Iranian American and Muslim students grapple with changing foreign policies

As Biden reverses many Trump-era travel restrictions, students continue to face the repercussions of international conflicts and immigration policies

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Nina Walat / Daily Collegian

By Saliha Bayrak, Collegian Staff

Despite the knowledge that he would not see his family for many years, Amin Abek decided to pursue a graduate degree in chemistry at the University of Massachusetts.

“The thought of choosing between, you know, your program, your education or going to visit your families is scary,” Abek said.

Abek and his family were not only separated by miles, but also by borders and the laws that governed them. The visa that Amin obtained in order to study at the University was a single-entry visa — if he desired to visit his family in Iran, he would not be able to return with the same visa. He would have to reapply and consequently risk his inability to return and complete his studies.

It was not an option for his family to visit him in the United States.

The diplomatic relations, or lack thereof, between countries such as Iran and the U.S. have long influenced the lives of students like Abek. Citizens of these countries, mere bystanders to the decisions of world leaders, often find their own lives intertwined with global conflicts and foreign policy.

The United States has had historically tense relations with Iran. According to the U.S. Department of State, Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relations since the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in 1979.

Abek had had to jump through many hoops to obtain his visa. To begin the process, he visited the neighboring country of Armenia to access a U.S. embassy, as there were none located in his home country.

“For applying for a visa, Iranian students have to go through some difficulties,” Abek said.

Many of his friends went through a similar application process for a student visa and were turned down. One of his friends, he explained, was turned down because he had lost both of his parents and had no family ties back in Iran.

Changes in immigration policy under the Trump administration also had a strong effect on students. Beginning with Executive Order 13769, Trump placed strict traveling restrictions on seven countries of “Particular Concern,” including Iran. The list was mainly compromised of countries that had a Muslim-majority, hence the dawning of its nickname as “the Muslim Ban.”

The Biden administration recently lifted these restrictions.

As someone with a student visa (F-1), Abek was in the scarce category of people who were exempt from these restrictions. However, he noted that the difficult experience of moving abroad was further complicated by the travel restrictions put in place by the Trump administration.

“Students can’t visit their family, families can’t give a visit to their children as well, and the result was a two-way restriction,” said Abek.

Madonna Mojahed, president of the Persian Student Association and a microbiology and women, gender and sexuality studies double major, remembers being among the protestors in Boston expressing their grievances over the decision when it was initially made. She recalls feeling a sense of frustration.

“There is no real reason why it’s so hard for Iranians to come to this country, other than the fact that they are Iranian. And the United States sees that as a threat,” Mojahed said.

Mojahed referenced the statistics that showed minimal threats from people from these countries.

“They’re trying to like, not make, like, terrorists come to the country. But all the countries on the list have never once ever had an incident of something like that happen,” Mojahed said.

Mojahed is pleased to see that visiting the United States has become a possibility for her family and that of other Iranian Americans.

“That makes me happy to hear that it was lifted, because that’s going to make a lot of immediate situations become better for people that want to potentially go visit or… come back,” Mojahed said.

However, she noted that the change in administration did not result in an immediate change to the diplomatic relations or the tension between the countries.

“The relationship that the government has with these countries is still not good. The U.S. has still put sanctions on Iran, which has affected like medical care and the COVID crisis,” Mojahed said.

The volatile relationship between Iran and the United States has both a long history and new developments — sanctions placed on Iran before and during the Trump administration are being kept in place by the Biden administration, and the U.S. recently bombed Iran-backed facilities in Syria.

This relationship has also had its influence on the University throughout history.

Abek described the University and the chemistry department as being “super, super supportive in every step” of becoming a student at UMass. But at one point, Iranian students could not even consider getting a degree in chemistry at the University.

In 2015, UMass made a decision to bar Iranian nationals from studying in certain graduate programs, such as microbiology and chemical engineering, concordant with sanctions and the U.S. efforts to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The decision was instantaneously met with backlash and quickly rolled back. However, the memory remained for Mojahed and indicated the kind of sentiment the public had towards Iranians.

Mojahed explains that she has not experienced incidents of xenophobia herself, but she is aware of a certain sentiment that is perpetuated about Iran and other immigrants, especially through the media.

“The presidential administration is important, but the way the media talks about Iran… It’s like…we’re all part of the Taliban,” Mojahed said. “Because they’ve only ever seen one story, which is usually a movie production.”

