Earlier this week, Donald Trump proposed his now-notorious policy that the United States should ban all Muslims from entering our borders "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." That statement is the latest in a stream of vitriol that, as ridiculous and implausible as it is on the one hand, also reveals the extent of Islamophobia that many in the United States have ignored, and many Muslim-Americans have lived with for decades.
The statement hit on me on a particularly personal — and unique — level. First, I am a 25-year-old Arab-American. This means that 9/11 happened when I was 11 years old, and I quite literally came of age in the post-9/11 era. For me, that also meant that, overnight, I went from being part of a "model minority" class (if not white) to being positively brown. That gave way to an adult life full of extra security checks at airports and inquiries into the extent of my Middle Eastern background, despite my U.S. passport and unmistakably American-accented English.
Second, I am a foreign correspondent based in the Middle East. Over the past year, I have been working between Beirut and Istanbul, extensively covering the Syrian refugee crisis — which is only a crisis because some passports allow for freedom of movement, and others do not (in case you missed it, Syrian passports do not).
I don’t think he understands that a lot of Syrians are trying to flee ISIS — not join ISIS.
Donald Trump — and, apparently, a lot of other people — think my friends do not deserve to be safe, because they might be part of ISIS, and at this point are not worthy of even visiting, much less seeking refuge, in the United States. It is even unclear what Trump thinks about people like me — U.S. passport holders living overseas who could have "suspicious" origins.
I decided to use Trump's latest gaffe against Muslims at large as an opportunity to ask a few of my Syrian friends about what they really think of him — and of U.S. politics in general.
"Seriously, I posted a photo of a pile of shit with his face on it on my Facebook," H. said. "My friends asked me how I could post something so disgusting — but it is the same feeling from me. How can they, in the United States, put something so disgusting as Donald Trump in [the] media and let him speak?"
Evidence cited by Turkish authorities suggests that the Islamic State group has a quiet presence in Gaziantep, the city that H. now calls home. While it is difficult to fathom the extremes that Trump would go to if faced with such a close — and tangible — threat, Gaziantep, a sister city to Aleppo, has welcomed Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war and now has one of the highest concentrations of refugees in the country, well into the hundreds of thousands.
Donald Trump — and apparently a lot of other people — think my friends do not deserve to be safe, because they might be part of ISIS.
"I don’t think he understands that a lot of Syrians are trying to flee ISIS — not join ISIS," said Dina, a student from Aleppo who is now living in Beirut. "It is pretty scary he is trying to be the president of such a powerful country."
Abed is a radio journalist originally from Aleppo who is now based in Gaziantep. As a journalist, Abed said he spent the summer obsessively covering the refugee crisis by breaking stories of sinking boats and closing borders for both a general audience as well as his own friends and community — many of whom left everything behind to make the journey and seek asylum in Europe.
His own close-up view of the crisis is one reason Abed said he is horrified by Trump's stance.
"He has no humanity — especially when it comes to Syrians," Abed said. "Also, he seems to live a snobbish life separated from reality. These kinds of people have no idea what is really happening — and he doesn’t want to know, and he does not care. He is cocky and arrogant, and doesn’t love anyone except himself."
"He is such a racist," said Mohammad, a photographer from outside of Damascus now living in Belgium.
Mohammad is part of a small minority of Syrians who have been able to apply for temporary asylum in Belgium due to a need for specialized medical care. Mohammad has undergone treatment for multiple war injuries, but he said that before his asylum application was approved, he spent months in Beirut navigating a multitude of United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) bureaucracies before he was able to board a plane — largely because he holds a Syrian passport.
However, Belgium is one of the countries with more inclusive asylum policies, particularly for Syrians. Meanwhile, getting asylum in the United States — even without the proposed amendments from the likes of Trump and other Republican candidates — remains a far-off dream for most Syrian refugees.
I love this guy, because he makes me laugh so much at what an idiot he is.
Meanwhile, Salem — a Syrian journalist living in Istanbul — has a more lighthearted take, though he is still shocked that Trump is a viable presidential candidate for the United States.
"I love this guy, because he makes me laugh so much at what an idiot he is," Salem said, laughing.
And while Donald Trump equates refugees and Muslims coming to the U.S. with terrorist groups such as ISIS, Salem regularly risks his life to report stories inside Syria. Salem said he hopes to use his films to show that there is a real difference between Islam and extremism to a Western audience.
"But, really,” Salem asks, thinking about Trump again, "has he ever left the United States?"
Refinery29 is committed to covering the human beings behind the headlines of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis. Read the full multimedia feature Behind the Headlines: Daughters of Paradise here. More coverage on the human faces of the world's refugee crisis can be found here.