Khaled Almilaji seems like the kind of immigrant you’d love to welcome into the United States. A doctor who played a pivotal role in containing the spread of polio in his native country, he came to the United States to get a master’s degree in public health at Brown University last fall. During winter break, he went to Turkey to work with local aid organizations.
So the above short video, which tells the story of Khaled and his wife, Jihan, sounds like it should be a happy tale of an immigrant success story. But instead, it’s heartbreaking.
You see, Khaled is Syrian. Between his departure and his scheduled return for the next semester, President Donald Trump banned Syrians from traveling to the United States. Shortly thereafter, Khaled lost his visa and was prohibited from returning to continue his studies. Jihan, meanwhile, lives alone in New York.
“I was informed by the consulate in Istanbul that my visa was revoked,” Khaled tells an interviewer from Snapdragon Films, the company that made the video. “I wasn’t given any reason.”
There’s no plausible explanation other than Trump’s executive order. And despite the ban being put on hold by US courts, Khaled still has not received a new student visa. And the Trump administration is preparing to issue a new executive order in coming days — one that might better stand up to legal scrutiny, and thus keep Khaled out the US, and away from his wife, even longer.
The heartrending details
Khaled isn’t just a doctor; he’s a refugee from the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo. In 2011, during the anti-government protests that preceded the civil war, he was arrested by the Assad regime. During his six-month detention, he was tortured — but still somehow managed to provide medical care to other tortured detainees. Afterward, he fled Syria but still worked to set up underground hospitals in rebel-held areas and helped organize a network that vaccinated 1.4 million children against polio.
Jihan, for her part, cannot leave the United States. She’s also a student and also Syrian. Most importantly, she’s 10 weeks pregnant.
“I’m on my own,” she says in the film. “I don’t have family here; I’m glad I have friends.”
Jihan and Khaled’s story has been told before, in official Brown University press releases and print publications. But watching them tell it, in their own words, with little in the way of editorializing from the filmmaker, is a profoundly moving experience. At various points during the Skype interview, it sounds like Khaled is on the verge of tears; when Jihan talked about her pregnancy, near the end of the video, I have to admit I was, too.
I should say I’m a little close to this. Brown is my alma mater, and I just got engaged. A story about a Brown student being separated from his wife hits a little close to home.
But I don’t think you have to have that kind of connection to care about what happens to these two, or to see why their story matters. The Trump administration is planning to issue a new version of the travel ban, one that White House aide Stephen Miller promises will “have the same basic policy outcome” as the one that has kept Khaled from coming home.
When you think about that idea, keep Jihan and Khaled in your mind. A new executive order modeled on the old one could mean banning a brave doctor from studying in America and separating a husband from his pregnant wife — all in the name of a security threat that barely exists.