Trump’s Travel Ban quiets a Syrian Voice for Women

Award-winning Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim is unable to enter the United States due to the travel ban administered by President Trump last month. Accompanied by several other Syrian women, Erhaim was set to tour the United States, screening the second part of her documentary “Syria’s Rebellious Women.”

Erhaim produced the documentary with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and was further funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which promotes freedom, democracy, and the protection of human rights.

The same State Department, which originally funded the trip during the Obama administration, is now barring their entrance onto U.S. soil.

“Syria’s Rebellious Women” features a rare view of strong, resilient women facing the atrocities of the 21st century’s deadliest war, while also combating the social constraints of living in a male-dominated society with conservative traditions. The documentary depicts these women fighting and working on the frontlines.

One woman who was interviewed, Zein Al Sham, discusses her time in prison under terrible conditions, where she was forced to watch a male prisoner get raped by one of the guards. Today Al Sham and women like her engage in relief work and advocate for the women of the war. The documentary focuses on media portrayal of Syrian women solely as victims of the crisis.

The State Department did not return MediaFile’s email requests for comment.

Erhaim told MediaFile that Syrian civilians are the real victims of the Assad regime, terrorized by their own government. Yet these civilians are the ones “accused of being potential rapists in every airport.”

Since the Syrian conflict began, Erhaim has continuously been interrogated at airports when travelling, despite being an internationally accredited journalist.

“Travelling with an international press card doesn’t cover my crime of being a Syrian,” said Erhaim.

Erhaim explains that kind of discrimination which “bans the frank voices trying to report the human side of the Syrian story leaves space for other extreme voices to fill the news hole.”

“This makes it easier to spread hate and stereotypes,” added Erhaim.

Erhaim is not the only international journalist affected by Trump’s travel ban. Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad is unable to visit her family in England as an exiled journalist in the U.S. Alinejad told The Guardian she would be unable to enter the U.S. with her Iranian passport due to the ban.

“I am neither a terrorist, nor a murderer. I am merely the victim of a repressive government.”

In September of last year, Erhaim’s passport was confiscated by British authorities at the request of the Syrian government in Damascus. Her documents were returned to Damascus and Erhaim was forced to use an older Syrian passport of hers to return to Turkey. With no pages left in her passport for visas, Erhaim is still residing in Turkey, blocking her work as an activist.

Erhaim’s work is revolutionary in Syria. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Erhaim has helped establish many of the new emerging independent newspapers and magazines in the wartorn country.

“[Erhaim] has trained about 100 citizen reporters from inside Syria, approximately a third of them women, in print and TV journalism,” Margaux Ewen, RSF’s Advocacy and Communications Director for North America, told MediaFile. “Many of Ms. Erhaim’s students, from all walks of life, have been published in major international news outlets.”

Erhaim, who has previously written for BBC Arabic, Orient TV, Al Hayat newspaper and the Middle East Eye, holds a master’s degree in international journalism. She was awarded the Reporters Without Borders Prize in 2015, as well as the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in 2015, for her work.

Signed last month, Trump’s executive order halts US refugee admission for 120 day, places an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, and a 90-day visa suspension on those traveling from Muslim-majority populated countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

The ban is currently under review following a denied appeal and the Trump administration is exploring options of rewrite or the modification of the order.

Erhaim’s work, and that of all the women involved in the documentary, aims to reinvent the media’s portrayal of the Syrian war, specifically with regard to the victimization of women.

For Syrian women, Erhaim’s message is clear.

“You may well be forgotten when history is written. I just want to prove that you were there.”

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