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International Students and Trump's Travel Ban

TSPR Emily Boyer
Handmade signs welcome international students at the Islamic Center near Western Illinois University's campus

A federal appeals court has blocked President Trump's executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S. The administration is expected to issue a revised travel ban soon.  In the meantime, many colleges and universities are standing by international students.

Farid Freyha,19, started at Knox College in Galesburg during the winter semester. He’s from Damascus and chose to study psychology in the U.S. to escape the dangers of Syria.  

“It kind of wasn’t as damaged as the other cities in there, you know in war and so, but it always felt kind of dangerous, because like, you know it’s still war, and you don’t know when you’re going to die,” Freyha said.

Freyha is the second person in his family to travel to the U.S. in pursuit of  higher education. Farid’s older brother, Jad Freyha, graduated from Monmouth College last year.

Al-Fanar Media states that universities in Syria are moving their classrooms and facilities to makeshift campuses near the relatively safe capital. These temporary facilities are oftentimes without heat or electricity, and he said the moves have resulted in major overcrowding in the city.

Academic displacement and disadvantages in Syria inspired action from the Institute of International Education (IIE), the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and Jusoor—an NGO focused on helping Syrian youth around the world—to fund fellowships and scholarships for Syrian students and professors. The combined efforts resulted in the IIE Syria Consortium, which now includes 79 colleges and universities around the world.

Brenda Tooley, Knox College’s Director of  the Center for Global Studies and former Director of International Initiatives at Monmouth College, said she will continue to advocate for Syrian students to study in western Illinois.

“It’s really something in a class to have students who have actually had to travel outside of their country to even apply for a visa,” Tooley said. “They value their education, as many students do, but they have a particular urgency and deep appreciation for what’s happening and for why they’re there.”

Tooley was instrumental in helping Farid Freyha, as well as his older brother Jad, with the application process.

Tooley said she stresses constant and continued outreach—especially in times of crisis—as a top priority.

“For a time, Damascus was having regular rolling brownouts…there were bombs falling. So, to stay in touch, to be not just an admissions person—I’m more like a faculty advisor. An encourager,” Tooley said.

Over the past four years, Tooley helped enroll 22 Syrian students at Monmouth College. At Knox, she hopes to finish off the academic year with two Syrian students enrolled.

Nationally, almost 800 Syrian students are enrolled in U.S. schools.

If the proposed travel ban is allowed to stand, it would severely limit those international students’ ability to travel.

Knox College issued a statement in support of its international students days after the travel ban was put in place. President Teresa Amott wrote that the college will work with immigration attorneys and advocacy organizations to support the students affected.

Other colleges, including Western Illinois University, have made similar statements. President Jack Thomassaid in an email to the university community that Western believes scholarly activities are not bound by national borders.

There are nearly 500 international students studying at Western Illinois University. 15 of them are from the seven majority Muslim countries targeted by Trump’s executive order. 

Jeff Hancks, interim director for Western’s Center for International Studies, said international student applications and enrollment have been increasing in recent years. The majority of Western’s international students are studying at the graduate level. A lot of those students start by learning English through Western’s English as a Second Language Program before going on to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree at WIU. 

Hancks said he worries that a travel ban sends the wrong message.

“We are just concerned that international students are going to get the message that the United States doesn’t want you,” Hancks said. “We have already heard anecdotally that recruiting is picking up considerably from the other English speaking countries who are much more openly welcoming as a government for these international students”

Hancks said he does not believe Trump wrote the executive order with international students in mind. But he said, even a temporary order could hurt a prospective student from one of the seven targeted countries from securing a student visa in time for the fall semester.

Hancks said it can take up to three months for new international students to complete the background and security check as well as the personal interview in order to get approved for a student visa.

That process is familiar to Hashim Al-Rikabi, an international student from Iraq. Al-Rikbai plans to graduate from Western this spring with a Master’s degree in political science.

His student visa only allowed him to enter the U.S. so he has not been able to go home since moving to Macomb three years ago.

He said Iraq has made great strides in fighting terrorism organizations such as ISIS and he worries about how a Trump travel ban will undo his country’s efforts to retake control of Mosul. 

“A lot of terrorist organization will be happy if something is in place because they say see the west is in war with Islam and they will recruit more.”

He added that a travel ban feels un-American in a country that supports religious freedom.

After graduation, Al-Rikabi wants to enroll in a doctorate program. He said he’s applied to a couple schools in America but with all the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s travel ban he is also looking at universities in Canada.

Emily Boyer is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.