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Proposed travel ban could have significant impact on Jonesboro businessman

Ahab Alammar has lived the American dream. The 28-year-old was born in Syria, but when he turned 13 his family was able to secure him a visa to come to the United States. He was the only person in his village of about 5,000 people to get one.

Since he moved to the U.S., he graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in integrated system engineering. He owns or is the primary investor in seven businesses in Jonesboro and Columbus, Ohio. Those businesses employ more than 100 people. President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration ban might stop Alammar’s fiancée, Lilian, from coming to the U.S., he told Talk Business & Politics.

“I fiercely want to protect this country. I love this country. It has given me everything,” Alammar said. “No Syrian has committed a terror attack in the U.S. as far as I know. My fiancée is not a terrorist. She is a pharmacist. She wants to move here and open a pharmacy.”

Trump issued an executive order to ban travelers from seven majority Muslim countries in late January. The ban was initially set for a 90 day review period to allow the government to vet its own vetting procedures when it accepts people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Trump administration officials have repeatedly said the order isn’t a Muslim ban, and the regimes in these countries are extremely volatile. There is a fear a terrorist cell could locate in the U.S. from one of these countries, travel ban supporters argue.

Federal judges in Washington state, and Virginia blocked the ban as unconstitutional and the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the ban’s blockage. Trump vowed last week to rewrite the executive order. The new order is expected to be signed by the president this week.

Ahab Alammar, Jonesboro business owner.
Credit Talk Business & Politics

A record number of Muslim refugees entered the U.S. in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. At least 38,901 Muslims or 46% of total immigrants entered the country last year. Syria had the largest number of refugees with 12,486 followed by Somalia with 9,012, Iraq with 7,853, Burma (Myanmar) with 3,145, and Afghanistan with 2,664. During the last 15 years the U.S. has admitted 279,339 Muslim refugees, or about 32% of the refugees admitted, according to Pew. During that same period about 400,000 Christians have been admitted, nearly 46% of the total.

The Obama administration set a goal in 2016 to place at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. The previous president’s administration had hoped to resettle a total of 110,000 refugees in the U.S. in 2017, but those efforts could be undermined by the ban. Many Syrian refugees have been relocated to cities along the U.S. eastern seaboard and in other cities such as Detroit and San Francisco. Arkansas has had very few refugees resettled, but an organization, Canopy Northwest Arkansas, petitioned the federal government to resettle 100 refugeesin The Natural State in the fall of 2016. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at the time he had safety concerns, and he complained that the federal government didn’t provide enough information about the refugees.

Syria is war torn, and Syrians are fleeing their homeland at an unprecedented rate, according to Mercy Corps. It’s estimated there are 11 million people have fled to the country in recent years as it has been torn apart by a civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his opposition forces. Isis, the self-proclaimed Islamic State controls large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq. The organization has only added to the turmoil and carnage in the region.

An estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed during the conflict that has raged since 2011, according to the United Nations. Millions of people have been displaced. Al-Assad has publicly supported the ban.

Alammar has experienced violence in his personal life, firsthand. His father was murdered while returning from a work trip to Saudi Arabia. When his mother remarried a Syrian-American, it opened a door for him.

“It was like winning the lottery,” he said. “I can’t tell you how it changed my life.”

The young Syrian toiled in fast food restaurants and worked other odd jobs in high school to earn money. He kept the first $100 he earned and would go to stores just to see what he could buy with it. He quickly learned he needed to save his money, and not waste it on frivolous endeavors.

“When an opportunity presents itself, you must be ready,” he said.

While he was still in college, Alammar began building his businesses. He opened Mangos, a Hookah bar in Columbus, Ohio. He invested in two used tire companies, and he also formed a partnership to open an athletic gym in Columbus. After college, he got a job working as project engineer and shift manager at Unilever, a company that makes everything from brand name soaps to mayonnaise. The company operates a plant in Jonesboro, and he moved to Northeast Arkansas’ largest city several years ago.

In between his shifts at Unilever, the entrepreneur continued to run his Columbus-area businesses and he opened Mango’s Café, another Hookah bar. He also opened Mango’s Grill, a cocktail lounge and he bought a gas station. He’s is now in talks to buy a carwash, and possibly another gas station, he said.

Last summer he traveled to Syria to visit with friends and family. During the trip he met Lilian, a 23-year-old pharmacist student. She lives in Al-Swaida, a town near the Syrian-Jordanian border. Alammar and his fiancée are not Muslim. They belong to a faith known as Druze, which is closely allied with a similar faith in Israel. Druze has been maligned by Muslim and Christian groups in the region. Alammar said he doesn’t consider himself highly religious, but he wanted to marry someone with a similar cultural background.

The couple planned to wed in November, but those plans have been upended. He visited a lawyer to explore his options, but until the order is reinstituted he doesn’t know what will happen.

Alammar initially supported Trump’s bid to become president. He cited Trump’s business accomplishments as a reason to support him. As the presidential election neared, Alammar became wary of Trump after a series of statements about banning certain ethnic groups such as Muslims. He was also shocked when a video was released in which, Trump said he gropes women whenever he wants because he’s famous.

Until the new order is released, Alammar can only wait.

“I never would have thought a (U.S.) president could affect my personal life,” he said. “In this country you work hard and you can achieve anything,” Alammar said. “What he is doing is like what dictators in the Middle East have done for generations. Trump is becoming a joke, and it’s a reflection of our country. U.S. Democracy is being tested … I can’t control my own destiny right now.”

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