries like Syria, Yemen or Iran that are targeted by the administration’s ban on immigration.

Though some of my relatives once voted Republican, Trump’s immigration ban has turned the close-knit Syrian-Christian community against the president.

The xenophobic Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, with its racist quotas for various nationalities, was only completely repealed in the wake of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. What will it take for Trump’s America to see the light, and stop demonising entire nations in the name of national security?

My Syrian relatives back in Pennsylvania aren’t waiting to find out. While Trump’s America has shut its doors to Syria, some have banded together to help rebuild a church in their ancestral village back in Syria that was partially destroyed in the ongoing war. 

Trump and his base might have forgotten what it means to be a good “Christian” but my Syrian-American relatives haven’t. It is their caring spirit that can Make America Great Again.