In 2010, as the Arab Spring was sending shockwaves across the Muslim world, Brooklyn native Rabyaah Althaibani met Basheer Othman. Othman is a Yemeni journalist who’d spent his career agitating against ideological extremism, and was a natural ally in Althaibani’s network of organizers working to amplify the Middle East’s electrifying call for democracy. But by 2015, their relationship had become much more than a professional connection — they’d fallen in love, and a year later, they headed to India to get married.
Now, a Trump presidency and a battery of travel bans later, they’re still fighting for Othman’s paperwork to be approved so he can join her here in America. And as an outspoken advocate of secular ideas, Othman has been stuck in Malaysia since January — unable to go home to Yemen for fear of brutal political retaliation and barred by the hotly-contested executive orders from entering the United States. Like Malaysia’s many refugees, Othman isn’t legally permitted to work, forced to live off his savings while petitioning to get back to the wife he’s seen only a handful of times since their wedding. Unable to write or file stories, all he can do is wait.
Althaibani came to America when her family emigrated from Yemen in 1985. She’s lived in Brooklyn and Queens ever since, building a career in the nonprofit housing sphere on top of her work as a civil rights activist. She’s in her late 30s, ready to start a family and sink happily into the small pleasures of being a newly-wed. But instead of spending weekends cooking and introducing Othman to her friends, Althaibani uses her time off to rigorously contest Trump’s punitive series of travel bans — the 3 executive orders that have shut out visitors from Muslim-majority nations, including Yemen, and that implicate a staggering 200 million people across the globe.
Though the future of Althaibani’s marriage rests on President Trump and his administration’s policies, she’s certainly isn’t giving up. Along with a flurry of speaking engagements and protests aimed at raising awareness for the families torn apart by this legislation, she’s telling her heartbreaking story in an inspiring new documentary, American Uprising: Muslim Ban. (You can watch it above.)
By joining forces with Muslim activists like Linda Sarsour, Althaibani sees her own struggle as part of larger movement to combat the resurgence of Islamophobia. “We refuse to go back into the shadows,” she says. “There’s a lot of sacrifice, for sure, of our time, our resources, and our safety. But I really believe this is the civil rights moment for Arab Americans, and that’s the silver lining that’s motivating me.”
“I will never abandon him. He hasn’t given up on me, so I’m not giving up on him.”
Still, the staggering distance between the couple takes a painful toll on both of them. Unable to do more to expedite her husband’s case, Althaibani is burdened by a nagging guilt, along with the worry that they made the wrong decision — that Othman might have been able to find asylum in another country besides the United States, and, there, finally start over again. “It’s like a rollercoaster ride. It’s hard enough being in a long-distance relationship, but after the ban it feels like all the plans we’d made were smashed,” she explains. “We want children, but we’re not getting any younger. I know he loves me, but there’s so much uncertainty about the future. Your life just stops, and the loneliness is so isolating. But no, I will never abandon him. He hasn’t given up on me, so I’m not giving up on him.”
Instead of dwelling on the hurdles still facing her marriage, Althaibani is quick to point out how her own grief aligns with the battles of targeted groups across the country, from the Women’s March to Charlottesville. Through her story, she’s spotlighting all the ways the Trump administration has sought to curtail the rights of vulnerable citizens, and especially women — like the GOP’s relentless efforts to squash abortion access or withhold federal funding from Planned Parenthood, to name just a few. “This hate for women, for poverty, for people of color, it’s not going to scare me, it just gives me more fire in my belly,” she promises. “And I’m not going to allow this to happen. White supremacists and Neo Nazis aren’t picking and choosing who they target. We’re all in this together.”
And, in a way, the energy of her fight has helped Althaibani stay close to Othman, in spite of the uncertainty and the endless separation. “At the beginning of the ban, I thought I needed to go silent on social media. I was worried I’d hurt Basheer’s case. But he told me no, even though he was scared too. I love this country, but I have to be critical, because if I’m not, I’m not being true to myself.”
There is a unprecedented wave of social protest across the United States. DIVIDED FILMS is partnering with Refinery 29 on AMERICA UPRISING, a journalistic documentary project tells stories of protest organization through first-person perspectives. It examines the tactics they are using, the policies they are protesting, and the policymakers they are resisting.
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