While most Omaha residents go to the Lauritzen Gardens or the Old Market for a romantic weekend getaway, Deena Keilany finds them to be places that evoke old, overseas memories.
The lush greenery and flowers awaken memories of the flora she would encounter in her childhood; the jungle of tired brickwork revives images of the rustic architecture that lined the streets she would walk with her family.
However, many of the locations of these memories are now either neglected or even destroyed, for Keilany grew up in Syria.
Keilany, a junior studying political science and philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was born in Syria with dual citizenship in both Syria and the United States, due to both of her parents being U.S. citizens. Her family split their residential time between the two countries, shaping a cosmopolitan childhood for her.
“I love Omaha and I love the United States in general. I love the people and the communities that I am involved in,” Keilany said. “I also just really appreciate my family’s culture and the fact that my family has actively tried to preserve that culture within my life and my brothers’ lives. We grew up celebrating Ramadan, but we would also recognize holidays of the two other Abrahamic religions.”
Since the Arab Spring, a series of violent uprisings beginning in 2010 that triggered what is now the Syrian Civil War, she and her family have not been able to return to Syria to see their family.
“In Middle Eastern culture, your extended family is very, very close to you,” Keilany said. “My mom talks to my grandparents every day.”
Another strain on her family has been the series of travel bans enacted through executive order by the Trump administration – all with the harshest constraints on Syrian citizens. In the most recent ban, Syrians, regardless of family connection, would be unable to travel to the United States. The ban was blocked by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland the day before it was supposed to take effect on Oct. 18, 2017.
These constraints proved to be especially heartbreaking during the passing of Keilany’s brother in September 2017. At the time, there was a ban on all Syrians and citizens of six other Muslim-majority countries, except if they had a “bona fide” relationship with a U.S. citizen, which only included immediate family members, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents-in law, daughters- and sons-in-law, nieces, nephews, spouses and fiancés, but no other extended family.
“They aren’t able to come here because they don’t have a ‘bona fide’ relationship with us,” Keilany said. “They watched my brother grow up … but now that my brother’s gone … they couldn’t come to see him, to see my family during this time.”
Additionally, the ambiguity in federal immigration law is making it difficult for those who can come to the U.S. legally, particularly her grandfather, a green card holder. He could not come legally under the first travel ban, could only come legally under the second after a lower court ruled that grandparents did have a “bona fide” relationship, but could again have been barred from travel to the U.S. in the third.
When Keilany’s grandfather took the risk to visit the U.S. in the summer of 2017, the New York City airport security detained him for 24 hours before releasing him after speaking with his lawyer.
“My grandpa is an old man,” Keilany said. “He can’t handle that.”
For Keilany and Syrian-Americans like her, the travel bans and perennial Islamophobia expose a dark attitude of unwarranted vilification.
“It just makes me feel reluctant to say that I am Middle Eastern,” Keilany said. “I am not ashamed about that part of my identity. I just feel that I have to actively obscure that part of me to … secure my own safety.”
Despite the general hostility, she still finds hope. Her passion for civil progress takes root in her objective to work as an attorney and public servant in Nebraska.
“I don’t think that recognizing our differences further divides us in any way … It doesn’t undermine the interconnectedness of our humanity,” Keilany said. “It’s important to recognize the institutions of privilege and oppression that are intrinsically tied to these parts of our identities. I am Syrian-American. I am Muslim. I am a woman. I am a lot of things.”
Her favorite childhood memory in Syria is of her and her late brother, Ferris Keilany, sitting on their home’s covered porch as it rained, coloring with off-brand crayons as the sun rose.
“I’m just grateful for the various intersections of oppression and liberation that these parts of my reality have afforded me,” said Keilany. “I am grateful for my home here and my experiences there.”