Mondoweiss

US bans Palestinian runner from Chicago Marathon days before race

Mohammad Alqadi running with the Palestinian flag. (Photo: @ALQadiPAL/Twitter)

The United States denied entry this week to a well-known marathon runner from the occupied West Bank, shattering the dreams of a young Palestinian seeking to complete the World Marathon Majors series.

Mohammad Alqadi, 27, has always loved running, but had little to no opportunities to take his passion to the next level as a young man in the occupied West Bank.

Five years ago Alqadi, originally from the Jenin district of the occupied West Bank, moved to France where he applied for and was granted asylum. In France Alqadi was able to begin building a more normal life, free of the constraints of Israel’s occupation.

He studied culinary arts, became a chef, attained residency status, got an apartment and began studying French, but most importantly in his life, he was able to start training as a marathon runner.

During the past two years, Alqadi has run nine marathons across the world, but his plan was to finish the ultimate series for marathon runners, the World Marathon Majors, which includes the London, Tokyo, New York, Boston, Berlin and Chicago marathons.

This year, Alqadi planned to run the Chicago Marathon to raise money for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, an American-based NGO founded in 1991 by “concerned people in the U.S.” who want “to address the medical and humanitarian crisis facing Palestinian youths in the Middle East.”

Without an American visa half the major marathons are out of the question for Alqadi.

“They’ve really ruined this dream by stopping me from having the chance to run in the US,” Alqadi told Mondoweiss over the phone from France.

‘It’s not fair’

Alqadi had a visa interview in August at the US Embassy in France. At the end of the interview he was told he had been approved for a three month visa.

Ecstatic at the news, Alqadi booked his flights and hotel stay, but just days before the race was set to begin, he got his passport back from the embassy — no visa was pasted inside, but a letter was attached informing him the embassy had rejected his visa request.

“When I read the paper and saw that it said I was not eligible, I was shocked. I had paid for everything already, and at the last moment everything was destroyed,” he said.

The rejection letter, obtained by Mondoweiss, said Alqadi was “not able to demonstrate that he/she has a residence in a foreign country which he/she has no intention of abandoning.”

The reasoning shocked Alqadi, who loves his life in France, where he is a well-established member of the community with five-year residency.

“I have everything I could ever need here,” he said. “I love my life, I pay taxes, everything I want I have here in France.”

Alqadi said he would not want to stay in the United States, as he considers the quality of life in France as a much higher standard of living.

“I wanted to go to the US just to run, that’s it” he said. “The Chicago Marathon is very hard, it took a lot of training, it is my dream to run it along with the other six marathons in the World Marathon Majors.”

Alqadi had hoped the Chicago Marathon organizers could help put pressure on the US government to allow entry to their runner,  who had already signed up and paid the applicant fee for the marathon, but the organization responded to his request with only a refund.

“The event does not engage in procuring visas for our participants. It is unfortunate when individuals encounter difficulties and we can understand the disappointment of runners when they are unable to complete their travel arrangements for the marathon,” the email read.

American Foreign Policy

The 27-year-old runner said he was not sure if politics were behind his denial, but accepted that it was a possibility.

Alqadi does not just runs marathons, he runs marathons in the name of the Palestinian cause, carrying the Palestinian flag and donning the red, white, black and green colors on his clothing as he runs.

“They can ban me from travelling  but they can’t ban me from raising the Palestinian flag during my marathons,” Alqadi posted to Twitter on Thursday.

While Palestine, not recognized as a country by the United States, is not on the list of countries targeted by US President Donald Trump’s travel ban, the last-minute rejection of a well-known Muslim marathon runner’s visa that had been approved months previously does raise questions.

Those questions will probably never be answered, as another part of the rejection letter from the US Embassy specified that the decision was not eligible for an appeal.

According to an analysis by Politico, visas from the six Muslim countries targeted by the ban — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — fell by 44 percent in 2017 when compared to State Department data from 2016.

So far in the first six months of the US fiscal year (March-August), a total of 2,887 tourist visas were issued (B1 or B1/B2 category), according to Mondoweiss’s analysis of the State Department Data.

The State Department’s website does not offer a breakdown by month for the year of 2016, but last year a total of 9,291 tourist visas were issued. Cutting that number in half to account for a six month period, shows that 4,645.5 tourist visas were issued on average in a six month period during 2016.

These numbers show a 38.75 percent decrease — revealing a similar drop in tourist visas given to people with Palestinian Authority travel documents compared to those with passports from the six countries specifically targeted by Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.

Husam Zomlot, the current Palestinian Ambassador and Chief Representative of the Palestinian General Delegation to the United States did not respond for comment on the decrease or the last-minute denial of Alqadi’s visa.

US President Trump initially attempted to put forth a 90-day travel ban for the six Muslim-majority countries listed above, as well as Iraq, in January, but the ban was challenged by US courts. In March a revised version of the ban was presented, and in June the US Supreme Court approved a limited version of the ban, which allowed for the rejection of visas for people from the banned countries if they lack “bona fide” ties to the US.

While US headlines largely focused on NFL controversy surrounding Black Lives Matter protests this week, Trump issued a third version of the ban on Sunday. The new ban indefinitely restricts travelers from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea, according to Reuters.

On Sept. 15, Trump tweeted that he believed the ban should be even wider.

“The travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher and more specific-but stupidly, that would not be politically correct!” he said on the social media platform.

For people like Alqadi and millions of others, the restrictions being put in place against Muslims from entering the United States have a devastating effect.

“I just want to run, like anyone else,” Alqadi said. “I am a marathon runner, an athlete, I don’t understand how that is not taken into account. What the American Embassy is doing isn’t fair. If you look on the internet there is so much information about me. It is clear who I am, and it is clear I am just a runner looking to be included in one of the world’s major marathons just like any other runner, but that dream is ruined now.”