International students in Fairfax County struggle to find stability post Trump travel ban

FAIRFAX, Va.—Najwa Elyazgi was stranded in an Istanbul airport the same day President Trump signed the first iteration of the so-called “Muslim Ban.”

Since President Trump signed an Executive Order calling for a temporary ban on citizens from seven countries traveling to the United States, many international students in American universities faced an uncertain future.

Executive Order 13769, or the “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry” order temporarily barred entry for nationals of six Muslim-majority countries including: Libya, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. The ban also indefinitely suspended the entry of refugees from Syria.

On a trip back to Washington from her native Libya, Elyazgi, a senior at George Mason University in Fairfax, was met with resistance as she tried boarding the first flight out of Istanbul to Washington Dulles International Airport in time for her Monday classes.

“When I arrived to Istanbul, it was 5 a.m. and I started reading the news that the ban took effect,” Elyazgi said, “but when I spoke to all the officials there, no one told me that I couldn't travel. It was only when I arrived to the gate where they told me ‘you cannot board the flight.’”

Unsure of what to do, Elyazgi, feeling “destroyed,” lived out of an Istanbul hotel for a week and began applying to other universities.

Fairfax County, a historically diverse jurisdiction with a large number of immigrants and refugees, hosts several international students due to its proximity to the nation’s capital and its strong education programs.

According to George Mason’s president Ángel Cabrera, the university has 87 students with visas from affected countries. In a university-wide statement, Cabrera reiterated that the university was a place for “civility and inclusion.”

After the signing of the first ban, George Mason administrators advised students not to travel until they got better guidance from the Department of Homeland Security.

Judith vanBever-Green, the executive director of the Office of International Programs and Services at George Mason, admits that the current university environment for international students is “unpredictable.”

“Certainly the chaos of the travel bans last spring had a huge impact on those who were here—and I don’t just mean those from the named countries, but all nonimmigrants in the US, because there was so much uncertainty,” vanBever-Green said. “Every college and university I am aware of—certainly including Mason—has gone to great lengths to make sure that international students know that they belong on US campuses and feel welcome.”  

In Elyazgi’s case, vanBever-Green’s office corresponded with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring to bring her home after a federal court in Washington state has temporarily paused enforcement of the ban.

Herring, who greeted Elyazgi when her plane landed at Dulles, sued the Trump Administration on her and other Virginia students’ behalf.

In an official statement, Herring was determined to strike down the order he deemed “unconstitutional and un-American.”

“This is not an action I take lightly, but it is one I take with confidence in our legal analysis, and in the necessity of intervening to both protect the Commonwealth’s own sovereign interests and vindicate its residents’ civil rights,” Herring said.

Virginia joined Massachusetts, New York and Washington in legally challenging the first order.

Abrar Bazar, a Yemeni national living in Fairfax County, was another international student who feared instability in a post-travel ban America. Unlike Elyazgi, however, she made the decision to leave the country, moving to Ontario, Canada where she has family and “more stable future.”

“I was like ‘okay I need to find Plan B for myself,’” Bazara said. “I could stay for two more years, but once I graduate, my I-20 expires, my license expires. I’m immobile in the U.S.”

Bazara, a former architecture student at Catholic University, was warned multiple times by classmates and the international student office not to travel while the ban was in effect. With Yemen on the travel ban list, there was no guarantee that she could return to the United States if she ever travelled internationally for any reason.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, international students must leave the United States within 60 days after their program ends or after their F-1 student visa expires.

The National Association of Foreign Student Advisers said that international students contributed $32.8 billion to the United States through living expenses, tuition and fees from 2015 to 2016.

Despite steady economic growth however, the number of international students applying to American colleges and universities dropped nearly 40% in the fall of 2017, according to NAFSA.

A survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers claimed that the steepest decline in applications came, unsurprisingly, from the Middle East.

Seventeen American universities—including all eight Ivy Leagues—challenged the order, citing “serious and chilling implications.” In a joint statement, the universities claimed that the ban “impairs the ability of American universities to draw the finest international talent, and inhibits the free exchange of ideas.”

University administrators like Cabrera and vanBever-Green admit that they go to great lengths to make international students feel at home in Fairfax County, especially at George Mason.

“Despite the unfortunate national rhetoric, we continue to engage with our students and faculty and to affirm the truth that we are interdependent and that every single individual belongs in our community,” vanBever-Green said.

While Bazara waits for responses from Canadian universities for the fall semester, Elyazgi recently accepted admission to Harvard University to pursue a Masters of Education.

The Supreme Court heard the first oral arguments in the Muslim ban case on April 25, with a decision expected in June.

“I think people think that it's easy to come to United States,” Elyazgi said. “I've sacrificed all of my social life, my family, everyone else back home just to come here and get my bachelor's degree. And in my final year to be denied entry for the United States. I don't know how they can see me as a threat.”

Rawan Elbaba