By Meher Mehtab, Amnesty International USA Media Intern
Meher Mehtab is a journalism student at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar and is currently a media intern at Amnesty International USA. Following the signing of President Trump’s travel ban barring people from six majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, she interviewed her fellow international students about their experiences.
As Nada sat hugging her body, trying to recover from the trauma of being attacked, she heard the authorities say it was not her country — and she believed them.
In 2014, Nada Yasser, an Egyptian national living in Doha, Qatar, was one of seven students at the Middle East International High School who were selected to do a “foundation year” in the United States. Yasser was the first veiled woman in her school to have been selected for this program. She stayed with a host family in Lorton, Virginia, and had a nurturing experience attending a local junior high school.
Fast forward to her senior year back in Qatar and the tough decision of choosing colleges. Yasser recounted her pleasant experience in the US and chose to attend Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Curious and confident by nature, she excelled in her freshmen year there. Scoring good grades and starting her own student organization called “Go Global” to celebrate diversity at her college, Yasser didn’t let an isolated incident of being called a “terrorist bitch” at the Six Flags amusement park affect her zeal and enthusiasm. It did, however, make her more aware and conscious of her environment.
On November 9, 2016, — In her second year at VCU — Donald Trump was elected as the 45th US President. Later that day, when Yasser visited her college library, she expected the day to go as any other. Without warning, a Caucasian woman walked up to her and kicked her, causing her to fall down. Yasser did not know the woman and was in a state of shock as she physically harassed her. They attracted some attention and once the police arrived, the woman feld the scene and hid. Shocked and hurt, Yasser had a panic attack.
“I sat down on the ground and did not move for 20 minutes because I was obviously scared,” she said. Once the campus police arrived and Yasser narrated the incident to them, the officer told her that she should be grateful that she didn’t hit the woman back. Otherwise Yasser would have had to go to jail.
“I asked him, ‘wouldn’t that be self-defense, officer?’ And he just said, ‘not for you because this is not your country.’ I knew then that VCU was not for me anymore,” she said.
Under President Trump many students in the US, like Yasser, now face the dilemma of staying safe while upholding their religious and cultural beliefs. This fear has developed to the extent that Muslim women are taking their hijabs off to avoid harassment in public. The anti-Muslim sentiment of Trump’s travel ban has created an atmosphere that has had a profound effect on the international student community — both inside and outside of US borders. In extreme cases, like Yasser, it is causing them to leave this country and move back home.
According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, the number of student visas approved in 2015 from the six banned nations totaled more than 20,000. If Trump’s new travel ban survives the legal challenges it’s facing in courts in some states, and the Congress continues to remain silent, these students — and those who hope to apply — will have their education and lives severely impacted. While many universities and colleges have raised concerns about what these policies mean for their international student bodies, there is little to no conjecture around the affect such a policy has on the students themselves.
For many of us who were raised in developing countries, the American college experience is the first step to the American dream. Every year, hopefuls from all across the world apply to these colleges not just for the high standard of education but also to pursue their international opportunities and thrive in their diverse, open communities.
But when these opportunities are tainted by political agendas and communities marred by racism and bigotry, a dream is snatched from these students. What lies ahead for them now remains unclear.
President Trump’s travel ban does not only affect those students who are in the US already but also those who have been seeking opportunities to travel to the US from abroad. Many American colleges now have branch campuses in the Middle East, namely New York University in Abu Dhabi and five other branch campuses invited by Qatar Foundation in Doha such as Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon. A majority of their student bodies consists of Arab and African students from all over the Middle East and North Africa region.
Ahmad Alyazidi, a Yemeni junior at Texas A&M University in Qatar, applied and was accepted to the Student Leadership Exchange Program which required him to travel to its main campus in College Station over spring break. At that time, Trump’s first executive order had already been put into effect. Since Alyazidi already had his visa, he assumed the ban wouldn’t affect him. However, as the ongoing cases were reported, Alyazidi learned that having a visa meant nothing.
When he expressed his concerns to the program supervisor, she reassured him that the university would take all necessary measures to make sure he was able to enter the United States. However, when the ban was repealed and there were reports about a new one, Alyazidi made it a point not to get his hopes high.
“I was kind of sure that he would reissue the ban so I didn’t get ready, emotionally or physically. I couldn’t get myself to start packing,” he said. But much to his surprise he was allowed to board the flight and made it across the border with no extra security checks or problems.
Nearing his final year in college, Alyazidi is now weighing applications to grad school. Even though his experience of flying to the US did not cause any border or customs issues, he is unsure and unconvinced as to whether he wants to apply to colleges in the US.
“I have to apply to schools outside the US just in case another ban is issued by that time,” Yazidi said.
Like Alyazidi and Nasser, many college students across the US feel unsafe and conflicted. Is the American dream consistent withthe abuse Yasser had to go through? Or the uncertainty that Alyazidi experienced? For many aspiring college students, the top-ranked universities are no longer an option and, for those that made it here just in time, many wonder if they are truly welcome in the United States.