Deep in Trump Territory, Iraqi Family Feels "Protected"

Feb 2, 2017

A recent executive order by President Donald Trump places a temporary ban on all immigrants and refugees from seven countries.  One of those countries is Iraq.

Many conservatives support the ban, but it has also led to protests and several legal challenges. 

Niazi and Nahla Altuhafi moved to Springfield, Missouri with their children, Ahmed, Shahad, and Ali, to seek asylum in the United States.
Credit Ali Altuhafi

Niazi Altuhafi spent decades removing tumors and infected tonsils from his patients. Like many Iraqis, this ear, nose and throat surgeon had moved to the United Arab Emirates—just a hop across the Persian Gulf—to seek more opportunity.

But because of his age, Altuhafi was forced into retirement. And in the UAE, if foreigners don’t have a job, they lose their right to live there.

He was faced with taking his family back to Baghdad, where he returned frequently to work at a clinic.

“In 2012, my clinic, me and my brother’s clinic [was] bombed—and three people killed. My wife’s brother, their shop, they [have] a store—bombed and maybe six people killed by car bomb. And killing, killing, killing,” Altuhafi said.

“When they indirectly retired me, ISIS was about 20 miles away from Baghdad. 20 miles. So I said, ‘No way. I cannot go to Iraq.’  Because I would be...I'd be dead,” he said.

By ISIS, he’s referring to the extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Shams.

Niazi and Nahla Tuhafi, Iraqis seeking asylum in the United States, have three children: Shahad, who graduated with a Master's Degree in architecture from Drury University, Ahmed, who graduated with a Bachelor's degree from MSU, and Ali, who is a senior at Central High School.
Credit Ali Altuhafi

His daughter discovered Drury University in Springfield and was admitted as a student.

Niazi, his wife, Nahla, and their other two children also moved here. They went through the legal channels of immigration, they say—and today they are seeking asylum in the United States.

Asylum is defined by the American Immigration Council as protection or residence granted to foreign nationals already in the US who meet the definition of a “refugee.”

Niazi Altuhafi says he understands President Trump’s desire to keep the US safe from extremists, and feels it’s within the president’s right to ban whomever he wants. But Altuhafi is also concerned that the manner in which this order came down will give fuel to ISIS propaganda.

Altuhafi said he is also very concerned about the refugees who have fled their homes because of the chaos and lawlessness in Iraq and Syria.

“People, they are sleeping on the desert. People are sleeping on the ground. They don't have water to drink. They don't have food to eat. They die. They die in the desert. They die in the wilderness, because nobody can help,” he said.

In November, six out of ten voters in Greene County cast their ballots for Donald Trump, who had pledged to do pretty much what he’s done in this executive order. In some nearby counties, Trump supporters made up eight out of ten voters.

Asked if that makes him feel unwelcome or awkward living here, he said no.

"American people, they are great people. We have a lot of American friends. Some of them Republican, some of them Democratic.  I have a friend who told me this not two days ago, and I'm not exaggerating. He said, ‘Niazi, If anybody tries to take you out of this country, I will go to prison for you.’  He will stand and fight, even if he goes to prison. And he is a Republican, by the way,” he said.

Others told him that they would surround his house and protect him from harm, he said.

His son, Ali, is a senior at Central High School in Springfield.  He wants to be an engineer.

In a statement emailed to KSMU, the president of the local NAACP chapter, Cheryl Clay, said her office is seeing a significant "uptick" in verbal taunting and bullying of children from minority ethnic and religious groups. "We have had several reports of students telling other students of different national origins that they will be now be required to leave the country, adopted children being told that they will have to leave their families," Clay said in the statement. But Ali Altuhafi says this has not been his experience so far. 

“No matter whether you’re Republican or Democrat, what I’ve seen from both parties, whoever they support—they’re all incredibly nice. And they care about me. Because the unifying thing, the bipartisan thing that they have is human rights. Everyone is a human being and they don’t deserve to be treated inhumanely,” Ali said.

He said he’s using his freedom of speech in this country to speak for his fellow brother and sisters back in Iraq who might be killed for talking about their hardships.

Niazi and Nahla volunteer at CoxNorth hospital in Springfield.

“I don’t need anything from the government. The only thing I need is a home. A safe home for me and for my family,” Niazi said.

I ask if they’re concerned about discrimination of Arabs or Muslims already in the US, similar to how Japanese Americans were treated during World War Two. Ali’s answer is an adamant, “no.”

“That was a different sort of mentality back then. They didn’t have access to, you know, technology like we do, or, you know, news stations. People’s mentality has changed since 80 years ago, 90 years ago. People have become more aware,” Ali said.

Throughout our interview, both father and son refer to the US Founding Fathers, the Monroe Doctrine and Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy. 

Jennifer Moore is Missouri State University’s Journalist-in-Residence and a KSMU contributor focusing on public affairs journalism.