SportsMonday Column: A swimmer, his father and an executive order

Sunday, February 5, 2017 - 12:57pm

Sophomore Mokhtar Al-Yamani is hoping to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, in May to swim for Yemen.

Sophomore Mokhtar Al-Yamani is hoping to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, in May to swim for Yemen. Buy this photo
Courtesy of U-M Photography

 

Mokhtar Al-Yamani just wants to see his dad and swim for his country. He has a father, Ali, from Yemen and a future competing in the Olympics. But for him, as for so many others, by the end of the day on Jan. 27, the world had changed.

The 19-year-old sophomore swimmer at Michigan is hoping to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, in May to swim for Yemen in the Islamic Solidarity Games. Now he doesn’t know for sure if he’ll be allowed to come back.

He is an American citizen, born in New York. His Japanese mother and Yemeni father met in college at the University of Kentucky and then moved when Mokhtar was a baby back to Japan, where Mokhtar grew up. So Al-Yamani is a triple citizen of the United States, Japan and Yemen, by virtue of his parents.

His next chance to swim for his father’s home country is still shrouded in uncertainty by the controversial executive order from President Donald Trump. The order suspended entry by citizens of seven majority Muslim nations, including Yemen, into the United States. Since then, Al-Yamani has kept his eyes on the news in search of what that policy means for him.

Reports from the White House have been unclear in the days following the ban about exactly whom it impacts, but as of now, Al-Yamani appears to be unaffected as a U.S. citizen. On Jan. 29, CNN reported that a State Department official told the network that the ban “should not affect dual-national Americans (like Al-Yamani) at all.” But Al-Yamani will keep following the news because he knows much could still change between now and May.

The government has already modified enforcement of the policy in the past 10 days; the Baku trip is in three months. And the fact that he’ll be traveling with a Yemeni passport to the Islamic Solidarity Games has Al-Yamani worried.

“I know the Yemeni delegation is really excited for me to go, and I’m excited to compete there also,” he said, “but it is troubling times.”

For now, Al-Yamani will focus on his collegiate season, though that causes another problem. Later this month, he will compete in the Big Ten Championships. His father, a citizen of only Yemen, will not be able to come see him.

Ali Al-Yamani, who lives in Japan separately from Mokhtar’s mother, passed down a middle name and a heritage to his son. He keeps up with Yemeni news and listens to Yemeni music. His home has couches with traditional Arabian designs and a room dedicated for prayer to the Muslim faith (Ali is Muslim, Mokhtar is not).

And while the executive order’s implication on Mokhtar is unclear, the 19-year-old has struggled to come to terms with an administration that deems his father unwelcome here. Mokhtar knows that his father thinks the travel ban is “outrageous,” but the two haven’t talked at length about it.

“He’s just told me that he won’t be able to come to Big Tens, and he just said not to worry about (him, he’ll) be fine,” Al-Yamani said.

But does Al-Yamani worry about his father, in light of recent events? “Yeah, because I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to come.”

Al-Yamani did not seem angry as much as he did incredulous, still six days after the executive order was signed. He was not eager to turn his situation into a political statement. He worried mostly about swimming and seeing his family, which he could do until a man he has never met signed a piece of paper making both uncertain.

“It seemed like such a far-fetched idea, no one would pass it,” Al-Yamani said. “And then he just singlehandedly did.”

Again, Al-Yamani tries to stick to positives: His father lives in Japan, where he is safe, and Al-Yamani noted that several other countries have voiced their opposition to the travel ban, putting pressure on the United States. If Al-Yamani is able to travel to Baku in May, his father plans to join him for the occasion.

“He’s very proud of me,” Al-Yamani said. “Just the fact that even after living in Japan all these years, I chose to represent his home country, I think he’s really happy for that.”

Al-Yamani began competing for Yemen to have a better chance of making an Olympic team. In advance of last summer’s Rio Games, he made the international swimming federation’s B-cut qualifying time and was even issued credentials. But he couldn’t go to Rio as a Yemeni wild card — the Olympic designation for the fastest man and woman in certain small countries — because he hadn’t competed in the 2015 World Championships.

In the end, despite his time, he didn’t make it into the field of athletes, which was capped at 900. Still, he was encouraged by the journey and looks forward to continuing his international career at the 2020 Olympics in his hometown of Tokyo.

That’s a bright future, but questions surround much of it. Al-Yamani wants to compete for the country of which his father is so proud, but the travel situation puts that dream in doubt. He hopes to travel to Yemen to learn more about the culture for himself, but the country’s civil war makes that a dangerous proposition for now. And he’s trying to learn Arabic to connect with a fellow Yemeni swimmer, Ebrahim Al-Maleki, whom he would have met in December in Canada if Al-Maleki’s visa had not been denied. Now, Al-Yamani must live with uncertainty.

“I don’t want to talk too much about my own political opinion on each of the candidates,” Al-Yamani said. “But I do feel that, completely policies aside, I think that someone who’s going to lead an entire country should have more morals and just human character than Trump had shown during his election. I guess we’ve seen more of Trump during the election than during his presidency so far, but we’ll just have to see where that goes.”

When news of the executive order broke, Al-Yamani first received a text from a friend back home who wondered if Al-Yamani would be able to return to Japan under the new policy. Al-Yamani was shocked. He read the news of the order and then continued following cases of people being detained or deported over the weekend.

“And then,” he said, “I was just like, ‘Wow, this is real.’ ”

If you have a story like Al-Yamani’s, we want to hear from you. Lourim can be reached at jlourim@umich.edu and on Twitter @jakelourim.