Randy Olsen, an American from San Jose, California, then living in Singapore, got the news like many others on that January morning. He opened his New York Times app and read the headline: “Trump Bars Refugees and Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries.”
“What are we going to do?” Olsen asked aloud. He had spent the past six years in Singapore working in cybersecurity. Over the previous two years, he’d helped get a green card for his wife, Zaineb Al-Qazwini, a Ph.D. specializing in cancer research and an Iraqi citizen. The pair met in Singapore, and they have a 2-year-old daughter, Ishtar Rose. Olsen had planned for his entire family to move back to America a few weeks after the news broke. “This,” Olsen said, “was horrible.”
“There was this sudden shock of waking up and seeing your life’s plans had been essentially destroyed by the country you loved,” Olsen said.
On the other side of the world, though, a group of NFL stars were rallying help for a family they’d never met.
In response to the news, Olsen said he did what everyone does now: “I bitched and ranted on social media.” His Facebook comments started to gain traction with friends, family, and the media. Tareq Azim, an athletic trainer living in the Bay Area who grew up in the same town as Olsen, saw the news. He emailed and spoke with Olsen, who “broke it down for me,” according to Azim.
Azim — himself a refugee, born in Germany after his family fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s — trains a group of high-profile NFL players, so he texted all of them to see if they could help Olsen. They all began pulling strings, he said. Almost immediately, Marcus Peters, an All-Pro cornerback with the Kansas City Chiefs, went to Instagram. “Let’s get attorneys and media help,” the message read, “for my coach [Tareq Azim’s] friends he grew up with. They are not being let in back to the states from Singapore because Randy Olsens wife is Muslim.”
Help came — more of it than Olsen ever could’ve expected. There were “well over a hundred” lawyers ready to help Olsen, Azim said. Olsen scanned through the list of lawyers offering their services, took down five or six names, and got their information. “I was copied on the posts, so people would write me. I’d connect them with Randy via WhatsApp or email,” Azim said. Eventually, Olsen built a list of four attorneys to advise him. Every lawyer who counseled Olsen in those hectic days — “welcome voices in our time of struggle” as Olsen says — were introduced to him by Azim. One was based in the Bay Area, while three others were on the East Coast. Olsen never filed a lawsuit against the government, but instead used the lawyers as sounding boards; the lawyers, who asked not to be named, confirmed as much to me.
For Olsen, just being able to talk with experts on immigration was crucial. “There was an exodus inside the State Department,” Olsen said. “No one was there. We tried calling, emailing. Anytime we talked to anyone, it was, ‘We don’t know what to tell you.’”
While there was comfort in talking to someone, there wasn’t much solace in what the lawyers had to say.
“They didn’t know because no one knew. Essentially, the local agents in charge of immigration had no instructions on how to handle the ban, so what the lawyers did was prepare us for the most dire of situations,” Olsen said. “They’d say, ‘Maybe the course of action if you show up in the country would be a holding cell.’ They told us we might be strip-searched. We had to prepare for the worst in the absence of clear communication.”
After a month of uncertainty, news came: A revised travel ban no longer applied to people from Iraq. Olsen said he was happy with the pressure the public put on the Trump administration in those days after the initial ban, but saddened about the people still left to deal with it. In the spring, Olsen, Al-Qazwini, and Ishtar Rose departed Singapore for San Francisco, where they now live. Al-Qazwini is interviewing for jobs in Silicon Valley, and Olsen works from an office overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
When approached during training camp about his part in helping round up over a hundred lawyers for Olsen, Peters refused to comment, telling a team official that the matter was “mission accomplished.”
Peters is a budding superstar. The 24-year-old from Oakland has made the Pro Bowl in each of his two NFL seasons. During the preseason, he made minor news by riding a stationary bike during the national anthem. Last year, he raised his fist during the pregame song.
“When you look at the support — people with the amount of followers of Marcus Peters, all of the heroes — it adds up to something very moving,” Olsen said.
Azim said he wasn’t surprised his players wanted to help. He said he picks players based on their willingness to help in the community. If an athlete wants to train at his gym, which focuses on MMA techniques, and Azim does not think they will mesh with the rest of the “family,” he quotes them a rate “that is so high they will go, ‘Hell no I’m not training there.’” He wants to be known as having the most socially responsible group of athletes in any training facility. (Azim himself has an app, beHuman, that is supposed to help users increase their social consciousness.) His training method is to create “comfort in discomfort.” His training center has been a magnet for NFL players since he befriended Tom Cable, the Seattle Seahawks offensive line coach and former Raiders head coach, who officiated Azim’s wedding.
“When you hear why Marcus wants to achieve and what he wants to achieve, you sit there and you listen to this young kid. He’s not even a kid, he’s a man, he’s a father, he’s done great in football, but he’s still far from even thinking he’s made it,” Azim said. “It’s because of his consciousness and his responsibility to humanity, which keeps these guys humble.”
Olsen said he’s “eternally grateful” for the legal help he received in those frantic days. “Gifts from the unveiled,” he said, talking about all of those people he’d never met who still chipped in to help. “We are so grateful that it came out to what it did, but we were one of tens of thousands,” Olsen said. “We just had an opportunity.”