Faculty

Here Are 7 People Whose Lives Were Changed by the Travel Ban

January 31, 2017

Courtesy of Azarakhsh Keipour
Azarakhsh Keipour, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon U., is scrapping plans to attend an international robotics competition in the United Arab Emirates in March. “Even if they give me the document for that it’s very scary to go,” he says, because there is no guarantee he would be allowed back into the United States.

International students and scholars across the country found themselves in limbo following an executive order that President Trump signed on Friday banning citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

Many researchers and students from the banned countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — have had their lives upended. The Chronicle spoke with seven people in academe affected by the order, and compiled their stories below.

Hadil Mansoor Al-Mowafak, undergraduate at Stanford University

When Hadil Mansoor Al-Mowafak heard the news of the travel ban, she didn’t believe it was real.

She had just started her first year at Stanford University, with aspirations to obtain her J.D. and practice human-rights law. She was going to return home to Yemen to visit her husband and family in the summer. Now, she’s not sure when she will be able to go back or whether her loved ones will be able to visit her.

"I felt like that could not happen in a country like America. It’s so sad, a country of freedom, country of democracy, and suddenly it goes down that road," Ms. Al-Mowafak said.

Courtesy of Hadil Mansoor Al-Mowafak
Hadil Mansoor Al-Mowafak

She was unable to return home over winter break because of conflict in Yemen. News of the ban coincided with reports of Yemeni civilians being killed in the first U.S. raid under President Trump.

"They ban Yemenis at the same time that they kill them and you start wondering, Who’s the terrorist?" Ms. Al-Mowafak said.

She said she feels "trapped" because, unlike other Stanford students, she will be excluded from opportunities like studying abroad. Mostly, though, she’s hurt and uncertain when she will next see her husband.

"I have four years to finish, so if this ban continues, I will stay away from my family for four years," Ms. Al-Mowafak said. Her family worries, but her husband has been reassuring. He told her, "It’s OK, we’re going to do it, even if it’s four years. Don’t do anything reckless, don’t come back, stay where you are." —Alex Arriaga

Ubadah Sabbagh, Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech

Courtesy of Ubadah Sabbagh
Ubadah Sabbagh

Ubadah Sabbagh isn’t stranded outside the United States or wondering about the future of his visa. Instead, Friday’s executive order has Mr. Sabbagh wondering where he stands as a green-card holder from Syria.

"There’s no imminent threat to me, currently, as I understand it," he said. "There’s just this big cloud of suspicion over people from these seven countries. That’s the most concerning thing for me."

Mr. Sabbagh, who’s working toward his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Virginia Tech, came to the United States when he was 16 and hasn’t left. He said he’s worried about what the president’s order will do to diversity in American science and about the stigma it casts on people from the seven countries in question.

"Apparently we’re all terrorists now," Mr. Sabbagh said, adding that the order is "shortchanging" science efforts in the United States by restricting the people who can study here.

"Bacteria and lab rats don’t recognize the nationalities of the people who are poking around at them. All science cares about is how good you are as a researcher, what kind of questions you ask, and how creative you can be." —Tom Hesse

Payam Jafari, master’s student at Academy of Art University

Courtesy of Payam Jafari
Payam Jafari

Payam Jafari traveled back to Tehran in December to be with his family before the spring semester, a trip he had made four times since moving to the United States three years ago. His plans to return to San Francisco next week to finish his degree are stalled now.

"I just didn’t take the statements from the president seriously," Mr. Jafari said. He thought Mr. Trump’s call for a Muslim ban during his campaign was "just for election; he wants to get attention."

After putting so much money and work into his degree, Mr. Jafari is confused about what will come next. "I don’t know what to do," he said. "I can’t do anything. I don’t have the power to change anything right now. This new situation is not fair."

Still, Mr. Jafari said the ban does not align with his experiences as an immigrant in San Francisco. "I haven’t had a single bad experience in San Francisco," Mr. Jafari said. The ban "is all about politics and politicians, not about people."

He called the crowds of Americans supporting detained immigrants at airports and marching in protest of the ban "amazing."

"I feel it deeply in my heart," Mr. Jafari said. "I appreciate it. American people, they protest for people from other countries. They care about them." —Alex Arriaga

Roxana Attar, Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia

Courtesy of Roxana Attar
Roxana Attar

For Roxana Attar, an Iranian Ph.D. student studying computer science at the University of Georgia, this weekend’s executive order presented her with an ultimatum. "This order forced me to choose between my family and my study," she said. "If I want to stay here and pursue my studies I can’t see my family for maybe five years or more, and if I want to go back to my family I can’t continue my studies."

Ms. Attar’s family had an appointment with the American Consulate in Dubai, hoping to secure visas to visit her this year. That trip is off the table. She said if she had known she’d be forced to choose between her degree and her family, she would have considered other countries to study in.

