By Saira Khan
It was around 30 degrees on Saturday and the crowd in front of me at John F. Kennedy Airport appeared to be in the thousands. People were packed into a space across Terminal 4 (international arrivals) and more were lined up along the bus stop and taxi stands. Some had already been standing and chanting for nearly five hours. There were people overlooking the crowd on all levels of the parking garage. An upside down American flag hung from the fourth floor, someone had spray painted a peace sign and “no borders” onto it. I made my way in, unsure of what to do. I was alone and didn’t have a sign. I was able to find a spot on the third floor of the garage where I planted myself for the next few hours. I didn’t know what to expect at the protest but I do know I wasn’t expecting what I saw.
On Saturday morning, I woke up feeling a sense of dread and anxiety that I haven’t felt since last year, when I learned that my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Late Friday, Donald Trump signed an executive order fulfilling his campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the United States. The order temporarily bans travel from seven Muslim-dominated countries for refugees and visa-holders. There are reports that the White House is looking to expand the ban to include Pakistan, which is where I am from, and where my parents currently reside. The order makes an exception for persecuted religious minorities; Trump later clarified that he specifically meant Christians.
My sister texted me early morning, “Baji, this Muslim ban is really scaring me.” I had no words to comfort her. As American citizens, the executive order doesn’t affect us yet but the sense of otherness it is fostering is real and immediate. I was born in Pakistan and have spent most of my life in the United States. My sister was born in the U.S., has spent most of her life in Pakistan, and recently moved to New York. Trump’s executive order is ostensibly about religion, but it feels racial. It’s hard to dismiss this as mere politics; it’s personal.
When, late Saturday morning, I saw a handful of tweets and Facebook posts from activists, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, and immigration organizations calling on people to gather at Terminal 4 to protest the executive order and stand in solidarity with those being detained, I knew I had to go. I needed to do something to shake the loneliness and helplessness I was feeling.
I spent the early afternoon speaking with friends who were immediately impacted by Trump’s order: people who have been told by their lawyers to cancel travel plans for the immediate future, people whose families can no longer visit them, people who feel the effect of this ban so deeply that they worry even voicing these concerns publicly will result in retribution.
By the time I made it onto the A train to JFK, around 4:00 p.m., it was full of protesters with signs declaring their support for refugees. “We are all refugees,” read one, “No more hate,” read another. Upon arriving at Terminal 4, I was greeted by four NYPD officers in full riot gear. The protesters were nowhere in sight. Outside, there were dozens of officers and a steady stream of flashing red and blue police lights. Further ahead, I heard the faint chants of protesters. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but as I got closer the size of the crowd became apparent.
A week ago, I had attended the Women’s March in New York City, for which the turnout was approximately 400,000. While it was empowering to march with women for our rights, I did not feel the sense of solidarity and emotion that I felt on Saturday. The crowd at the march appeared to be largely white, and, historically, white feminism hasn’t been sympathetic to people of color (much has been written about this, so if you want to know more I recommend reading this and this.) I felt no bond and no sisterhood with the strangers marching with me. I expect all the women and men I know to fight for my rights as a woman, but I have lower expectations from people when it comes to fighting for my rights as a Pakistani woman of Muslim-descent. Our struggles, as women of color, aren’t their struggles and thus it’s easier to talk about gender than it is about race.
I was expecting anywhere from two dozen to 100 people at JFK. I’m not much of a crier and I surely don’t cry in public, so when I saw the size of the protest at Terminal 4, which appeared to be over 1,000, and my eyes welled up with tears, I felt naked and vulnerable.
In the garage, as the temperature continued to drop, my fully-charged phone stopped working and my hands became colder. A young woman handed me a packet of hand-warmers. Another woman handed me a bottle of Gatorade, “to stay hydrated,” she said.
I didn’t chant at the protest. I couldn’t bring myself to. I stood there, mostly in silence, at the top of the parking garage, taking in the crowd, and felt the sense of dread I had woken up with slowly melt away. I saw women in hijabs, men in yarmulkes; there were black people and white people and brown people all around me. This wasn’t a protest for overarching women’s rights. This was a specific protest against an executive order that discriminates against a specific sect of people—it’s likely that many of those in attendance weren’t directly affected by Trump’s ban. The ones who came out that day had cancelled their plans and stood in the cold with no purpose but to voice their dissent. As a woman of color, macro- and micro-aggressions tinge every aspect of my life. I’ve learned to expect the worst from people. On Saturday, this expectation was challenged.
While I was at the airport, my sister was at Cadman Plaza, in Brooklyn, awaiting Judge Ann Donnelly’s ruling on an emergency challenge to the order by the ACLU. It was shortly before 9:00 p.m. when the stay was granted.
“When I got here there were a few dozen, now there are soooo many,” my sister texted me.
(In all the rejoicing, it’s important to remember that we still have a long battle to fight. The stay blocks only part of the executive action: it prevents the government from deporting people who arrived in the United States during this chaos, or people who were already here. The stay does not state that they must be allowed into the country; another hearing is set for Feb. 21. And we still don’t know what is to come from this administration.)
I made it home around 8:50 p.m. and my sister came home shortly after the ruling was issued.
“How’re you feeling now?” I asked her.
“I cried a lot and I’m still really scared about what’s going to happen. But I feel a lot better. Does that make sense?” she asked.
“Yes, it does.” I said. And I meant it.