MAXWELL:  Arab students face hardships post-9/11

11/20/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Being a university professor in Texas gives me the opportunity to meet many international students, many not even 20 years old. They have the typical problems most students have.

But I have met a handful of foreign students who are carrying the world on their shoulders, as it were. These young people are directly or indirectly caught in the maze of America’s tighter visa and immigration restrictions.

Life for one of my students at Angelo State University and her boyfriend, who attends Texas A&M University, have changed drastically since the new year began.

First, some background: After the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government, once relatively friendly toward Arabs and Muslims wanting into the country, has removed the welcome mat. The move has caused great hardship for many Muslims with legitimate reasons for seeking our shores.

Gone is the time when seriously ill foreign Muslims, along with their trained escorts, could obtain U.S. visas for urgent medical care in one day. Now, such visas are taking as long as two months for approval. A U.S. diplomat based in Saudi Arabia reports that Mohammed al-Kathiri, a Saudi journalist needing a liver transplant, died after he was denied travel to a Houston hospital for treatment.

Gone are many millions of dollars Muslims annually spend in the nation’s tourist industry.

Gone, too, are the days when Arab students in good academic and immigration standing were automatically permitted to re-enter the United States to attend fall classes.

My student, a 20-year-old, petite Jordanian, worries that her oldest brother, a 34-year-old cartographer whose kidneys are failing, will not get potentially life-saving treatment in New York. Two months ago, his scheduled trip to the United States appeared to be on track. Now, the family has lost hope that he will make the trip at all.

“My brother has been to America many times,” my student said. “He graduated from the University of Miami. He has many American friends. My father is trying to find a hospital in Canada or Europe that will take my brother before it’s too late.”

If her brother’s illness was not enough for her to worry about, she also fears that she might never see her boyfriend again, without leaving America and risking not being permitted to return.

Last summer, her boyfriend, a 22-year-old chemistry major, returned to Amman to work in the family’s clothing business until the fall semester, when he would come back to Texas. After he had not been cleared to return to the A&M campus in time for fall classes, he set out to find out why.

To date, my student said, her boyfriend has not received a straight answer from the U.S. government. He might have seen College Station for the final time.

“It looks like everything bad is happening to me and other Muslims right now,” she said. “I really can’t blame America. The World Trade Center attacks made Americans suspicious of us. How can I blame the American people? That kind of terrorism should never happen again. But the hardship is ruining many innocent lives. It’s ruining my life.

“I’m afraid to visit my family in Jordon. I might never get back into the United States, to Angelo State University. My whole family’s counting on me to graduate and come back home with a degree in agriculture.”

If no one else is concerned about the hardships the travel restrictions are causing in the Muslim world, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is trying to win friends in the Middle East as we battle with Iraq, certainly is. During a recent comment to reporters, he acknowledged as much: “We have to protect ourselves . . . (but) we have to do it in a way that does not shut down the country.

“I want people to come from around the world to go to our hospitals, our schools, to Disney World, to settle, to immigrate. . . . This is the strength of our nation.”

Through telephone interviews, I know of several other Muslim students on other Texas campuses who are afraid to return to their homelands for just one day. A 19-year-old art major at Sul Ross State University in Alpine said: “I’m from Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. I’m a sophomore, and I’m not going home until after I graduate. I want to stay here in America. I have two friends who couldn’t get back in time for classes. One was at UCLA, and one was at the University of Kentucky.”

Many of the students with whom I spoke are bitter, but most have accepted the heavy price for being an Arab student in post-Sept. 11 America.