The importance of having a group like the Persian Student Association become most apparent in moments like this, Mojahed explains.

“And so any chance I get to talk about my country, I utilize that to educate people that have only seen this one story of Iran,” Mojahed said.

While Abek believes the Trump administration allowed xenophobic beliefs to be more openly expressed, he also believes negative attitudes toward immigrants and foreigners have always been bubbling below the surface.

“They’re still gonna be there. But I’m happy that the administration changed, because these people now have to go back to pretending again,” Abek said. “But I don’t think it could change the internalized xenophobia in the culture, you know?”

“White supremacy is not necessarily new. But it’s more overt,” Mojahed said.

Mojahed feels that the immigrant experience is similar for people from other countries as well, and provides a point of connection.

“I could talk to like the Arab Student Association…Pakistani Student Association…there’s some level of understanding,” Mojahed said. “These are all very different cultures and a lot of different people in between that, but we still have this underlying common experience.”

The impact of foreign policy is sometimes also felt by those who are not targeted by it. The influence of the “Muslim ban” was seen by UMass’ Muslim and Arab-American community, but also by students who did not have ties to the seven countries included in the restrictions.

Ammar Zia, a sophomore computer engineering major, is Pakistani American and Muslim, and notes that the “Muslim ban” was one indicator that Muslims had become the target for xenophobic sentiments in the country.

“There’s always that sentiment of xenophobic rhetoric coming out of the U.S. It’s like a historical mainstay of the country,” Zia said. “If you look back in history, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, and they have the same thing towards Irish…and ever since 9/11, it was kind of building up to Muslims being that demographic.”

Zia said that he has not experienced any obvious forms of Islamophobia on campus. Drawing from his own experience, he believes that most people on campus would not verbally express Islamophobic and xenophobic beliefs, but there is a sense that these sentiments exist among some students.

“You can kind of tell, you know, from the way they act, if they’re almost a way, like, they ask you certain questions like regarding your faith,” Zia said. “They’re not going to outwardly express contempt.”

He also noted that the public reaction to the restrictions, including an outpouring of support for Muslims arriving in the country, revealed what public attitudes towards Muslims were and are still like in the United States.

“I feel like the initial ban kind of highlighted some of the support Muslims do have in the country… that actually made me feel a little bit feel a little bit more confident about my place in the U.S.,” Zia said. “I think it brought up the two extremes in the U.S. There is this side that will support you, and there’s the side that is just against you in that manner.”

Leena Abdelghany, a junior psychology and economics double major, is a Muslim and Lebanese American has had a similar experience to that of Zia’s.

“I was just lucky that I never experienced any Islamophobia. A lot of people don’t think I’m Muslim when they look at me,” Abdelgheny said.

Acknowledging that her experience is not the same as that of all students, Abdelghany reflects on the larger-scope impact that both the implementation and rescinding of the restrictions had.

“I feel like they kind of gave people a green light to be openly racist,” Abdelghany said. “I guess they’re less inclined to be racist now, because our administration isn’t as openly racist.”

Throughout this uncertainty, the immediate surrounding of these students still plays a large role in their day-to-day. The support in their personal lives can soften the blow of international policies.

“No one in campus will judge you for your religion, like, that’s the official policy [at UMass],” Zia said. “So I consider that a support system in a way because that’s like a foundational policy.”

Abdelghany said that the Muslim Students Association and the Arab Students Association are places of support.

“I think it’s easier for people to deal with things when they have a group of individuals that they can confide in,” Abdelghany said.

She also believes that UMass could invite more speakers to focus on topics of Islam and Islamophobia.

Zia points to his friends as his place of support.

“I think the good thing about my circle of friends, they don’t really care that much. I mean, they judge you as who you are as a person, not what your background is… And those are, that’s the type of people you should be around,” Zia said.

As foreign policy continues to be morphed by many different factors, students wait to see the impact it will have in their lives.

Although strict travel restrictions focused on terror threats have been lifted, immigration restrictions are now being shaped by the uncertain force of COVID-19.

“As long as you’re in this pandemic, I guess you won’t get the benefits of these resolutions,” Abek said.

Mojahed believes that despite its symbolic significance, a change in administration alone is not a marker for a major shift in foreign policy or public opinion.

“You need a lot more than administration to be different,” Mojahed said.

Saliha Bayrak can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @salihabayrak_.