Syrian Students Contend With Growing Anti-Refugee Rhetoric

November 18, 2015

Hassan Taki Eddin has a message for Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana: Come to the University of Evansville’s annual International Bazaar this Friday and meet some actual Syrians.

Mr. Pence, a Republican, is one of more than two dozen governors who have said they would seek to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. The governors have cited public-safety concerns after one of the terrorists in last week’s attacks in Paris was found carrying a Syrian passport.

Although experts say the governors are likely to lack the legal authority to enforce a ban, for Mr. Eddin, a 21-year-old accounting-and-finance major from Damascus, Governor Pence’s stance felt like a sucker punch. Along with his parents and 12-year-old brother, he is seeking asylum in the United States.

"It makes no sense. Those Syrians are the ones running away from terrorism," he says of the refugees.

Although Evansville, a liberal-arts college in the southwestern corner of the state, has welcomed him, the political rhetoric, Mr. Eddin says, "makes me feel like more of an outsider."

Nearly 800 Syrians attended American colleges in the 2014-15 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education, which has helped organize more than 50 institutions to open their doors and offer scholarship assistance to Syrian students and to help relocate scholars. Higher education, says Allan E. Goodman, the institute’s president, can be a "refuge."

The students come to the United States on student visas, not as refugees, Mr. Goodman notes. (Therefore, they wouldn’t be affected by any ban on asylum seekers.) Still, students say, it’s difficult not to be wounded by the recent anti-refugee statements.

Messages of Support

Mouhammad Rami Alshareef, who goes by Rami, will graduate at the end of the semester from Monmouth College, in rural Illinois. Syrians like him have left their home country, he says, "because they are afraid, not because they want to go outside and do trouble."

All foreign students are permitted to work in the United States for at least one year after graduation, and Mr. Alshareef has landed a position at a software firm where he interned this past summer. After that, he’s not sure.

"Syria is my home," he says, "but Monmouth is like my second home."

'For Monmouth students,' says an associate dean of the Illinois college, 'the conflict in Syria doesn't just have one face. It has 20.'
After Illinois’s governor, Bruce V. Rauner, joined the chorus of governors saying they would halt refugee resettlement, one of Mr. Alshareef’s professors pulled him aside after class on Tuesday to ask him if he was OK.

Monmouth students, American and Syrian alike, have also spoken up or posted supportive messages on Facebook, says Brenda Tooley, associate dean for academic affairs. The college’s 20 Syrian students are well known on the campus; like Mr. Alshareef, who is a resident adviser, many have taken leadership roles. "For Monmouth students," Ms. Tooley says, "the conflict in Syria doesn’t just have one face. It has 20."

At Eastern Michigan University, the chapter of Students Organize for Syria plans to send a letter to the state’s governor, Rick Snyder, who has done an about-face after previously welcoming refugees to the state. The group also will set up a table in the central campus this week to talk to passing students about the plight of Syrian refugees, says the chapter’s president, Ahnas Alzahabi.

This isn’t the club’s first educational effort. Earlier this year, members held a "Freeze-a-thon" during which students traded in their coats for a day and pledged to wear T-shirts with the slogan "I freeze for Syria" and a list of Syrian refugee camps. "In Michigan. In the winter," Mr. Alzahabi notes.

Mr. Alzahabi, a senior, was born in Michigan, but he attended high school in Syria and still has family there. He says he understands why people might worry about the threat of terrorism, but to broadly blame all Syrian refugees is stereotyping. "It’s like saying any Mexican who comes to the U.S. is part of a drug cartel," he says. "It’s just wrong."

Even as the political commentary has heated up, administrators at Evansville have been reaching out. On Friday, just as the terror in Paris was unfolding, both Kate Hogan, director of cultural engagement and international services, and the university’s head of counseling were meeting with a group of Syrian students. Evansville now has 24 students from Syria, and Ms. Hogan thought that, coming from a region in turmoil, they might need special services or support. In fact, Ms. Hogan says, one thing the students requested was more opportunities to speak out about the Syrian conflict.

Mr. Eddin, who is president of the campus’s international-students club, says one opportunity to do that will be at the International Bazaar, where students from around the world put on performances and prepare foods from their home countries. And he hopes Governor Pence will be there to listen. The governor might feel differently, he says, if he "would just see the people who are here."

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

Correction (1/25/2017, 8:14 p.m.): This article originally misstated Mr. Eddin's age. He is 21, not 23. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.