Tech Exec Ahmed Rubaie on Trump’s Travel Ban and Silicon Valley
(Page 2 of 2)
from the Middle East: “There is quite a basket of bad apples in that part of the world, and they should not be allowed to come here. But in order to address the bad apples, the question you have to ask is, why?”
It’s clear to Rubaie that the region’s youthful population, lack of educational options, and overall dearth of hope add up to “bad news.” Just as clear, however, are his memories of living there in harmony with people of all different ethnicities and religions.
Back then, Iraq also had one of the highest literacy rates on the globe. But as of late, according to 2015 data from UNESCO, that rate has fallen to 79 percent, or 111th in the world, which he calls a “disaster.” (The literacy rate in the U.S. is 86 percent, roughly on par with Botswana, Jamaica, and Honduras.)
“I went to Catholic school in Baghdad, and there was no religious tension between common people like you and me—that’s geopolitically engineered, just like here. Everyone was living together just fine,” he says.
Rubaie believes the U.S. government can both limit bad apples and address the bigger, bleaker picture in the Middle East, but the travel ban is not a sustainable solution. He comes back to the idea that, eventually, we all get our time in the proverbial hot seat.
“What goes around comes around, and that’s what we have to be careful of,” he adds.
The travel ban is already creating anxiety in Silicon Valley, he warns, particularly among workers on H1-B visas. He’s already heard of people canceling their plans to move to or take jobs in the U.S. Rubaie remembers the early ’90s, when he’d hear grumbling from the managerial ranks about foreign-born engineers. The sentiment was: “We don’t want them here.”
These days, he points out, you’d be hard pressed to find a successful tech company without a foreign-born person working in senior management. “It’s very detrimental in the long run—you can’t put a tariff on talent. That’s going backwards.”
When he thinks of all the potential young innovators now trapped in the banned countries, it makes his heart sink. “It’s sad, because there are a lot of smart young people over there trying to get a break, and now they can’t.”
To him, the answer is fairly simple: If we’re going to spend our resources on the Middle East, then let’s help its residents live a more dignified life.
“I think helping people is more productive, and I think the majority of people in Silicon Valley agree,” he says. “Address the economic problems of those who are unemployed and angry. You’ll always have lunatics, but most people are hard-working, law-abiding folks. I’m not a student of theology, but it’s not about religion. No religion advances hatred.”
If Rubaie had a five-minute private audience with Trump, he says he would tell the president to surround himself with open-minded advisers who want to protect American interests over the long haul and, above all, to be kind. “There are bad apples, yes, but understand how they got that way. The average person is going to come here and contribute to society.”
At the same time, he wants to see his fellow Middle Eastern immigrants do a better job of assimilating into U.S. culture. The more Americans see Iraqis living “just like them,” he says, the more they relax. He offers an anecdote from his own life to illustrate his point.
A few years ago, he was living in an exclusive suburb of Atlanta, GA. It was a homogeneous place: wealthy and politically conservative. For the most part, he says, that wasn’t an issue. Except for one neighbor, who we’ll call Fred. Eventually, the Rubaies invited Fred and his wife over for dinner. But no matter what conversational avenue Rubaie tried to go down—family, business, the weather, even sports—Fred would not engage.
But then they started talking about college, and Fred learned that he and Rubaie were members of the same fraternity. Suddenly, Fred’s face broke into a smile and he was up and out of his seat, clapping Rubaie’s back affectionately and pulling him close for the secret handshake. Fred was suddenly accepting of his new friend with the funny name once he knew they had something important in common.
“He called me in distress when the first travel ban was announced,” Rubaie says. Fred was distraught, worried that Rubaie’s family and friends would be impacted, he says. “If he hadn’t been exposed to our family and seen us as normal Americans, he might not have been so sympathetic. But he changed his view instead of demonizing us.”
When you ask Rubaie what his uncensored thoughts are about the Trump administration’s travel ban, he’ll tell you he feels sickened. But he also feels optimistic because, he says, America is a just and fair place.