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U.S. Olympian, Somalia native Hassan Mead keeps faith in America despite immigration ban

Born in Somalia, U.S. Olympian Hassan Mead remains optimistic about his adopted country despite President Trump's executive order on immigration.

As a child growing up on a farm in Somalia, Hassan Mead held a colorful image in his mind of what the United States looked like.

“It might sound silly, but how would I describe it?” Mead says. “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. That is what I pictured. Everything was perfect in the structure of the land, how people dressed and a place where everyone wanted to go. I would listen to stories and hear about ‘the good life.’”

Mead was seven years old when he left much of his family in southeastern Somalia to spend a year in Djibouti, where he, his mother and his younger sister waited on their visas to join his father in the United States. Mead’s father had won a lottery that allowed for refugee immigration to the U.S., and he promptly filed paperwork for the rest of his family to join him.

When Mead arrived in Minneapolis in the fall of 1999 at 10 years old—nearly 17 years before he represented the United States at the 2016 Olympic Games—he was impressed by the diversity he saw around him. 

“I had a perception of America that it would be a world full of blond hair and blue-eyed people and then I saw ethnicities,” Mead, now 27, says. “I went to school in Somalia, and they didn’t teach us about that. I asked my dad, ‘Hey, those people are different colors. Where are they from?’ And my cousins would educate me on the different regions of the world that people came from. It was different from what I thought it would be but I’m sure everyone has their own fairytale of how they imagined America.”

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order on immigration and travel. The executive order banned entry into the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, for 90 days and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days. It also indefinitely suspended refugee intake from Syria. The Trump Administration has said the restrictions are a necessary measure to enhance national security. (The executive order was blocked by a federal judge, whose decision was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.) 

Even though Mead now holds dual U.S. citizenship, the order still felt like a personal attack on him and refugees, like his father. Had the ban been in place in 1999, Mead—a citizen of Somalia—would not have been allowed to enter the United States. 

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After the order was signed on Jan. 27, Mead refreshed Twitter and monitored the news closely from Seattle, where he was on a brief training block. He came across a few updates on Olympic champion Mo Farah, someone he faces regularly on the track circuit, and whether Farah would be able to return home to Portland, Ore., from a training stint in Ethiopia. Like Mead, Farah was born in Somalia.

Farah moved to Great Britain when he was eight, and he eventually settled in the U.S. in 2011 to train under renowned coach Alberto Salazar. Farah has established himself in track and field history books with gold medals at 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Farah spoke out against Trump’s executive order and posted on social media his worries that “Daddy might not be able to come home” to his wife and three children. The British Foreign Office later announced that Farah would be allowed to return to the U.S. because British nationals are exempt from the executive order regardless of birthplace.

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Mead started getting questions about how the executive order would affect his racing schedule and possible travel next summer.

“Even if I may not be denied right now, it starts to stress you out,” Mead says. “Airports are already a tension-filled environment with random selection because of your demographic and beliefs. Now there’s this this order from someone with a lot of power, and I’m still trying to take it in as it’s happening.”

Mead has been denied entry to a country before. In early 2015, Mead, his coach Mark Rowland and his training partner Andrew Wheating, a two-time U.S. Olympian, planned a five-week trip for warm-weather training and racing. The plan was to spend three weeks in New Zealand and then two in Australia. Flights were booked and Mead traveled from Eugene, Ore., to Los Angeles International Airport.

Two hours before hopping on his international flight, Mead approached the desk ready to pay for his Electronic Travel Authority, which authorizes him to travel to and enter Australia. When the man at the desk entered “Somalia” as Mead’s birthplace, he was flagged.

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Australia took measures to bolster its national security following the 2014 Sidney siege, which was coordinated by Man HaronMonis, a refugee who arrived in Australia by plane on a business visa from Iran. There are now tight selection processes and comprehensive screening procedures before anyone from refugee countries can enter Australia.

Despite not having visited Somalia in the 16 years since he left, Mead was required to undergo extensive screening before boarding his flight. He remained in Los Angeles for a few days trying to communicate with embassies to salvage his plans. He eventually canceled his trip when he was told the screening process could take anywhere from one to four weeks. Wheating and Rowland were able to make it to Australia.

“That was another scenario where countries are screening,” Mead says. “It wasn’t the end of the world but it does affect your livelihood.”

Hassan Mead in high school.

Hassan Mead in high school.

Mead spent most of his teenage years between California and Minneapolis before finalizing his U.S. citizenship at the end of high school. From 2008 through ’12 he attended the University of Minnesota, where he suffered a collapsed lung in 2010 but still graduated as an eight-time All-America and nine-time Big Ten champion.

He broke out as a professional runner by qualifying for the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, and he followed that up by taking second to Bernard Lagat, a Kenyan-born U.S. Olympian, in the 5,000 meters at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials to earn his first Olympic team berth. In Rio, Mead marched in the Opening Ceremony. A week later, he tripped and fell in the semifinal before being reinstated for the final, where he finished 11th.

The U.S. Olympic team visited the White House to celebrate its accomplishments, and Mead looked forward to his chance to meet with President Barack Obama. He was the first president for whom Mead had voted, and Mead credits Obama for fostering his love for the United States.

Mead was heartened by the protests at airports in the days after Trump signed the executive order. 

“The world is a different place now,” Mead says. “You’re seeing a lot of people out there protesting regardless of their beliefs. We’re in the 21st century and we can clearly see what’s morally wrong. People are out there calling it out and saying, ‘’This is wrong in so many ways.’

“That’s why I’m not worried. The people will fight it. People from many different backgrounds and beliefs will now come together and stand up for what’s right and let the American spirit stand up.”