Mutasim Ali, one of the only Africa asylum seekers granted refugee status by Israel, is taking his story of resilience on the road with an upcoming U.S. tour sponsored in part by the New Israel Fund.
But there’s just one problem: Ali is from Sudan, one of the six countries on President Trump’s revised travel ban of predominantly Muslim nations.
Trump signed his new executive order two days before Ali’s appointment for a visa at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, leaving Ali wondering whether he would be allowed to travel for his tour.
On Wednesday, Ali was relieved to learn that his visa was approved ahead of the ban, which is scheduled to take effect on March 16. But since Ali flies a week later on March, 24 he’s not confident that his troubles are over.
“Even though I have my visa, I might be stopped at the airport,” he said. “Nothing is really certain here until I make it.”
U.S. embassy spokesman Valerie O’Brien said that while she could not comment specifically on Ali’s case, a person in his position should have no problem entering the United States.
“If he is eligible and he did receive a visa, then he should be able to travel,” she said.
Ali will be in the United States until April 8, with speaking events in New York City, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Boston. He is also speaking at Harvard at a separate event.
Ali is still worried that this trip to the United States could be his last, hampering his ability to expose Americans to the plight of African asylum seekers in Israel.
Israel rejects the asylum claims of most African migrants, issuing them temporary permits and imprisoning them in detention centers in the Negev desert, drawing harsh rebuke from human rights groups.
Ali grew up in Sudan, and faced torture for exposing human rights abuses there. In 2009, he fled to Israel through Egypt and was detained for four months in a Negev detention center.
He was let out with a temporary visa that didn’t allow him to work or access public health care. He found an off-the-books job at a plastic factory and later worked as a waiter. He later became the CEO of the African Refugee Development Center.
In June, after years of struggle, he was the first Sudanese national to receive refugee status in Israel. There are four Eritreans who also have refugee status, while another estimated 40,000 Africans live in limbo in Israel.
Assaf Weitzen, Ali’s lawyer said there is a bitter irony to the fact that Ali, a refugee in Israel, may be tripped up by the U.S. ban that will block refugees from Syria and other Arab nations.
“It’s another example of how problematic this ban is,” he said.
Ali’s refugee status in Israel makes his case a complex one. His Sudanese passport expired in 2014 — he hasn’t been there since he fled in 2009 — and he travels using a “laissez-passer,” a travel document for non-citizens issued by Israel. The document states that he was born in Sudan, but marks his nationality as “undefined,” he said.
Since Ali is traveling with an Israeli document and not a Sudanese passport, “he may not even be subjected to any aspect of the executive order,” said O’Brien.
In Trump’s original version of the travel ban, which was halted by U.S. courts, there was concern that Israelis born in Arab countries on the list would be barred from the United States. The American Embassy in Tel Aviv later clarified that these Israelis were excluded from the ban.
If Ali finds himself blocked, he said he will help fight the ban.
“I think this will be another way to advocate,” said Ali. “Most of my focus is based in Israel but I think that I can join the American activists to overturn the executive order.”
Correction, March 9 at 5:30 p.m.: The story was corrected to say that Ali will help fight the American ban, not advocate for open borders in America as previously stated. It also was corrected to say that Ali did not work as a chef, as previously stated. It was updated to say that Ali was the CEO of the African Refugee Development Center.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.