Syria native Alaa Alsaabee is planning to earn a master’s degree in engineering at Wayne State University — but it’s been an ordeal to get to Detroit during the battle over the Trump administration’s travel ban.
Alsaabee had an interview scheduled for his student visa in late January but it was canceled after President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order, which temporarily banned entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, and indefinitely suspended entry of Syrian refugees.
After massive protests and court rulings that blocked the executive order, Alsaabee landed a student visa and was on a plane to Detroit last month. But after a 28-hour journey, he was detained in Washington for 18 hours and then sent back to Cyprus, where he had been studying at Near East University.
“I’m a student,” Alsaabee said during an interview via Skype. “I just want to get a degree.”
The travel ban has since been revised by the Trump administration but the new version was blocked last week by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland. Still, the bans have caused difficulties for some international students like Alsaabee and led some to rethink getting an education in the U.S.
A report released last week by a coalition of six higher education associations showed that 39 percent of colleges and universities reported declines in applications from international students, with the highest declines occurring from Middle Eastern applicants.
The survey of 250 institutions is preliminary and will be released in a final report later this month. Even so, the decline in international applications is causing concern.
“Internationalism is at the heart of the U.S. higher education experience,” said Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, which led the survey.
“The cultural and intellectual diversity that international students bring to our campuses must be protected for U.S. higher education to maintain its global pre-eminence,” she said. “We want the best and the brightest in the world to continue to desire to study at our universities and contribute to our economy.”
International students make up 7 percent of Wayne State’s 27,000 students. While applicants are down, it’s too soon to link the drop to the travel ban, said Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs.
“We welcome and encourage students to come to the U.S.,” said Ezzeddine. “The U.S. has one of the best higher education systems in the world. We know many students look for opportunities to come to study here. We continue to support their efforts, and encourage them not to be stopped by some of these issues.”
In Alsaabee’s case, activists suggest there may have been confusion over the ban and about a federal rule requiring visas for international students to be issued 30 days or less from the start of an applicant’s academic program.
Alsaabee was issued a visa in February, but his program at Wayne State in graduate engineering doesn’t start until May 8.
“It sound like one big, confusing misunderstanding,” said Shiyam Galyon, campaign coordinator for Books Not Bombs, a national campaign that has been working on behalf of Syrian refugees seeking to get a higher education.
Syria’s conflict marked its six-year anniversary last week. The war has led to the deaths of millions and displaced 6.3 million people internally, the biggest displaced population in the world, according to the the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees.
The mission of Books Not Bombs — formed in 2016 to find safe havens for Syrians to continue their higher education — has become more urgent since the Trump administration issued its travel restrictions. The organization is calling on university administrators to oppose the travel ban and provide scholarships to students from Syria.
Schools that have provided scholarships for Syrian students include Michigan State University, according to the organization. Several other universities across the country have students working with Books Not Bombs, including WSU, the University of Michigan and Albion College.
“We all benefit from the contributions that immigrants and refugees and international students make, which is why we must defend the principles of diversity and openness that make American universities remarkable,” said Chris Lo-Records, campus coordinator for Books Not Bombs
While Alsaabee is based in Cyprus, he grew up in Hama, Syria, and experienced the war’s horrors while studying at Damascus University, where grenades were thrown weekly onto campus. One of his friends was killed.
“It was so frightening. I felt like I didn’t want to keep studying,” Alsaabee said. “Still, we kept going.”
The war has destroyed much of his country. That’s why Alsaabee said he will come back to the U.S. in April and still study at WSU, but he plans to return to his home and family.
“We have a lot to work on,” Alsaabee said. “There’s massive destruction in Syria. I want to build my country again.”