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“It’s Heartbreaking for Us.” Syrian Students’ Struggle to Study in the U.S.

11 minute read
Higgins is the author of the essay collection Maeve in America and host of the climate justice podcast Mothers of Invention

Only the brightest kids in the world get into MIT. This fall the class of 2023 had students from all 50 states and 127 foreign countries. If you’re looking for statistics about admission, MIT has them by the bucket-load, though they’d probably shudder at such an unscientific turn of phrase. Take look at this year’s stats: 4,327 applications came from kids in foreign countries, and out of those, only 134 got a place, that’s around a 3% chance. When I found out two of those kids were Syrian, I stopped trying to work out the odds. These are teenagers, somehow surviving in a war zone while also managing to learn English, sit the SATs and brave the application process to eventually be accepted into one of the world’s best schools, alongside the smartest and luckiest American teenagers. On full scholarships, too. I’d like to meet these brilliant kids, maybe ask them how best I could pay off this credit card debt…I can’t though, because they’re not allowed in. Syria is one of the 7 countries banned by Presidential Proclamation 9645, also known as Travel Ban 3.0.

Earlier this fall I met with a Deloitte consultant named George Batah in his elegant office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. George came here as a college junior, one of 33 Syrian kids brought to the U.S. by a group of Syrian Americans in 2011, the year the civil war broke out. It was not part of his plan, he laughs. ‘”Not in a million years did I think I would come here as a transfer student,” but it was a way out of a vicious war that is still roils on today, with 6 million people displaced and an estimated 500,000 dead. George and the original 33 have all stayed and excelled. Today they are bankers, architects, lawyers and academics, they are thriving and many are on a path to U.S. citizenship. Since 2016, George and a number of his cohort have been paying it forward, and mentoring bright Syrian kids. Their express aim is getting them into colleges here in America, with success. Before the ban, they helped 65 students to move and study abroad, on full scholarships. “I has this idea that instead of fundraising millions of dollars to bring students here, we have a lot of very brilliant students there and a number of universities here who offer scholarships.”

They founded a small non-profit organization called the Syrian Youth Empowerment Initiative. Between their own busy millennial lives of work, dating and staying in touch with family scattered around the world, George, now 27, and his friends search for the brightest Syrian high school students they can find. These include kids in refugee camps in countries that neighbor Syria and in active warzones inside Syria, with the bombs and blackouts that come with that. Syrian refugees have been forced to find safety all over the world, and the students reflect that, among them are refugees in Denmark, Malaysia, Armenia and Bahrain. The non-profit works with these kids over Skype, Facebook, Whatsapp and email to get their TOEFL qualification, their SATs and their college applications in tip-top shape. “All the mentors were from the first 33, it’s not political. We want to help, and this is education based. We did not discriminate against high school students based on politics, on their religion or their background,” says George. This year and last 10 kids were accepted on full scholarships worth approximately $15 million to Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Georgetown and others. The universities are helpful and they have come to understand some of the realities facing these Syrian kids. For example, if a school gets bombed, transcripts will be destroyed, and they work around that. After this Herculean effort on the part of the students and their mentors, and often the universities too, it was almost unbearable for eight of them to learn earlier this year that the U.S. government won’t let them in. Looking out at the Manhattan skyline, George is reflective. “It’s heartbreaking for us, but mainly for the students.”

Refusing the best applicants for a college place is a personal blow for those students and everyone who helped them, but on a larger scale, the implications for America are unsettling. Educators here are alarmed at the growing number of obstacles being thrown in the path of almost all international students by this administration. Aside from rising anti-immigrant rhetoric, the past two years have seen new rules limiting and complicating many aspects of the lives of student visa holders. These include entrance to the country, their legal status here, and ultimately their ability to stay and work. In July of this year, Harvard President Larry Bacow wrote to the State Department’s Secretary Pompeo and Homeland Security’s Acting Secretary McAleenan, stating that a global reach is essential for his university to thrive. “I understand that the responsibility for the uncertainties in today’s immigration policy rest more broadly than just with your two agencies. That said, the visa and immigration process is increasingly unpredictable and uncertain. This poses risks not just to the individuals caught up in it, but also to the entirety of our academic enterprise.”

Two Syrian students mentored by George and his peers got full-ride places at Harvard this year, but their visas were denied. On appeal, without any explanation, they were granted, and the kids arrived on time to start school. It’s wonderful for them and for Harvard, but there was no stated difference between their applications, and later their appeals, than those of the other Syrian students who’d been accepted by other institutions. As well as inevitable pain for those refused entry, the arbitrary nature of the visa process causes huge anxiety and confusion to students coming from all over the world, even outside of the banned countries. New overseas student enrollments fell by 6.6 percent in 2017/18, continuing a downward trend first observed in the 2015/16 academic year. The travel ban is the just the tip of a spear that’s being shot through this country’s entire higher education system. One of the ten Syrian students mentored by George’s organization got into Dartmouth but she turned them down, opting instead to attend McGill University in Canada. Dartmouth was her preferred option but she did not even apply for a visa, knowing it would most likely be denied. George explained her thinking further. “She said ‘I don’t want to spend 5, 7, 10 years not being able to see my parents because I can’t go back and forth and they are not allowed to come to America. I’ll take McGill, I don’t want to deal with that.’” And she’s not the only one.

