The Chronicle Review

Why Trump’s Executive Order Is Wrongheaded and Reckless

January 29, 2017

The Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border.
Three years ago, at the Za’atari refugee camp on Jordan’s northern border, I sat in a tent with young Syrian women and men who had been forced to abandon their studies as they fled the most ferocious war of our new century. They were supposed to be Syria’s teachers, engineers, doctors, and lawyers. Most wanted to return to Syria, a few had applied to the United Nations for official refugee status — beginning the process of resettlement — but all wanted to continue their studies.

Since then, I’ve met with refugee students in Lebanon, Turkey, and most recently at a camp on Greece’s border with Macedonia. The stories of the brutality they fled have grown worse with time, including accounts of exploitation at the hands of sweatshop employers and routine sexual violence.

The closing of America to the world, begun by this order, is an abandonment of the enormous capacity of American soft power embodied in exchange programs, study abroad, and efforts to rescue scholars.
Since those first conversations in Jordan, my hope had been to start connecting large numbers of displaced Syrian university students with opportunities to continue their studies. While strides have been made in Turkey and Germany, colleges in America have been largely absent from any efforts to help. This is for a host reasons: Even before the president’s executive order barring all refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, student visas for young Syrians, especially young Syrian men, were almost impossible to get.

It has also been a question of will. My colleagues and I have met with resistance from those concerned that international students — placed in the same category as refugees and full-tuition paying elite students — were taking seats from needy in-state students. That response is not unique to the United States. I heard it in Greece and Lebanon, too.

With the president’s executive order, the young Syrians refugees I’ve met, and the tens of thousands like them from other countries, have been swept up in a reckless act based on prejudice and justified by lies. The order, as written, not only prevents them from studying in the United States but also denies them and their families even the possibility of exercising their basic human right to find asylum in our country. Syrian college students, including those who are here, are now in more danger, and we are as well.

In 2014 I traveled to the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli and spoke with Ammar Ibrahim, a professor of agricultural economics at Aleppo University, who had escaped Syria before he could be arrested by the secret police. As we looked out across a treeless plain to the mountains that marked the border with Syria, he said, "Either these young men continue their studies, or they will join al-Daish" — the Islamic State.

For a modern Syrian professor like Ibrahim, the prospects of a generation of Syrians abandoning education for the barbarism of Islamist extremism must have been heartbreaking. It was also evidence of the cost of our collective failure to create educational opportunities and pathways of inclusion for young Syrians in our society.

When I sat with refugees and listened to them describe studying mechanical engineering so they could restore their cities, or the classes they needed to become a neonatologist and help rebuild Syria’s devastated health-care system, I saw in them immense hope and human potential. It was in those moments that I grasped the full measure what’s being lost in this "lost generation."

The president’s executive order is about something more. As reports circulate that his administration plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and privatize the Public Broadcasting Service, other global-education-focused programs like Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which provides funds to international-studies and foreign-language centers, as well as the Fulbright-Hays grants and Hubert H. Humphrey fellowships, will also most likely be cut. These programs have sent generations of young Americans to the Middle East, including me some 20 years ago, to learn languages and better understand a critical and troubled part of the world. And those same programs brought Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian students and scholars to America. While these programs have faced threats in the past, it’s difficult to believe they can survive in the current climate.

Before Friday’s executive order, my colleagues and I at the University of California at Davis were working with the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund to host a dissident Iranian economist, someone who had found himself on the wrong side the Iranian government while trying to defend the rights of his own students. I wanted him to come to help us better understand the human-rights problems Iranians face, but also to build collegial relationships that promote confidence and prevent war. We will still do all we can to bring him, despite the very real possibility that his visa will be denied.

In the face of the new executive order, however, it will become increasingly difficult to persuade administrators and colleagues to dedicate the resources and time needed to bring scholars and students from blacklisted countries. As word comes that Iran and Iraq are considering reciprocal bans, scholars who teach and conduct research in those countries will be unable to do so.

The closing of America to the world, begun by this order, is, among other things, an abandonment of the enormous capacity of American soft power embodied in exchange programs, study abroad, and efforts to rescue scholars and students — all of which promote human rights, collective security, and global commerce.

I’ve spent the last few years fighting to lessen the impact of war on young people in the Middle East. I never thought the need for that fight would come home in such a cruel and un-American way.

Keith David Watenpaugh is a historian of the Middle East and a professor of human- rights studies at the University of California at Davis. He is author, most recently, of Bread From Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (University of California Press, 2015)