The overcast, Washington, D.C., sky greeted Fateh Tumia on his first day in America in January 1976. He came to the United States from Libya, an eager student pursuing his master’s degree in systems engineering at the University of Arizona. 41 years later, sitting in the Amante Coffee café on Baseline Road and 28th Street in Boulder, he holds two passports — one from a country which tried to ban entry from residents of the other.
On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning all entry into the United States from seven Muslim-majority nations, leaving many of the 75 members of the CU Boulder community from those countries angry, fearful and uncertain of their future.
While not directly affected, many of the more than 3,000 international students at CU from non-banned countries share similar anxieties about the ability of their families to visit, a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and for their F-1 student visas to transfer into worker visas to remain in the U.S. after graduation.
When Tumia came to America, he said you could “get a visa before finishing a cigarette.” In the four decades he has lived in America since earning his degree, the international student population in U.S. universities has ballooned from less than 200,000 students to almost 1 million people from all corners of the globe, 5 percent of the 2015 school year’s university student population.
While Trump’s ban has been temporarily blocked by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over a lack of evidence that it would increase safety, CU international students’ fears still loom over their place in the U.S.
Covering his face with an old cloth, Ali shoveled stalks of discarded wheat from the screaming flower mill until the sun crossed the sky, dipped below the western horizon and returned to the east the next morning. It was the 24 hours of the year he most dreaded, the day his parents would rent a motorized wheat mill to grind their yearly grain harvest into flour. Ali, his siblings and his neighbors needed to work around the clock to maintain the Mill’s output for every second their rental allowed. As farmers near the western edge of Iran, 24 hours was all they could afford from their meager income.
Opportunities beyond farming were slim in his village near the Iraq border.
“I wanted to have a job that used by mind, not my body,” he said during an interview in CU’s Gemmill Engineering Library, looking back at his childhood of manual labor.
Ali eventually would leave his village, earn a degree in Iran’s capitol of Tehran and work in an oil company. But these accomplishments were not enough for the ambitious Iranian. In 2013, Ali came to CU to seek yet another degree. He’s on track to earn his doctorate in electrical engineering this spring.
Over the snow-capped Zagros Mountains in the neighboring province of Isfahan, Elnaz Beirami grew up in the Isfahan Technical University housing, where her father taught. Instead of working in the farm fields as Ali did, she spent her childhood listening to her father’s colleagues wax on about their research of the world beyond Iran’s borders.
After earning a degree in English literature in Iran and beginning a doctorate in tourism management in Cyprus, she joined Ali and over 40 other Iranian students in the CU community when she started her master’s in business in fall of 2016.
Ali and Beirami’s stories had never crossed paths until Jan. 27, when the signing of the executive order banning travel from their home country of Iran fused their stories — along with 73 other members of the CU community — together.
More international students flock to American institutions every year than anywhere else in the world. To many, America represents freedom and the chance for their once unattainable dreams, limited by their place of origin, to flourish.
“America is built on immigrants,” Beirami said, referring to the many friends and family members from Iran who have come to the U.S. and started business and contribute to the U.S. workforce.
In the era when Tumia arrived to study engineering at the University of Arizona, background checks, interviews and long waiting periods were unheard of. By the time Ali, Beirami and other Iranian students began their visa application, their process was much longer and required a determined resolve to come to the U.S.
Ali had made up his mind to come to the U.S years before he began any visa application. Growing up without internet, his only window to the west was through VHS tapes of Arnold Schwarzenegger chasing Linda Hamilton through time in The Terminator. He saw a society more liberal than his own and with more opportunity. He shared an affinity for the free culture of the west with many other Middle Eastern and Iranian students that the CUI interviewed while reporting on Trump’s effect on the CU community.
“Iranians are in love with Americans,” one CU student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.
Ali’s first steps on American soil were in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Since the 1979 hostage takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran where over 60 American diplomats were held captive for 444 days, the U.S. has not had an embassy in Iran. To finalize his student visa, he needed to complete an in-person interview at a U.S. embassy, which is technically American territory. Turkmenistan, a neighboring central Asian country, was his answer.
After waiting 26 days for his visa to process, he was granted a single-entry visa into the U.S.
Iranians were the largest population of international students in the U.S. in 1979, the same year the revolution transformed the country into an Islamic republic. After the revolution, the Carter administration cancelled U.S. visas for Iranians and imposed immigration restriction on the country. When Iranian students were allowed to study in the country again, they were only allowed single-entry visas.
In 2011, the Obama administration removed the single-entry restriction, trying to again attract Iranian students like Beirami who was granted a multiple-entry student visa in 2016.
Back in Ali’s village, his family continued to work on the farm, milling their wheat harvest and cultivating cucumbers. Without internet on the farm, his parents were completely severed from their son.
“I went a whole year without seeing my mother’s face,” Ali said.
Many students interviewed voiced the concern that, under Trump’s immigration and refugee ban, they’d be alone in the U.S., unable to reunite with their families. After Trump’s order, the State Department cancelled the visa interviews Beirami’s parents had scheduled for their summer visit, along with 60,000 other visas, as Time Magazine reported. The cancellations were later reversed. Ali had hoped his family could come to watch him earn his doctorate, but he’s uncertain if they will be allowed in the country with the U.S.’s tumultuous political climate on foreign policy. He is hopeful they will be able to make their first trip to America.
The Trump administration said the ban, and all foreign policy in the future, will be “America first.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly claimed that the list of seven Muslim-majority countries banned was taken from a law signed under the Obama administration barring anyone who has visited the seven countries from using the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 mostly western countries to enter the U.S. without pre-screened visas.
Although the Obama-era law did not outright ban anyone’s entry to the U.S, it required that those who have visited the seven countries after March 2011 have a visa for entry. Trump’s ban went further, barring all citizens from the seven countries and leaving green card visa holders subject to rescreening after visiting those countries.
Most uncertain is the ability for students graduating to be able to transfer their student F-1 visas, which only allow them to stay in the country as students, to Optional Practical Training (OPT) visas, which can extend their stay while working in the U.S. without having to reapply for the official workers’ H1-B visa. Current news reports have not said that OPT visas will be denied, but Ali and his friends await confirmation.
“100 percent of our conversations are about the news,” said Ali about his talked with other Iranians at CU’s Center for Community.
The Trump administration has stated they will replace the ban with a new executive order on immigration, but it remains undetermined as to what extent a new executive order will impact international students in the CU community .
“The International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) office will provide guidance to international students who are on visas sponsored by the university,” said Scott Pribble, a spokesperson for CU, in an emailed statement. “[The ISSS will] advocate and liaison on their behalf as appropriate with governmental agencies if the students encounter difficulties with their immigration status,” Pribble said.
But for Beirami, whether the legal impact of the ban is secondary to the emotional impact of what it was like to, in her words, “be trapped in a country that doesn’t like me.”
Contact CU Independent Multimedia Managing Editor Jackson Barnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.