As America’s numbers fall, Canada has experienced 154% growth in international students studying in Canada over the 2010-2018 period. I spoke to the President and CEO of the Canadian Bureau of International Education, Larissa Bezo, and asked her if America’s loss was Canada’s gain. Her response is perfectly, diplomatically, Canadian. “The growth of the international student population in Canada necessarily needs to be considered within the context of the broader geo-political landscape.” Canadian government data shows the number of Syrian students admitted growing year on year, with 265 arriving in 2016, and 355 in 2018. Third level education in Canada is generally more affordable than here, and post-graduate work permits are easier to get. In January 2018, the Trump administration made it more difficult to get into the Optional Practical Training program, which allows international students to stay on for a few years to work after graduation. In 2017, over 276,000 skilled immigrants worked under OPT, more than were employed under the H-1B program, which is also being curbed.

Nabil Khalil from Aleppo, Syria. His first picture at MIT, taken days after his arrival, on Sep. 6, 2017.Courtesy of George Batah.

Of course, a person considers more than visas and post-graduate opportunities when deciding on where to spend their college years and beyond. Larissa points me to a survey by the CBIE listing the reasons international students choose to study in Canada, with the top three being the quality of the education system, Canada’s reputation as a tolerant and non-discriminatory society, and Canada’s reputation as a safe country.

Beyond academic life, turning down the opportunity to educate and embrace talent does not bode well for the future of the country. Miles Corak, an Economics Professor at CUNY’s Graduate Center, is puzzled by this approach, “The Trump administration has talked about tilting the visa process to more skilled and educated immigrants. So banning individuals based upon broad country categories, rather than recognizing their particular aptitudes runs contrary to this objective.” Loud complaints that countries don’t ‘send their best’ ring hollow because they do send their best and we turn their best away. Americans have to wonder why that is, isn’t it a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face? The students who were denied visas would most likely have followed the trajectory of the original 33 students by integrating successfully into the labor market and ultimately settling here: working, paying taxes, raising a family, and beaming out a warm image of America to everyone back in Syria. In time, they could perhaps have returned to Syria and help rebuild. Syria needs educated and talented young people, but so does America. Kauffman Foundation’s annual Index of Startup Activity shows that immigrants were almost twice as likely as native-born to start new businesses in the U.S. in 2016. Almost 30% of all new entrepreneurs were immigrants, Kauffman says. A report from the Partnership for a New American Economy found that in 2016, 40.2% of Fortune 500 firms had “at least one founder who either immigrated to the United States or was the child of immigrants.”

Aram (not his real name) is one of the students offered a place at MIT and denied a visa. I email with Aram, and he assures me he was one of the lucky ones, that his love for learning helped him. “I was fortunate not to be affected by the war in an extreme way but I honestly think that learning about math and computer science started more like an escape than a deliberate choice.” Aram studied free pdfs on his phone and under battery powered LED lights for hours each night. He realized his hobby could mean something bigger, and eventually competed in an international scientific Olympiad, winning a medal that gave him the confidence to believe an academic escape was possible.

When I ask him why MIT he responds with a smiley face emoji and the exclamation “There are many things about MIT that would excite a nerd like me!” Like cash-strapped families around the world, Aram’s family had to sacrifice a lot for his dream, and this weighs on him today, “Dedicating financial resources to paying standardized testing fees felt like a big leap of faith, that would only be justifiable if I did everything possible to succeed in my college applications.” Of course, he did succeed. He got the place, the Willy Wonka golden ticket. Aram relives the feelings of the day he got his offer. “I was thrilled that three and a half years of hard work paid off! Visa issues were a concern from the moment I received my acceptance letter. It was very heartbreaking to see those concerns materialize.” He was accepted and offered a scholarship two years running, but denied a visa both times, likely for the simple reason that he is Syrian.

Aside from moral obligation we may or may not feel, what sheer resilience these young people have shown, what brilliance. Why deny ourselves the opportunity of educating them and benefitting from their presence? How short-sighted, how self-defeating. It doesn’t have to be this way. We could welcome these students and help them to thrive, we could accept their presence as the gift that it is, because when we do, everybody wins.

Correction, Nov 29

The original version of this story misstated characteristics of the city that Aram lives in.

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