let there be no exceptions

words: peter macia

photography: nils ericson

As a matter of course, there are very few distractions at Yaya Village, the sprawling resort complex on a hilltop above Addis Ababa. In recent years, the privacy provided by its isolation have made the “runner’s paradise” a winter refuge for some of the best endurance athletes in the world. On January 14, 2017, four-time Olympic gold medalist Mohamed Muktar Jama Farah, aka “Mad Mo” or “Mobot” to his fans and followers, arrived with a coterie of coaches to work his lungs and legs in preparation for the IAFF World Championships, to be held in Farah’s home city of London this August. Farah was scheduled to train in Ethiopia before returning to Portland, where he’s under the tutelage of famed Cuban-American running coach Alberto Salazar at Nike’s Oregon Project.

Midway through that training sabbatical, however, Farah woke to news that he could not go home, at least not his American home, where his wife and four children waited for him. While Farah slept, U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisors had hastily implemented an executive order that denied entry to legal visa and green card holders from Yemen, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia, in addition to a four-month ban on refugees from anywhere in the world, in order “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.”

Though Farah has been a British citizen since age eight, he was born in Mogadishu, and this dual nationality had apparently swept him up in the wide net cast as the fulfillment of one of Trump’s most disturbing campaign promises.

And so Farah ran. He ran far and fast, as he had almost everyday since childhood. He ran because it is his job to run. Farah looped the track at Yaya Village, and with each long and deceptively easy stride, his feet kicked up that distinctive clay dust covering the track’s surface. Anyone who has spent any time on red soil like this—whether in America’s Carolinas or the eastern shore of Vietnam or equatorial Africa or the humid middle of Brazil—knows that it becomes mnemonic. You find it months, maybe years later under the beds of your shoes, in the seams of your clothing, settled into your life’s most essential items. If you continue to travel enough, you see it in many other parts of the world, and It reminds you that wherever you may be you are not on some foreign planet but a piece of earth’s thin skin divided by rough waters.

Farah has carried this red clay dust around the world time and again, and his experiences have not only enriched the lives of those near to him, but all of those who have watched him run, from kids on every continent to Her Majesty the Queen. A grain or two may even still tumble near the finish lines at the Maracana and Wembley Stadium, where Farah won double golds representing Great Britain.

Farah ran because it is his job to run, but he stood because he is a human being. Two days after Trump’s executive order, Farah posted a response on his Facebook page, probably not far from that red clay track:

Under public pressure partly due to the spread of Farah’s statement, Britain’s
Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, rushed to claim that Britons "remain welcome to travel to the US," but that was not entirely true. Britons with dual citizenship in any of the named countries may not enter the United States if departing from any of those seven countries. Farah’s camp subsequently released another statement to the BBC. “Mo is relieved that he will be able to return to his family once his current training camp concludes,” it said. “However, as he said in his earlier statement, he still fundamentally disagrees with this incredibly divisive and discriminatory policy.”

Farah is exemplary, one of a few high-profile cases being championed by the media and celebrities since the ban, along with Iranian Academy Award nominee Asghar Farhadi, a few academics, and many of the Iraqi interpreters who have worked with U.S. soldiers over the last decade. Their stories and statements have spread quickly across social media. These stories have helped people to understand the complexity and breadth of the travel ban, and they have shown that no person is immune to the discrimination of the executive order.

But it is important to recognize that exemplary stories such as Farah’s are the exception. Stories of Yale doctors and men willing to risk their lives to translate English for our troops do not speak for the majority of Somalis, Yemenis, Iranians, Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, and Sudanese who have come or desire to come to the United States. Many of these cases will be resolved because of their exceptional nature, as Farah’s was. However, when we hold these exceptional stories up in defense of immigration according to American ideals, we make two mistakes.

First, we do an injustice to those who will come here and become one of the most of us—the teachers, small business owners, laborers, middle managers, service workers, journalists, and politicians who will be our neighbors, co-workers, friends, spouses, mothers and fathers to our children, and defenders of our ideals. These stories also give us the latitude to excuse our discrimination when we make room for the exceptions only, when we give visas and green cards to elite athletes with marketing appeal or medal potential, or make special allowances for future Olympic games or World Cups held here.

When we say that the immigration ban will deny us the next Mo Farah, we are placing the onus on every immigrant, Somali or otherwise, to become not only exceptional among immigrants, but exceptional among Americans. We are telling immigrants that they have to be perfect, impeccable, infallible, and most importantly, different from a majority of existing Americans, who are far from perfect and infallible. These are standards that most of us wouldn’t apply to our own children, our spouses, our friends, let alone ourselves.

Second,  by applying these standards we neglect our duty to defend those who need us most, the ones without publicity or politics on their side. These standards then become the well-intentioned parallel of the standards to which Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Jeff Sessions are holding all citizens of those seven countries: that they must all be held accountable for the exceptionally criminal and dangerous among them.  We cannot apply these standards to the majority of immigrants whose mere arrival on these shores is a lifetime achievement that exceeds most of our wildest American dreams or to those who merely wish to witness firsthand what these dreams actually look like.

The U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and all of United States’ foundational narratives and mythologies tell us that we are to do the opposite of make exceptions. We are to embrace the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of teeming shores, the homeless, the tempest-tost. We are to embrace the refugees, the asylum seekers, especially those who have waited years being vetted while our presidents wage war in their countries, and we are to embrace them with no regard to their birthplace or religious beliefs. This is not a liberal, progressive, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Socialist, partisan, or political belief; it is written clearly into our laws. We have failed to fully defend these laws in the midst of past wars and strife, and if we allow ourselves to defend only those exceptional immigrants and visitors to the United States, we will fail once again.

If we succeed in remembering our principles and defending the Constitution, we encourage and enable all immigrants to do their best and impart the best principles of American society to their children and communities, in the hopes that one of their children may become, say, a heroic Olympian or the President of the United States. We can also encourage and enable all immigrants to learn from our past misdeeds, so that they can become the ones who show us the best path forward, as past generations of immigrants have shown us since the inception of the nation. We also encourage and enable visitors to the United States to become ambassadors of goodwill, challengers of our self-perceptions, and inspirations to further broaden our conception of America’s future. Those of us whose ancestors were fortunate enough to come here from foreign lands by choice are morally and legally obligated to pass that inheritance to all who come to this country after us. And if we do this, when the child of an immigrant does reach exceptional heights, we can expect the best from them, because they can represent the best of us.