Mohamed Olad Hassan
Thursday October 12, 2017
As of Oct. 7, Aar Maanta — the only Somali and Muslim member in the band the Urban Nomads — is the only one who has yet to receive a visa, even though the group was scheduled to begin a residency Oct. 2. (Photo courtesy of Aar Maanta)
The Somali musician Hassan-Nour Sayid — known by his stage name, Aar Maanta — and his band, the Urban Nomads, were supposed to be in Minnesota last week, where they were to kick off a monthlong internship of performances and workshops set up through the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
Visa delays, however, have led to the cancellation of the event, and Aar told VOA he thinks it is because the Trump administration has delayed his visa to come to the U.S. because he is Muslim and Somali.
"After months of planning these peaceful events, I was expecting only the inevitable reasons could bring them to a disappointing halt, but now I think it is because of being Muslim and Somali. Why I was discriminated and singled out in the visa process," Aar told VOA Somali. "I blame the current U.S. government."
Aar is a respected and well-known band leader, with dual citizenship in Somalia and Britain, though he says these qualifications did not help him get a U.S. visa "easily and on time."
"My four other colleagues — musicians in the band — are Italian, French, Nepalese-Scottish and British-Caribbean, and all received their visas with no trouble. Only me. I think it is because I am the band's sole Somali and Muslim member," he said.
He said his passport was held by the U.S. consulate, and he was told his application was placed under "additional administrative processing."
In an email, a State Department official told VOA they were not able to discuss individual visas.
"Since visa records are confidential under the Immigration and Nationality Act, we are not able to discuss individual visa cases. We would also note that visa applications do not include questions pertaining to religious identity/affiliation. U.S. immigration law does not contain visa ineligibilities based on religious identity/affiliation," the official wrote.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who on Tuesday addressed a question by VOA on a visa denial to the ousted Venezuela attorney general, said visa applications are confidential under federal law.
"So visa applications — and those are confidential, so no matter who it is or what the cause is, that's something that we don't comment on. I think we've talked about that before. They're confidential under a federal law," Nauert said.
Aar — a Somali singer, songwriter, actor, composer, instrumentalist and music producer — moved to the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, on the eve of the civil war in Somalia. He has lived there since, and has received his British citizenship. But he says he always realized that holding a Western passport would not change "his true identity."
"I was always telling my Somali fans that it does not matter whether you have a British passport or American passport or the passport of any other Western country, you will always and forever remain Somali," he said.
Under a revised travel order signed last month by President Donald Trump, travelers to the United States from eight countries face new restrictions, which take effect Oct. 18. The new executive order will affect citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela.
The new restrictions ban Somali immigrants from entry to the U.S., according to immigration attorneys. However, non-immigrants who are seeking business or tourist visas, such as Aar, must undergo additional screening measures.
According to tour organizers, the Urban Nomads have worked with the Cedar Cultural Center twice before, where they performed live music, led songwriting and held poetry workshops for young people. During the planned trip, though, the band would have extended its performances outside the metro area, carrying a message of unity for Somali-American communities.
Surprised by visa challenges
In a written statement, Fadumo Ibrahim, the program's manager at the Cedar Cultural Center, said she was surprised by the visa challenges the musician faced, given his work with the center in the past.
"This case is a concrete example of how travel restrictions and the travel ban limit artistic voices and freedom," Ibrahim said. "While it's obviously important for the artists, it's equally important for the community who had been anticipating this residency.
"Aar Maanta's visit to Minnesota would have brought hope and positivity to the Somali and larger communities here at a time when we all really need it," she said.
Midnimo, the Somali word for "unity," is a program that features Somali artists from Minnesota and around the world in residencies and events that increase understanding of Somali culture through music.
The center said, "Midnimo is reviving and preserving Somalia's rich musical traditions while fostering social connections between generations and cultures in the heart of the largest Somali diaspora in North America."