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Society & Culture

Trump’s Executive Order Leaves Drexel’s International Community in Limbo

By: Ben Seal

February 6, 2017

A security line at Philadelphia International Airport.

As uncertainty continues over President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending entry into the United States for refugees, immigrants and visa holders from seven Middle Eastern and African countries, Drexel’s staff and faculty have been creating forums for members of the University community to seek information, ask questions and share their concerns.

One of the largest of these gatherings will held Feb. 8 at 5 p.m. in the A.J. Drexel Picture Gallery. A panel of faculty and staff organized by the Office of International Programs and the Provost’s Office will engage in a discussion about the implications of the executive order, its impact on the Drexel community and broader questions of constitutionality and policy. Provost M. Brian Blake, PhD, and Senior Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Julie Mostov, PhD, will be among the panel members. The forum is one of several that have been held on campus since the executive order went into effect on Jan. 27.

Since then, a Washington federal judge ordered a national halt to enforcement of the ban, but the Department of Justice has said it intends to fight the ruling.

“It just blows your mind,” said Nariman Mostafavi, a post-doctoral researcher in the College of Engineering’s Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department who is from Iran. “It’s beyond anything that I would have imagined would happen in the United States.”

Mostafavi is among 78 Drexel students, staff and faculty from the seven predominantly Muslim countries included in Trump’s order — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan. He said he has begun looking for jobs outside of the country as he awaits a final court ruling on the constitutionality of the action.

In the meantime, Mostafavi cannot return to Iran because he was politically active prior to leaving, and he does not know whether his optional practical training visa will be extended to allow him to complete a two-year research contract with the University. His focus is on Canada for the time being.

Saeed Keshani, a second-year PhD candidate in environmental engineering, said Canada is also at the top of his mind. He left Iran in 2008 and has been happy living in the United States, but the “humiliating” conversation surrounding the executive order, which was titled, “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States,” has made him feel unwelcomed by the government.

Instead of staying in America, “I can go to a country that respects human dignity and human values,” he said.

The response from Drexel and the city of Philadelphia, where thousands of protesters gathered at the airport to show support for refugees and immigrants, has been heartening for Keshani, he said. He saw a faculty member pull two Muslim students aside to pledge support for anything they might need in the coming days — a small act, but an important one.

In addition to Wednesday’s forum, the University held an open discussion for students on Feb. 1 to discuss current events, as well as an information session on Feb. 3 regarding visa and work authorization aspects of the executive order.

“Drexel is a campus and a University that believes in equality and inclusion and recognizes the enormous value and contribution of our international students, both undergraduate and graduate, and our international faculty and staff,” said Mostov. “We want to provide both detailed information for particular folks who are being affected and also forums for discussing the executive order and its implications.”

Jessica Cordisco, director of International Students & Scholar Services at Drexel, said the support shown among the student body has been a welcome sight.

“They’re being very resilient,” said Cordisco. “We’re getting a lot of outreach from other students not directly affected by the ban wanting to know how they can help, wanting to know how they can support, and the same goes for our faculty and staff.”

At an International Graduate Student Association meeting on Feb. 2, Graduate College Dean James Herbert, PhD, was among those who reminded students of the value provided by Drexel’s international population, and the benefits of sharing ideas and culture, according to IGSA President Genymphas Higgs, a PhD candidate in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. The conversation could not solve any of the problems students are facing, but it did make clear the support they have, he said.

“A big part of any graduate program is figuring things out for yourself and sometimes you forget that there are resources that exist to help you through the process,” said Higgs. “People were reminded that the resources exist and how willing those resources are to make the best out of every situation.”

Simi Hoque, PhD, a College of Engineering professor working with Mostafavi on research, said the current uncertainty is stressful. She was anticipating the arrival of a graduate student from Iran who has deferred his research since President Trump’s order. His future status is up in the air at the moment, which creates additional challenges for Hoque, who came to Drexel last fall, as she looks to get her research going.

Beyond the practical effects of the proposed ban, members of the Drexel community said they were troubled by its implications for the treatment of immigrants, refugees and Muslims going forward.

 “We’re all Americans, or trying to be Americans, and trying to be part of something that’s larger than ourselves,” said Hoque.

On Jan. 29, President Fry announced that he had joined a nationwide petition of University leaders asking Trump to reconsider the executive order.

“Such a blanket ban is antithetical to many of the values we cherish,” Fry wrote in a letter of support to Drexel’s international community. “Drexel believes in inclusion and equality, and we are committed to celebrating and recognizing the fruits of diversity and global engagement. Drexel’s ties are integral to our mission. … We will do everything possible to preserve these critical relationships and to safeguard the students, faculty and professional staff who are at the heart of what we do.”