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Syrian musician says Trump immigration order insults humanity

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian musician Kinan Azmeh has toured the world for years to international acclaim but his planned return on Thursday to his home in the United States has been thrown into uncertainty.

The clarinettist and composer, who won standing ovations in Beirut on Wednesday night at the final concert of his latest tour, is a green card holder based in New York.

But U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order halting the entry of refugees and of immigrants from seven mainly Muslim countries has put his plans - and those of thousands others - in doubt.

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"Any way you look at it, it's an insult to humanity, to all of us," the 40-year-old musician told Reuters.

Born and raised in Damascus, Azmeh has lived for 16 years in the United States, where he received his doctorate degree in music.

Last month he performed in China with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and his current tour took him to Europe and then Beirut on Friday, when the order took effect, wreaking havoc for many would-be travelers and plunging America's immigration system into chaos.

Trump's executive order froze the U.S. refugee program, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely and temporarily banned citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.

"I saw it on my news feed on my phone, the moment I landed at the airport," Azmeh said.

Tens of thousands of people have protested in U.S. cities and airports against the travel curbs, which also sparked court challenges in the U.S., and Azmeh said he was reassured by the public outcry.

"People are being discriminated against," he said. "It's comforting to see people taking to the streets to express empathy." Many of the protesters "who went out to JFK airport haven't been affected by this decision," he added. "Despite that, they feel they must express their opinion."

Despite the challenges he could face en route to New York, "the issue is much bigger than me," said Azmeh, whose green card means his prospects are better than other Syrians.

Still, he does not have a backup plan if he is barred from entry. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.

Many travelers aren't as optimistic, after hundreds of visa holders were kept from boarding U.S.-bound flights this week, detained at American airports or denied entry.

"There are people whose lives have been completely upended by this decision...college students with visas who aren't allowed in, fathers going to see their children," Azmeh said.

The restriction on legal permanent residents, or green card holders, was among the most confusing elements in Trump's order.

Administration officials had said such permanent legal residents were barred from entry, although they could apply for a waiver and be rescreened.

The White House said on Wednesday it had issued updated guidance, clarifying that green card holders do not need a waiver to enter the country.

Since conflict erupted in Syria nearly six years ago, Azmeh has not returned to the country of his birth. "I miss it," he said. "It's hard to elaborate on that with words, I elaborate with music."

The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people, made more than 11 million Syrians homeless and created the world's worst refugee crisis.

The music "opens up a wide horizon of freedom," he added. "But of course, the concert ends, and you go back to real life. You remember the people who, today, are stuck in limbo or have lost their homes."

(Editing by Dominic Evans)