Maher Eltarhoni envisioned getting married with his mother and father standing nearby.
The metro area structural engineer and native of Libya said his dream of having his parents attend his 2018 Tulsa wedding were dashed due to the Trump administration’s travel ban barring individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for a period of time.
President Donald Trump’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” meant the Eltarhonis wed without his parents in attendance.
Eltarhoni said he was glad when President Joe Biden repealed the travel ban but he can’t get his wedding day back. He still remembers the pain he felt in knowing that despite the good character of himself and his parents, he couldn’t find a way to get them from Libya to America.
“My parents couldn’t make it here simply because of the ban. They checked all the boxes for a tourist visa,” Eltarhoni said. “They wanted me to move forward and they called me that day, but that put a damper on the whole wedding.”
In addition to Libya, the travel ban also included Iran, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
According to U.S. State Department figures, more than 40,000 people were refused visas because of the travel ban. People who received opportunities to travel to the U.S. through a lottery system had to be vetted and have their visas in hand by Sept. 30 of the year they are chosen, or they lost out. Many of the people who were refused visas included lottery winners and people trying to visit family, those traveling for business or personal reasons and students accepted to U.S. universities.
Meanwhile, Eltarhoni came to Oklahoma in 2009 to attend Oklahoma City University and became a U.S. citizen in 2017. He said the travel ban’s impact on his family didn’t stop at his wedding. He said his brother, a civil engineer, had planned to work on his doctorate at Eltarhoni’s alma mater OCU. Eltarhoni said his brother was excited to get an interview to obtain a visa but “they looked at his passport and gave him a denial letter.”
“To me, this was a big deal because he didn’t even get a chance. They were able to quote the (Trump) executive order and he was given a complete dismissal,” Eltarhoni said.
He said said his sister won an opportunity to travel to the U.S. through the lottery system but she was initially denied entry due to the travel ban. He said there’s still a chance she can come to America, he’s just hopeful the timing of her lottery system win doesn’t prevent her from doing so.
“I’m a very hopeful guy. I think people here, when they talk about immigration, they forget that we have people here that are in between. These are good people,” Eltarhoni said.
Repeal is ‘a start’
Two Oklahoma City area Muslim leaders said they were also happy to see Biden repeal the travel ban.
Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said he knew the ban was to be reversed by Biden on inauguration day.
“It’s an insight into what kind of person he is and what kind of values he holds, that he found it extremely important to sign an executive order to undo something that disenfranchised and demonized the Muslim community, whether it’s here or overseas. It says something about his values that he put that on his agenda for his first day,” Enchassi said.
Adam Soltani, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma chapter, said the ban’s reversal was good “because undoubtedly, and it’s been well documented, that former President Trump’s intentions were not sincere and that he essentially was fulfilling a campaign promise in attempts to bar Muslims from entering America, which really is just along the lines of racist, white supremacist rhetoric.”
However, Soltani said there are some things the repeal can not undo.
“President Biden has done the right thing, but we’d be fooling ourselves as a country if we think this is going to undo four years of hurt and pain and suffering that people have gone through because there have been so many families that have been ripped apart by these actions — parents separated from children, spouses separated from one another” he said.
Soltani said one of his cousins from Iran was in the process of coming to the U.S. to study for her doctorate and the travel ban thwarted her efforts. She ended up pursuing her graduate studies in Spain.
He said one unfortunate aspect of the travel ban was that America’s diversity was reduced in terms of people of different colors, cultures, educational backgrounds and talents.
“We are country that is built on diversity, and I think we are successful because of our diversity and without it, we wouldn’t be who we are,” he said.
Soltani said the Muslim travel ban was a “‘huge step back,” and just one of many actions by the Trump administration that emboldened hatred and division in the U.S. It came at a time of heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric and made things worse.
“Essentially that cannot be undone with just the reversal of the Muslim ban, but it’s a start,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.