Global

As Trump Crackdown Looms, a Syrian Student in Indiana Worries About His Future

January 26, 2017

Photo courtesy of Hassan Taki Eddin
Hassan Taki Eddin, a senior from Syria at the U. of Evansville, in Indiana: "It’s uncomfortable, it’s worrisome, not to be able to know what is going to happen to you when a new rule could come out any day now from President Trump."
President Trump, who proposed banning Muslim visitors to the United States during his campaign, is expected this week to indefinitely halt resettlement of Syrian refugees in the country and to temporarily suspend all travel from a half dozen countries with Muslim majorities.

Though Mr. Trump’s executive order, a draft of which was obtained by several news organizations, doesn’t single out holders of student visas, it seems almost certain they will be included in the 30-day suspension of all travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The freeze is intended to give the Trump administration time to study and improve screening procedures.

While fewer than 800 students from Syria attended American colleges in 2015-16, another of the countries named in the draft order, Iran, sent some 12,000 students to the United States in the last academic year, more than all but 10 countries.

The Chronicle reached out this week to Hassan Taki Eddin, a 21-year-old senior from Damascus, Syria, who is studying at the University of Evansville, in Indiana. Mr. Eddin, who came to the United States on a student visa, first spoke with The Chronicle a year ago, when Indiana’s then governor, Mike Pence, threatened to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state.

On Wednesday, Mr. Eddin, who has a job waiting at PricewaterhouseCoopers as a consultant after he graduates, in May, called the president’s plan "worrisome" and said that if more Americans spoke with Syrians, they would realize how much they have in common. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. There was a lot of heated rhetoric in the campaign about Syrian refugees, and now President Trump is making this ban one of his first actions as president. What do you make of the order, and what has the last year been like for you?

A. I won’t forget Election Night. When the results were coming in and it was becoming clear that Trump was going to become president, I got four or five different text messages from friends of mine who are American. They were apologizing to me that this was happening in the country, that somebody with the kind of rhetoric that Trump has, and the kind of beliefs or ideology that he based his campaign on, was going to be the president of the United States. I told those people that they had nothing to apologize for, that things could be much worse.

But now that he’s in office, the people who were doubting that he would actually do what he said he was going to do, now it’s happening. And it’s only been five days; it hasn’t been a week of his presidency.

Right now at the University of Evansville we have about 22 Syrian students, and seven of us are graduating this semester. I’m currently talking to at least three potential students who are applying to come to school here. Whatever Trump decides to sign might end those plans for them. It’s definitely going to make things more complicated.

But we, the Syrian people, are a determined people; we’re going to keep pushing, I guess, until we figure things out. If Trump signs an order banning people, even students, those people are not just going to say, Hey, we’re not going to get our education.

“It hasn't been easy really to be in an environment where there are a lot of doubts about your near future.”
It hasn’t been easy really to be in an environment where there are a lot of doubts about your near future. I’m fine about myself. But my parents are here, my younger brother is here. They came over as visitors, actually, then things got really bad back home. They were coming in on a two-week vacation, and then they made the decision they were going to stay here.

We’ve filed for asylum, which is political protection in the United States. It’s uncomfortable, it’s worrisome, not to be able to know what is going to happen to you when a new rule could come out any day now from President Trump.

Q. The executive order appears to target incoming refugees and visitors, but you’re worried, then, that your status, your family’s status, could be affected?

A. Absolutely. We don’t know what is going to happen.

Think about a U.S. citizen who has never met anyone from those countries included in the ban, and all they hear about is what is in the media. I wouldn’t blame them for thinking that all the people from those countries, that we are dangerous. If anything, the order is just going to make people more worried and scared.

Q. When we spoke before, it was in the context of an earlier political fight over Syrian refugees. At the time, you had invited Governor Pence, now the vice president, to come and talk with you, with actual Syrian students. Did he ever do that?

A. No, he did not. We were very disappointed. We had some food for him, but he never showed up.

Q. What would you want to say to Vice President Pence or to President Trump?

A. Well, I’d have a lot to say! I personally understand how much they care about the U.S. and the safety of their citizens, and that it’s the first thing they’ve got to watch out for. I do respect that.

