RJ with her cousin. Photo: Shireen Ahmed
Last fall saw massive change, mobilization and unrest with the U.S. presidential election. Among the more ordinary, downright benign things that also happened, RJ, my 15-year-old daughter, started with a new soccer club. I knew a new president with a strident agenda might affect certain aspects of our lives north of the border, but I didn’t realize just how much. I certainly didn’t think it would impact my daughter’s soccer career.
We are a family of athletes. I am a soccer player and I’m married to a basketball player. All four of my children have played competitive rep sports. We’ve travelled to Ohio, Michigan and New York state numerous times for tournaments and sports events. RJ is a goalkeeper, a position that requires constant and effective communication with other players, so we looked forward to this season’s tournaments and exhibition games—these bonding opportunities only strengthen their force as a unit.
But I worry that the current political climate will limit her chances to play. This year, everything is different. Previously, there was no Executive Order issued by the sitting American President to question, detain or reject people from Muslim-majority countries. Previously, the mobility of thousands of innocent citizens was not restricted.
We are practising Muslims—and identifiably so. We have brown skin and my daughter and I choose to wear hijab, a headscarf that covers the face and neck. When she started wearing a hijab, I never thought it would limit her athletic opportunities. But being under suspicion simply because we’re part of a global community of more than 1.6-billion Muslims, is, well, distressing can’t even begin to describe the feeling. Our faith and our race singles us out. It makes us feel less than welcome, although we are guilty of nothing more than choosing to practice our religion in a manner that’s meaningful to us.
Earlier this month, RJ had a soccer tournament and showcase in Buffalo, New York. While RJ remained focused on training with the team, I had to mentally prepare myself. I couldn’t help but play out the worst-case scenarios, and the constant stream of reports of horrible injustices against Muslim men, women and children at border crossing and airports was not helping.
After one practice in the lead-up to the trip, I approached the head coach. We have been so warmly welcomed by everyone on the team and the coaching staff; I fought back tears as I explained that because of our faith and what we looked like, we could face issues at U.S. Customs. He understood the possibility that RJ might not make it to the tournament, and was angry that this was even a discussion our family was forced to have. “She’s travelling with a Canadian passport, right?” he asked incredulously. “Of course” I replied. “It’s the only one she has.”
It is inconceivable to me that this is something I have to worry about. I was born in Canada and so were my children. My husband was born overseas but not in one of the seven countries named by Trump’s executive order, and he’s been a Canadian citizen since he was three years old. I remain unconvinced that this ‘security’ policy is based on anything other than xenophobia.
It’s worth pointing out that in the last 15 years, the most dangerous terrorists in America have been violent white men. Any kind of gun violence resulting in the deaths of innocent people is incomprehensible and terrifying. I find it even more frustrating that my community is treated with suspicion and malice.
As RJ and I drove toward Buffalo in the freezing rain, we had a different kind of pre-game pep talk. Instead of reminding her to stay off her line, focus while in net, and only drop-kick the ball to her teammates once they were downfield, I was grilling her on her rights as a Canadian citizen.
We were fully prepared. We had a dossier of documentation, including a copy of the travel permit on the soccer club’s letterhead, the team roster, a printout of her match schedule, a waiver from the Western New York Flash soccer facility, and a letter co-signed by her father. We had the names of two female lawyers (close friends of mine) and a number for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs—just in case.
RJ told me I was “overreacting,” but I needed to ensure that we had everything we needed for the worst case scenario. I explained what to do in case we were separated. I her repeat words after me so she could memorize, “I am a child and will not speak with you until I have an adult to represent me.” My heart sank lower each time I asked her repeat it. I told her to be strong and that we would be fine. She knew I was slightly frazzled. We had good reason to be anxious.
The same weekend we were travelling to New York state, Yassine Aber, a Canadian-born student-athlete, was denied entry to the U.S. for a track and field meet. He was travelling with his university team. His parents are Moroccan, but he is not from one of the flagged countries and has no criminal history. Aber was detained for hours until it was determined that he was not allowed to enter. He is not banned from the U.S. but he had to miss the meet. I can imagine the disappointment he felt at letting his team down and the humiliation he must have endured—for being a young, brown, Muslim man.
Although the ban has been halted by American courts, it still worries me. My daughter has dreams of playing in the NCAA, and possibly even professionally. But she will not have the same opportunities if she’s denied entry into a neighbouring country—like Aber was. It makes me wonder what lessons our kids are learning about fair play. Sports are supposed to transcend culture, race and religion. What does preventing them from participating say about equality in society?
Young Canadians frequently travel to the U.S. for sports and educational excursions, but it has gotten to the point where some school boards have suspended all regular trips to the United States. Recently, a school in Windsor, Ont., was to visit the Holocaust Memorial in Farmington Hills, Michigan for a special Anne Frank exhibit—tragic irony that an experience meant to teach children the importance of humanity and justice has been cancelled.
Last Sunday, as we approached the customs booth, my stomach was in knots and shoulders tight. I whispered a supplication for perseverance to myself in Arabic that my Mom taught me when I was little. RJ sat up straight in the passenger seat and shut off the music. I looked the officer in the eyes and kept my voice even and clear. The officer checked our documents and waved us through; he even wished my daughter good luck with the game. RJ playfully admonished me for having been so stressed out. I didn’t tell her that I saw her legs twitching nervously as I spoke to the agent or noticed how she cringed when we passed homes with “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” lawn signs.
After the first match, a few parents asked how we did at the border. I explained what happened and sympathized about how awful it is that Muslim families have to go through this, when our children are simply interested on goal-scoring—or in RJ’s case preventing goals from being scored.
It’s brought up discomfiting issues of identity and forced us to have conversations that strip away the innocence of our children.
RJ’s team has a few tournaments scheduled for the spring but none in the U.S.—so far. I will be cautious about travelling for some time now. The current system seems to be causing chaos but not taking RJ would also be unfair. Why should she lose out on a shot to perform to her best ability because of unjust political practices?
She has been raised to be very proud of who she is—a young Muslim woman and an athlete. Those two identities complement one another. Her father and I have supported her activities since she was a toddler, and we will continue to support her as long as she wants and needs. Until then, I keep a prayer for protection close to my lips. RJ knows it off by heart as well. I’ve seen her mouth the words it as she stands solidly in between the goalposts. We are going to need it.