Faisal Alhaddad idolized the United States as he grew up in Saudi Arabia.
“When I was young, it was my dream to come to the U.S.” he said.
At 19, he’s living that dream as a sophomore at Pierce College in Lakewood.
But Alhaddad’s American education might come to a halt if he left the country for any reason in the next three months.
Alhaddad is a citizen of Yemen — one of seven countries President Donald Trump banned entry from for 90 days to give federal agencies time to develop a stricter screening system.
A three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld a Seattle-based federal judge’s order that allowed previously barred travelers and immigrants to enter the United States.
“I can’t go home, and my family cannot come,” Alhaddad said last week. “So, I don’t know what to do.”
Alhaddad arrived in America in the fall of 2015, just as the presidential campaign was heating up.
A cousin in the United States helped him with the paperwork needed to apply to Pierce College and for a scholarship through the Department of State.
Other cousins, newly returned from the United States with an education and English skills, first planted the dream in Alhaddad of one day studying here.
Since his arrival, Pierce College and Tacoma have exceeded his expectations, he said.
“I like the people here, friendly,” Alhaddad said. “They make you feel like you’re not from another country. You’re the same — the teachers, the students.”
Soon after Alhaddad’s arrival, then-candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric became increasingly loud. In December 2015, he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
“I was scared. I was really scared,” said Alhaddad, who is Muslim. “I don’t know what to do.”
He considered leaving the country if Trump was elected. Alhaddad called his father. Dad’s advice: stay put.
Shortly after the November, election Alhaddad went to his University Place mosque to pray. When he returned to his car, he found a note on it.
It was a letter from some non-Muslim community members expressing their support for the Muslim community.
“I felt safe,” Alhaddad recalled. “It feels good.”
GROWING UP YEMENI
Alhaddad’s father moved the family to Saudi Arabia from Yemen to start a jewelery business in the 1990s. Alhaddad was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up there in a Yemeni community but cannot become a Saudi citizen.
“I feel Yemeni,” he said.
Yemen is a small country on the Arabian and Red seas, bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Culturally, Alhaddad said, it’s very similar to Saudi Arabia. Both are Muslim-majority countries and residents speak Arabic.
Alhaddad’s family, which includes five sisters and one brother, often traveled to Yemen to visit grandparents and other family.
“Every vacation, my dad say, ‘Where do you guys want to go?’” Alhaddad recalled. “The whole family say, ‘Yemen.’”
He wants to be a businessman like his father and cousins. But being a Yemeni in Saudi Arabia made his chances of a higher education there virtually impossible.
Unless you know someone in the university system or can afford the high tuition costs, you’ve got to go elsewhere, he said.
“It’s cheaper here,” said Alhadad, who shares an apartment with friends.
When he’s finished at Pierce College, he hopes to attend the University of Washington Tacoma. As long as he keeps studying, his visa remains valid.
Alhaddad has been honing his English skills in Pierce College’s Intensive English Program.
The program’s manager, Chris Waraksa, said Alhaddad is serious about his studies.
“He’s someone who is an all-around good student and an asset to our program,” Waraksa said. “I hope he can keep studying without any interruption.”
NO HARD FEELINGS
The travel ban came as a shock to Alhaddad.
Since arriving in the United States, he’s traveled home three times. Future trips are now on hold.
Alhaddad’s mother was planning a trip but canceled her plans after the ban was put in place.
He’s nervous about the possibility of future restrictions but is heartened by the fact that the ban is only 90 days.
He wants Americans to know the Yemen they see on social media isn’t the country he knows.
“They make like we are terrorists,” Alhaddad said. “We are not like that. We are never going to be like that.”
Life in Yemen is like America, he said.
“We go shopping, we go to the restaurants,” he said. “People play soccer.”
Trump’s rhetoric and the travel ban has not hardened him against the United States.
“It’s not like the whole America say that,” Alhaddad said. “It’s only one person say that.”
The people of Tacoma have made him feel safe and welcomed, he said.
“So, for me,” he said, “it didn’t make any difference what Donald Trump say.”
And with the nonchalance equal to any American teenager he added, “I’m cool with that.”