But at the same time, I would just tell them to take their time and try to actually look at the issue at its core, and to see what’s the actual solution to it, not just something people would support. It’s not about how fast we can get something out to look good; it’s about how can we really solve the problem. I do personally agree there is a problem, but I don’t agree on the method to get there.

Q. How would you define the problem, and what’s the correct solution?

A. If we’re talking about national security, obviously the problem is the rise of extremism, not just in specific countries but in many countries. The thing is, those groups, they represent a minority in the country they are in.

As a Syrian, I can tell you, if you ask an average Syrian who their enemy is, they’re going to tell you that it’s ISIS [the Islamic State]. We’re being killed by ISIS. So in Syria, you have all these people who agree they need to be destroyed. Work with them on how it can be done. They’re not the enemy; they’re potentially an ally.

If you’re leaving your country against your will, and you’re coming to another place where you have opportunities to succeed and to move on with your future, you’re not going to throw those opportunities away. We’re very, very lucky to be here, and we understand that, and we know that. And we’re not going to turn our backs on that. We’re going to do everything we can to do well for ourselves and for the people who welcomed us.

Q. Have you felt welcomed during your four years at the University of Evansville?

A. I’m very blessed to be in a university that is diverse and open to people from different cultures. Evansville is a predominantly Republican city in this last election. Most people here are Trump supporters. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Personally I haven’t experienced any kind of singling out that I come from Syria or that I am a Muslim. I haven’t experienced that, my parents haven’t.

“I haven't experienced any kind of singling out that I come from Syria or that I am a Muslim.”
I meet with people here whose perspective about who we, Syrians, are is changed sometimes 100 percent after they meet us because they see in person that we’re not very different at the end of the day.

We have differences, for sure, but we have much more similarities than most people think. It’s sobering for both of us to know that. We could actually get along. A Syrian who practices their religion, who prays, who goes to the mosque — that’s not someone you should be scared of.

Q. What, if anything, do you think people within higher education could do to help Syrian students?

A. Give voice to the students, really hear what they have to say. Because that’s the strongest voice you could have, the people you’ve admitted to your school and are next to you in classes — to hear their perspective. Even if there aren’t many people from the countries we’re talking about, create awareness, learn more about them, incorporate their issues into class. An international-studies class or a political science or really any class could incorporate more learning about Syria.

We have a professor here who is director of the writing center. Her name is Gail Vignola. She helped us establish a student organization called Scholars for Syria, which promotes and raises awareness in our Evansville community. We bring speakers in from the Syrian community or professors who have some research on perspectives that would be interesting, and we open those events to the city.

Every single time we’ve had an event, we’ve maxed out the halls we’ve been in. We’re talking about 200 people who come in every time we do them, and we have about one event a month. A city like Evansville, we’re not a very big city. It’s a great example of what universities can do.

Q. We’ve been talking about events in the United States, but of course the war in your home country rages on. What is it like to watch the violence in Syria from afar?

A. It’s very hard, it’s very challenging for me to see that. Damascus, the city that I’m from, hasn’t had running water in about three weeks. My family, friends haven’t had running water. It’s very hard to know and hear about those problems because I’m in a top-notch university here getting a great education, and the life standards here are better. It’s very hard to hear what’s happening back home.

“It motivates me every day to do the best I can here so I can learn and take advantage of the opportunities here, so that one day I can go back home and help build the country back again.”
But it motivates me every day to do the best I can here so I can learn and take advantage of the opportunities here, so that one day I can go back home and help build the country back again. Because it really needs its people to go back and build it again. It adds responsibility on my shoulders and every Syrian student’s shoulders to do their best here and keep focused and never forget their country. It really motivates us and keeps us going.

I hope to be able to work in building up the economy at some point. It’s not going to be next year but eventually I do plan on it happening. It will happen. There are a lot of other Syrians who have the same aspirations and motivations, and they’re not going to go to waste.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.