The joke did the rounds among Iraqi university students the day after President Trump ordered a travel ban in January on seven mainly Muslim nations – including Iraq.
“Hey, are you aware that we are banned from going to America? Congratulations, we are suddenly terrorists!” recalls Mohammed Salh Qadir, a third-year international studies student at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS).
Iraq was removed from the revised executive order Mr. Trump signed this week, after legal challenges struck down the first version.
But the effect on students here has nevertheless been immense, from upending dreams of further study and travel in the United States, to raising questions about their perception of what America represents as an enlightened, diverse, and welcoming model. It has been felt across Iraq, where Iraqi and Kurdish security forces are integral to the US-led coalition now fighting to dislodge Islamic State (IS) militants from western Mosul, the jihadists’ last urban stronghold in the country.
The effect has been especially acute at AUIS, which was founded a decade ago in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq, to impart American-style liberal arts values in the classroom. With its gleaming, newly built campus and lofty ambitions of producing Iraq's leaders of tomorrow, AUIS symbolizes the promise of what postwar building in Iraq can bring, in terms of US- and Western-style modernity.
“It was a big shock, because so many people from here go to America to do their PhDs and masters degrees, and I was going to do that,” says Mr. Qadir, whose minor subject is law.
What surprised him more, he says, is the irony that, even as Iraqi and Kurdish forces are fighting IS, “the citizens they were defending are now [seen as connected] with terrorism, and are now on the same line as IS, while we are just fighting IS.”
“We’re fighting; we say that America is our ally,” says Qadir, who was volunteering this week at the Sulaimani Forum, an increasingly high-profile annual conference of regional politicians, officials, academics, and journalists hosted by AUIS.
“I still think, and I still believe, and I still consider America to be the beacon of civilization, liberalism, freedom, and ideas that can change the world for the better,” says Qadir, sharing, like other students, his personal views. “But that [order] surprised me because we don’t expect to be treated like that.”
The blanket nature of the original order raised questions for Iraqis, as much as for citizens of the other nations affected.
“You cannot label a nation a terrorist nation. There are good Americans, bad Americans. Good Iraqis, bad Iraqis. Good Kurds, bad Kurds,” says Barham Salih, the founder of AUIS and a former prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and deputy prime minister of Iraq.
“In fact, none of the terrorist incidents in the United States involved Iraqis, per se. It begs a lot of questions,” says Mr. Salih, who spent years living in the US and UK.
“People who come here to Kurdistan, we have to really exercise a lot of vigilance … otherwise you don’t have security,” says Salih. “But can you say, ‘We will ban Arabs’? No. So you have to look out for the bad guys; this is a matter for the Americans to decide.”
The Trump decision transfixed Iraqis, as they heard stories of citizens – some of whom had worked for US forces for years as interpreters and other jobs, during the post-2003 American military occupation of Iraq – refused entry or denied visas.
“All the city was watching TV, to know updates about the ban, to know if it was true or just a rumor,” says Linda Karim Ghafor, a second-year international studies student at AUIS, and another Sulaimani Forum volunteer.
Her plans to get a master’s degree in the US or Britain, focusing on gender inequality, childrens' rights, and the environment, are now less certain. The chaos of the initial travel ban, she says, affected her bid for a six-week summer visit to the US called the Iraqi Young Leader Exchange Program – a course for which AUIS students are often given priority, because of the American links of the university.
But they all must get visas, and go through an interview process, with the bar of success now raised much higher after the travel bans.
“That makes questions in your mind: Is it because we are Kurds? Because we are Muslims? Because we are Shiites? Because we are Sunni?” asks Ms. Ghafor, whose older sister is an AUIS graduate and who, like Qadir, is also pursuing a minor in law.
“We have dreams, we have hope [to use] the education we get here to change our country, to travel [to the US] to have a lot of experiences,” says Ghafor.
“Because when you see diverse cultures different from yours … you will take the good parts and try to do it in your country,” she says. “We want to change, and part of the change might come from our experience in Western countries. So if we are not allowed to see that, it will be a barrier to our education.”
One concern is that the US ban might cause a knock-on affect, with other countries also shutting their doors. Still, as a student of international studies, Ghafor says she recognizes the US need to protect its own people.
“If it’s for a short period of time, to solve the refugee problem, to stabilize the security of the country … that is normal, though they are protecting their country in a way that we might not agree with,” says Ghafor.
Rescinding the travel ban on Iraqis was a positive step for Qadir, and he intends to pursue further study in the US if he can. But reports of racist incidents – including the February shooting of two Indian tech workers at a bar in Kansas, who were apparently mistaken for Iranians – worry him.
“The prospect of it, actually, I am afraid of, because anything can happen,” says Qadir.
“I am so pro-American. I support America and its efforts in bringing stability, and we are allies with them,” he says. “And suddenly if somebody doesn’t like you because you look Middle Eastern, and I’m suddenly perceived as someone who hates America, while I’m not – then it doesn’t feel good.
“Hopefully the American people will themselves understand that the reality is different,” he says.