John Dhoul and Mabeny Naam started playing basketball in 2013, just two years after South Sudan, where they were born, gained its independence. Gifted athletes, the boys, who are sixteen and fifteen, respectively, were among twenty-five students selected last fall to attend the Athlete Institute, an élite training center based in Mono, Ontario, that plucks promising young players from Canada and around the world to train and then funnels them into top collegiate programs and, ultimately, the N.B.A. (Jamal Murray, of the Denver Nuggets, and Thon Maker, of the Milwaukee Bucks, are alumni.) It’s a sort of hoops-centric boarding school with over sixty thousand square feet of basketball courts, residence halls, gymnasiums, and workout space. For both Dhoul and Naam, the flight to Canada was the first time they’d ever been on a plane.
The opportunity was extraordinary. South Sudan, a landlocked country that has been in a near-constant state of civil war since its founding, could offer nothing for boys of their talents, nor the opportunities to train with and play against similarly skilled athletes. But since they arrived in October of last year, Dhoul and Naam have missed twenty games against teams in the United States. Their exclusion is one of many ripple effects of the two travel bans imposed on people from several Muslim-majority countries by President Donald J. Trump. Although South Sudan is not on the list of countries whose citizens are excluded, Jesse Tipping, the president of the Institute, said that “it was unclear” if the boys, who come from Christian families and are in Canada on student visas, would be allowed in. Tipping said he has not reached out directly to the U.S. Embassy but was working through immigration attorneys, who expressed concern. “So we didn’t want to take any risks.”
“It’s disappointing to not be able to travel with the rest of the team,” Dhoul said. “They’re like a family to us.”
Trump’s latest travel ban was just blocked by federal judges, but the Administration is sure to appeal. The federal judge in Hawaii who issued an injunction on the second, narrower ban, said that any reasonable person would conclude that it was meant to “disfavor a particular religion, in spite of its stated, religiously-neutral purpose.” These are surely the most onerous efforts to challenge Muslim (and, unintentionally, non-Muslim) foreign athletes, but they are not the first. In Texas, the Iman Academy SW, an Islamic school in Houston seeking participation in a local sports league, received a series of charged questions from organizers, including whether the school considered Jews and Christians to be “infidels.” The Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad helped increase the profile of athletes who compete in a hijab, but many girls and women still face harassment for doing the same. (This month, Nike announced plans to market a high-performance hijab.) And, in spite of their accomplishments, many Muslim athletes are still dismissed. In 2015, responding to former President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address that hailed Muslim athletes as “heroes,” Trump tweeted, “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?” (Muhammad Ali may be one place to start.)
The travel bans, however, have heightened the anxiety for Muslim athletes. “There are tons of stories in our community about this,” Omair Zahid, founder and head of the National Muslim Athletic Association, said. Many of the players have experienced issues with customs and immigration, he said, and several have been held in waiting rooms for hours, causing them to miss their flights. Another coach in the league, who has flown back and forth to Canada often since the ban, is regularly held for several hours when he reënters the U.S., Zahid said. “It’s gotten to the point where he’s asked them to put his picture on the wall so they can recognize him and let him move on,” he said. Another player who has a Moroccan wife said that he encountered issues getting a passport for his newborn daughter.
The N.M.A.A., an Orlando-based nonprofit, operates a community basketball league and came into existence in 2005, when anti-Muslim rhetoric in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks was still running high. Today its participants are seventy-five per cent Muslim, but the league is open to all, Zahid said. “We’ve always felt stigmatized here,” Zahid added. “We’re always nervous. Trump has made it more mainstream. You see that disconnect, and you try and bridge it with sports.”
Tipping, who runs the Ontario basketball program, has decades of experience with the sport as a player, coach, and administrator, but said that since the travel ban, he’s dealing with “a lot more scrambling.” He recently had to rush to relocate a tournament from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Sacramento, California. Representatives with Prolific Prep, a top high-school preparatory program based in Northern California, told Tipping that they had players from among the six banned countries on their rosters. (A representative with Prolific Prep did not respond to requests for comment.)
“It was no fault of their own,” Tipping said, of Prolific Prep. “They were worried they wouldn’t be able to get the kids back to the U.S. We had sponsors lined up, the venue secured, officials signed up, partners. Having to move it to Sacramento was challenging. We lost money on lots of things, like flights.” Plus, having to pay for U.S immigration lawyers was a cost Tipping said he hadn’t anticipated. “This has all been extremely challenging and frustrating.”
Dhoul and Naam said that they avoid watching too much news coverage of Trump, immigration, or much else, as they spend their time occupied with high school, practice, homework, and sleep. “Sometimes I hear about things by accident,” Dhoul said. They both said that they want to play basketball in college, and to that end, they’ll continue to focus on school and developing their athletic skills in Canada. There isn’t really much more they can do as immigration lawyers and their coaches continue to try to find solutions.
“I didn’t anticipate the election of a new President in the United States to affect high-school basketball in Canada,” Tipping, the president of the Institute, said. “But it did.”
The Ripple Effects of the Travel Ban on High-School Basketball – The New Yorker