TWIN FALLS, Idaho—Sofia Ali escaped the war in Syria four years ago, but now faces a new type of threat to her safety in “America’s heartland.”
Ali and her family resettled as refugees in Twin Falls, Idaho, with the promise of starting a new life in a free country. What Ali found instead was a town where she doesn’t feels free to wear her hijab or express her religious beliefs openly without fear of harassment.
“People are openly racist here, and I no longer feel safe wearing my hijab in this place,” Ali says, holding back the tears.
The situation got notably worse for her in June of 2016, when a fake news story purported that three Syrian refugees raped a 4-year old girl at knife point in Twin Falls. The story, which was picked up by Infowars and Drudge Report, was later debunked on all counts—there had been no rape, and no Syrian refugees were involved. But the damage was done. A wave of fearful xenophobia had been unleashed that continues to make waves a year and a half later.
Ali says she thinks some people still want to believe that Syrians were involved in a gang rape to justify their racism.
“So they can have a story to tell and say ‘this is the reason we hate refugees….or this is the reason it’s bad for us to have refugees in the United States,’” she told me.
But let me back up a little. I first met Ali two months ago at a refugee symposium at her college in Idaho. She approached me during dinner and spoke in Arabic in the Syrian Damascene dialect. She kept telling me how happy she was to meet someone who speaks her language, and how much she misses her friends and family back home. I knew right away there was more to the story behind the sadness and passion in her eyes, hidden behind her big red glasses.
Towards the end of dinner, I asked Ali how is she adjusting to her new life in Twin Falls. That’s when the tear started. “I had to take off my hijab a month ago,” she explained, going into detail about the racism she has been facing since Trump’s election.
That conversation stuck with me for the rest of my trip. I kept thinking of Ali and what she was experiencing in Trump’s America.
I wanted to help raise awareness about what people like Ali are going through, so I flew back to Twin Falls with a producer from Fusion TV so Ali could tell her story in front of a camera.
Ali first shared her love for America, and told me how her dreams had become real by being resettled in the United States.
“When I first came here, I thought this is a country that is known for its freedom. You can practice the religion that you want, and you can be what you want,” Ali told me.
But little by little, Ali’s dreams were shattered as random people insulted her in the street with openly racist remarks about her hijab. “I was walking to Walmart with my sister for the first time in my life, when a bunch of high school boys started yelling at us—’Hey do you have a bomb under that? Don’t blow yourself up!’” she recalls.
I can relate to Ali’s stories. I grew up in Chicago, where I too experienced intimidation and harassment from brazen racists on the streets. The first time I was wore the hijab, at age 12, I walked out of my apartment building full of joy and ready to show the world my pink polka-dot hijab, when a guy opened his car window, flipped me off with his middle finger and yelled, “Go back to your country!”
I was confused and hurt, but decided then to keep going about my business undeterred by the racists. I spoke the language, knew how to respond, and was never approached by people with guns.
Ali, however, is still new to this country, where she’s just trying to survive and start a new life in peace after fleeing the horrors of war in Syria. Ali’s hijab is a piece of home; it’s her comfort in this new world that she was placed into—and now it’s something she feels she can no longer have.
“Since I was a kid, I was wearing it; it’s part of me. For me to take it off is like taking off my identity,” she said.
Ali told us a story about how one day she was walking to her job as department store cashier when an older white man approached her with a gun tucked into his waist. “He pointed in my home’s direction and said to me, ‘I see you walking from there to here everyday, why is that?’ Not knowing what to say, I froze. Then I answered him, because he had his hand on his gun,” Ali says, adding that she never reported the incident to police out of fear.
Ali says she didn’t feel safe at work, either.
“An older white guy once came in, threw a t-shirt and twenty dollars at me, and started to tell me to go back to Sudan,” she said. Ali quit her job and said she’s not going to try to find new work until she moves to another state, where she can feel more accepted.
She’s not clear where that place is in Trump’s America.
“I want to be safe. I don’t want to think of how I will be safe, or what I should do or say when these things happen,” she said.
Tune in to next Tuesday’s Feed to see Ali’s story.