"Because especially in my country, the relationship between family is a very close relationship," she said. "So if I knew that there might be some kind of order to choose between my family and my studies I would not have come at first."

Ms. Attar said she and her family are frustrated that Iran and the six other nations were singled out. She didn’t expect Americans to realize how the president’s order separates students from their families, but she and her family were encouraged by the weekend's protests.

"When we saw the marches and the American people get out of their houses and come to the streets it was really a relief," Ms. Attar said. "It was beautiful for us that there’s a lot of Americans who can support us and they know how we feel. And they want to support us."

Before coming to the United States, she’d heard universally good things from friends and colleagues who studied here. Many of them stayed on to work, "and they all had very nice experiences here," she said. "But I don’t know what it will look like after this order." —Tom Hesse

Azarakhsh Keipour, master’s student at Carnegie Mellon

The president’s executive order on immigration cast doubt over Azarakhsh Keipour’s master’s program and his plans to pursue a Ph.D.

The 32-year-old Iranian student has been studying robotics since 2015, and the funding for his program at Carnegie Mellon University is derived from an international robotics competition each March that he will no longer be able to attend.

This spring’s Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge will be held in the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Keipour had applied for permission from the U.S. government to travel to the competition, but in light of Friday’s news, he’ll have to cancel.

"Even if they give me the document for that it’s very scary to go" Mr. Keipour said, because he fears he might not be able to return. Mr. Keipour was hoping to finish his masters this spring and start toward a Ph.D. in the fall, but now he’s not sure if he can. He’s also wondering how long it will be before he sees his parents. Mr. Keipour is an only child, and his parents were scheduled to go to the U.S. Consulate in Dubai for a visa appointment in February.

"I even bought the plane tickets and reserved the hotel and everything," he said. "But two nights ago I got an email from the embassy that all interviews for Iranians are canceled." —Tom Hesse

Arash Abizadeh, professor at McGill University

Arash Abizadeh, a Canadian professor of Iranian descent, canceled a talk this past weekend at the University of Chicago over concern that he would be refused entry to the United States. Mr. Abizadeh, an associate professor of political science, was to fly from a workshop in Frankfurt to Chicago, but the travel ban changed his plans. "There were reports about Canadians who were of Iranian origin, like me, being detained and refused entry," he said. "Taking a trans-Atlantic flight and then having to deal with this mess is not what I wanted to do, so I wrote to the university to cancel my talk and bought a ticket back home."

Though Mr. Abizadeh was born in Iran, he left for Canada with his family as a child, fleeing religious persecution. "My family fled Iran because we’re not Muslim. My family is Bahá’í, and Bahá’ís are very persecuted in Iran," Mr. Abizadeh said. He has not been back to Iran since, and he has no Iranian passport.

By coincidence, Mr. Abizadeh’s work has focused on immigration and the injustice of border regimes. "I’ve thought about these things for many years," he says.

Mr. Abizadeh said he is happy to see that people are mobilizing against the ban, and he has received many messages of support from American and Canadian colleagues. But he is reconsidering travel to the United States for the time being. "I have another talk I’m supposed to give in Princeton in a couple of weeks," he said. "I’m going to make a decision in the next couple of days, but the likely decision is to cancel it." —Lindsay McKenzie

Aida Nikou, Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University

Aida Nikou said she had an epiphany when she read about the travel ban in the news: "I realized that I shouldn’t have let myself feel so comfortable," she said.

A first-year Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Stony Brook University, Ms. Nikou is a green-card holder from Iran. The travel ban means that she can no longer leave the United States. "I was going to participate in a conference in Belgium in March," she said, "and now I have to cancel that."

But what really concerns Ms. Nikou is the future of her research. "My research is about Iran, my home country, and I was planning to go back this summer to do fieldwork — a defining research method for my discipline," she said. That trip is probably off now.

Without fieldwork, "it’s basically impossible to continue that research," said Ms. Nikou. "This means I will probably have to change my research topic, which is sad."

When she left Iran she imagined she might build a home in America, she said, but now she feels unwelcome, "just a minority" in the eyes of many. "No matter what social status I occupy, because of my nationality and my religion, I will always be at the bottom of the hierarchy and cast as ‘other,’" she said. "It’s kind of humiliating."

Ms. Nikou said on Monday that she’d been volunteering at John F. Kennedy International Airport as a translator for the past two nights because "it’s the only thing I can do."

"I’ve seen people getting together and fighting this injustice and trying to change it, and that’s really beautiful," she said. "I found it very inspiring. Resistance from the bottom is the story of mankind from the beginning. We get together and we decide to change something and we will." —Lindsay McKenzie

Correction (2/3/2017, 10:25 a.m.): This article incorrectly called the official U.S. presence in Dubai an embassy. It is a consulate. The article has been updated to reflect that.