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Trump is driving some of the world's brightest foreign students out of America

“There is only so much that a person can tolerate.”

19-year-old Nasreen Khalaf checks her phone as she sits on a couch in the offices of the Muslim Student Association at the Tivoli Center on at the Auraria Campus in Denver on Thursday, December 10, 2015.
Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In September 2016, when the possibility of a Trump presidency still seemed remote, Aya Aljamili, a Syrian citizen who grew up in Aleppo, arrived in the United States to get her master’s degree at American University in Washington, DC. She spent most of the fall on her computer, refreshing Facebook, hoping to hear from friends and family left behind in the war zone.

When I spoke with Aljamili three weeks ago, she told me she’d started making plans to visit her family — currently living in Gaziantep, a city near the Turkey-Syria border — this spring.

“I’ve reached a breaking point,” she told me in an in-person interview. “I swear by God, if I can know that I will be able to go see my family just once, I will be okay in this country. I’ll be able to make it through my master’s.”

But last week, when President Trump signed the executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States for 90 days, Aljamili had to abandon her plans. She and all the other students I spoke with feared that Trump would either extend the ban or make it permanent.

Even if Trump does lift the restrictions after 90 days, most said they’d still be too afraid to travel, knowing he could reinstate the order just as suddenly as he instated it last week.

There are approximately 17,000 students from the seven countries affected by the executive order — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen — currently enrolled in US colleges and universities. When they came to the United States, they expected to be able to be able to see their families at any time. They expected to be able to move freely in and out of the country for school and professional trips.

Now, if they leave, they fear they will not be allowed to return.

No longer a promised land

President Ronald Reagan famously called America “a shining city on a hill,” whose “doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” This image speaks to a commonly held belief in America that immigrants — particularly those from countries ravaged by war or dictatorship — see the United States as a promised land.

But while that may have once been the case for some, it’s not anymore. Instead of figuring out how they’re going to live in Trump’s United States, many students from the countries affected by the travel ban are making plans to leave. They have other options — other countries they could live in and contribute to — and they’re going to take them.

“Many people come to the United States from Iran because of the quality of the universities,” said Ali Javadi, an Iranian PhD student in computer science at Princeton University. “But there is only so much that a person can tolerate. Being locked in a place without the option of visiting your family for four or five years — that’s too much. That human connection keeps you going.”

Javadi has been a student at Princeton for five and a half years. He graduates in May and planned to take a job near Princeton while his wife, an American, finished her degree. Together, they planned to settle in the United States.

If Trump extends the travel ban, Javadi and his wife have decided they will leave the country as soon as she graduates.

Javadi, who travels frequently, wants the freedom to travel without worrying that he might be denied reentry. His work has already been impacted by Trump’s executive order. He had planned to attend an academic conference in Canada this spring.

“Part of being a PhD student is going to academic conferences,” Javadi said. “It’s an important, routine part of academic life. You can’t do your work unless you’re able to keep in touch with the community.”

Uncertain, helpless, and insecure

Most of the students I talked to weren’t planning to leave the United States just because of the travel ban. They could deal with staying in the US for three months. They were more concerned with what would come next. They feared the extent of Trump’s plans to target Muslims, and how powerless they would be if and when he brought them to fruition.

Faced with that much uncertainty, most students I spoke to would rather leave America for good.

“Knowing that you don’t have the authority over your life and your decisions makes you feel more helpless and insecure. And that makes you feel weak. You don’t want to feel weak,” said Aljamili.

Aljamili doesn’t know what she’s going to do over the next few months. She wants to leave the United States, but she doesn’t know where she would go next. As a Syrian, it will be difficult for her to secure a new visa.

“If I could transfer my American University enrollment to an AU campus somewhere else in the world, I would,” she said. “There is one in the United Arab Emirates — if they would give me a visa, I would go there. I would go anywhere.”

Many US colleges and universities have issued statements offering whatever support and protection they can for students affected by the travel ban. By and large, these statements commiserate with students from the targeted countries.

Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, described the executive order as “distressing”; the president of Amherst College in Massachusetts expressed her “grief” for “those in our community and in many other communities who are living with uncertainty and fear about the impact on their lives.”

Every student I spoke with said administrators had already reached out to them, offering to answer any questions they might have. But the universities are also clearly unsure of what will come next. Many have urged all international students and faculty to avoid international travel.

"All foreign nationals should carefully assess whether it is worth the risk to travel outside the country,” the Harvard International Office wrote in a message to students on Saturday.

Students who have applied to US colleges and universities from affected countries are also unsure of what to do. At this point in the year, almost all schools have stopped accepting applications for the fall of 2017.

Houra Javadi (whose brother Avi is referenced above) is a senior at a high school in Mahindra, India. She is originally from Iran. Over the past few months, she applied to six universities in the United States. Her top choices are Columbia and the University of Chicago.

“I’d made a kind of mental connection with those colleges and my future in the US. When you spend so much time thinking about a particular place, you see yourself in it,” Javadi said.

When she heard about the executive order, Javadi immediately sent a flurry of emails to universities in Australia, Europe, and Canada, asking them to allow her to submit a late application. Three schools — one in London, one in Amsterdam, and one in Maastricht — have granted her an extension.

Even if the travel ban for Iranians ends after 90 days, as the order currently stipulates, Javadi doesn’t think she will choose to attend a US university. Like her brother, she worries about the possibility of Trump reinstating a travel ban, or enforcing an even more limiting restriction.

“The prospect of coming to the United States and then not being able to freely travel really scares me. It would mean being away from all my friends and family for at least four years,” she said. “Even if I got into my favorite college in the US, I don’t know if I would accept the offer.”

Caroline Kitchener is the author of Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College, forthcoming from HarperCollins in April. She lives in Washington, DC. Find her on Twitter @CAKitchener.

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