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The Travel Ban's Effect On Colleges

Syrian Student Worries About Her Future At Northeastern

bushra dabbagh2.jpg
Bushra Dabbagh spoke in June at the 2018 European Development Days conference in Brussels.
Courtesy of Bushra Dabbagh
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The Travel Ban's Effect On Colleges

When Bushra Dabbagh learned last month that the Supreme Court had upheld President Trump's travel ban, she was shocked.

"I was asking myself, 'Does it affect me? Am I going to face another challenge?'" said Dabbagh, who was born in Syria and earned two bachelor’s degrees at the University of Aleppo.

Two years ago, the 26-year-old applied to graduate school at Northeastern and got in, winning a scholarship. But she had to delay her studies for a semester because of Trump's first travel ban.

"When I first heard about the travel ban, I was so frustrated,” Dabbagh said. “I started crying because all of my plans — everything that I was planning for over a year — just vanished in front of my eyes only because I have a certain passport."

In January, with the help of Northeastern's lawyers, Dabbagh obtained a student visa and came to Boston. Since then, she's avoided returning to Aleppo to visit her family.

“I want to see them,” Dabbagh said. “It’s such a hard thing and such a shame that I really want to see my parents, but I don’t know if this will affect my situation to get back to my studies later.”

Dabbagh is one of more than 250 students and 30 faculty at Northeastern impacted by Trump's travel ban. Northeastern was among those that filed a brief with the Supreme Court, arguing the ban undermines students' ability to collaborate and advance knowledge across borders.

"We think that the travel ban is a crude instrument, and one that sends the wrong signal," said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, which wrote the brief. "This travel ban in combination with changes in visa application procedure all contribute to this perception that American colleges and universities aren't welcoming places."

Mitchell said universities in the U.S. like Northeastern thrive because of their diversity, but they are not alone in competing for the best and the brightest. Over the past few years, colleges in countries such as Canada and Australia have siphoned away some international students.

“It's a very fluid marketplace,” Mitchell said. “We have seen a decline in each of the last two years in [international] undergraduate enrollments.”

In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the travel ban, citing national security. The court's four liberal justices disagreed. One, Justice Stephen Breyer, noted the small number of student visas granted to people from the affected countries so far this year. Breyer suggested the Trump administration has not been issuing waivers written into its travel ban.

Tom Mountain, with the Republican State Committee, agreed with the ruling. Mountain, from Newton, supports Trump and his travel ban on the five Muslim-majority countries: Syria, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.

“We simply don't know who travelers coming from those countries are,” Mountain said. “They pose a threat.”

Mountain said if international students from the countries listed in the ban — Venezuela and North Korea are also included — are already here, they should stay.

"If, however, they are vying to come here from such war zones as Yemen and Syria, then I would say absolutely not," he added.

For now, immigration lawyers are advising students already here not to leave the country and attempt to use their visas to re-enter.

“If you’re here legally, maintain your legal status here legally. Don’t depart,” said Jennifer Minear, vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Minear said that despite the ban, U.S. Customs and Border Protection still needs to provide a reason for denying students admission at the port of entry.

“But I would expect that people from those countries would be subjected to additional scrutiny upon reentry,” Minear said. “Even though their visas are still valid, they may be hassled when they come in.”

Earlier this summer, Dabbagh went to Brussels, where the European Union Commission recognized her as a young leader. She is currently staying with relatives in Vienna.

In September, Dabbagh hopes to return to Boston without being hassled at the border. While Northeastern administrators have assured her she can re-enter the country, Dabbagh still doesn't know whether she will be able to see her family this year.

"I can't be that comfortable,” said Dabbagh. “I'm always worried. I'm always anxious and stressed. The only thing that I can have is hope that I can go back."

WGBH News' Esteban Bustillos contributed to this report.

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