After Salah Atabani grad earned his undergraduate degree in his home country, Sudan, he spent two years working to get into a top U.S. graduate program. Now, after one semester of work toward a master’s degree in statistics, he is worried he may face a painful decision: forfeit all the time and effort it took to get here or remain legally barred from seeing his family.
As a full Sudanese citizen, Atabani is one of a handful of Cornell students who fear they may not be allowed to reenter the country in light of Friday’s executive order suspending immigration for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. He is also one of many Cornell students with family members who are abroad, now unable to visit the United States.
Atabani has plans to visit home at the end of the semester, but he is no longer sure whether he will be able to reenter the United States by summer. With his entire family back in Sudan, though, he knows staying in the country indefinitely, even if all his immigration paperwork falls into place, is not an option.
While both the Cornell administration and the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association say they are unaware of any students who are unable to get to campus because of the ban, MECA noted that if the ban had been enacted one week earlier, before the start of the semester, several students would have been turned away at airports.
According to statistics provided by the International Students & Scholars Office, Cornell is currently home to 29 students from banned countries, 27 of whom are from Iran. There are many more with dual citizenship or with permanent residencies in the States but passports from banned countries.
Now, with the executive order set to expire in 90 days, students with ties to the seven countries included in the ban, as well as a slew of international students in the United States on temporary visas, are anxiously waiting to see whether the Trump administration will stick to its hardline stance on immigration policy.
Hamid Khatibi grad, a former Iranian political prisoner, now lives in Ithaca with his wife and 12-year-old son and is working towards his second Ph.D. in engineering. Khatibi is here on an O-1 visa, which is granted to those with demonstrated, extraordinary academic ability.
He says he does not believe he will be directly affected by the order, but he worries that his wife and son, who have F2 visas, which offer less protection, will not be able to stay with him. He knows he cannot safely go back to Iran, so if his family members are forced to leave, they will be permanently separated.
After actively struggling against the Iranian regime, Khatibi says he does not understand why he is being held accountable for his government’s actions. “We suffered from that government and now this one?” he said of the Trump administration.
Ryan Elbashir ’20 holds passports from both the United States and Sudan. When she first heard about the executive order, she said she assumed that her naturalized U.S. citizenship would protect her. However, unsure what hiccups she could face when trying to reenter the country, she decided to her spring break plans to visit family abroad.
Like Atabani, Elbashir has a lot of family living in Sudan and other banned countries. Both lamented that their relatives may not be able to visit them going forward.
For Rana Sulieman ’17, a Canadian citizen whose parents are Sudanese, the executive order has already impacted family; she has relatives who, after years of trying for a green card, were granted permanent residency only to be detained at a Virginia airport on their way into the country.
“My grandparents were supposed to come to my graduation, but obviously that’s not possible now,” Sulieman added.
Atabani knows he will need a visa to stay in this country after graduation and is unsure whether he will be able to get one. However, his immigration status isn’t the only factor at play. He, like many citizens of banned countries, is starting to question whether the United States will be worth fighting to stay in over the next four years.
For Elbashir, who spent eight years growing up in the United States and has always attended American schools, the dissonance between her American and Sudanese identities has become hard to navigate.
Elbashir said her grandmother was fired from her first Sudanese government job after fighting for women’s suffrage. This began a long family legacy of advocacy — a legacy which the group happily brought with them to the United States. Elbashir said her grandfather was thrilled to cast his first vote as a U.S. citizen for the first black president. After she cast her own first vote for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in November, she said she “thought I was going to be a part of history.”
Now, she is watching family members scramble to figure out how long they will be welcome in the country.
“I guess the most frustrating thing hasn’t necessarily been policy-related, but just the narrative,” Elbashir said. “When you hear the president of the United States say ‘we don’t want them here, we want people who will love this country,’ it’s really hard for me to see how that makes any sense.”
Every student interviewed for this piece recounted watching relatives spend years working for a green card and then leaving behind their homes and families to start new careers and new lives in America. Now, some say they wonder whether the United States will be the right place for them to build their own futures.
Still, Nader Ahmed ’19, an American citizen with family in Sudan, emphasized that Sudanese optimism towards America has not faded. When he visited last month, he said everyone he talked with still spoke of America as the same “land of opportunity” his parents saw when they first came here.
Many interviewees agreed that watching family members realize they may not have the opportunity to move here themselves — may not even be able to visit — has been the hardest part of seeing this ban take effect.
However, directly facing the possibility of having to leave the States, Atabani says he does not see himself as the primary victim. He knows that he would rather leave than stay away from his family. He also is not sure if he wants to live in a political climate so rapidly becoming hostile towards him. Rather, he says most of his sadness is for the refugees who will be sent back to war zones and the families who will be separated by this order.
“And I feel sorry for America, to be honest,” he added.