Mehrdad Alvandipour planned to go back to Iran in March to celebrate the Iranian New Year, but the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville student has canceled his trip.
He’s afraid he won’t be able to get back in the United States if he leaves.
“I just lost $700 to the airline company because the ticket was non-refundable,” said Alvandipour, 26, an Iranian graduate student and teaching assistant in electrical engineering. “And that’s a lot of money for a college student.”
He also had bought a computer tablet for his sister and other souvenirs for family and friends.
SIUE has 37 students from the seven countries affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban, including one from Yemen, one from Iraq and 35 from Iran.
The university is advising all to stay put.
“The ban is under a temporary restraining order, so people are going in and out of the United States,” said Mary Weishaar, executive director of the SIUE Office of International Affairs. “But that could change.”
SIUE has an Iranian Student Association, and the president is Alvandipour’s roommate, Sina Nassiri, 28, a graduate student in civil engineering. One of his goals is helping Americans understand Iranian culture.
Nassiri describes most Iranians as good people living under an oppressive government, pretending to hate the United States as part of a forced propaganda campaign.
“I think it is safe to say there is no other country where the people have such double faces, inside and outside their homes,” he said.
SIUE officials have hosted several meetings on campus to help international students separate fact from fiction related to the travel ban, understand their legal rights and cope with fear and uncertainty.
The SIUE School of Engineering has by far the most Iranian students.
“They are definitely concerned,” said Dean Cem Karacal. “The travel restriction has caused some inconvenience, but also an increase in anxiety, and that can make their studies more difficult.”
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27, establishing a 90-day travel ban for people entering the United States from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Syria because of government instability or terrorist activity in those predominantly Muslim countries.
“I am establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” Trump said during the signing at the Pentagon. “We don’t want them here.”
The executive order met with widespread protests at airports and legal challenges to the ban’s constitutionality.
A federal district judge in Washington granted a temporary restraining order, and a federal appeals panel in California upheld that decision. The administration is weighing its options.
In the meantime, Alvandipour doesn’t know when he will see his family again. Nassiri feels lucky.
“My parents came here in August to visit me,” he said. “They’ve been here two times.”
There are no known students from the seven affected countries at Lindenwood University in Belleville, McKendree University in Lebanon, Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville or Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey.
Nassiri and Alvandipour came to the United States a year and a half ago to further their educations and make better lives for themselves.
“The personal values that we believe in, like freedom of speech, we don’t have in my country,” Alvandipour said. “We share those values with the American people.”
Alvandipour and Nassiri don’t consider themselves Muslim and reject laws rooted in the Islamic faith.
In Iran, people can get arrested for eating or drinking between dawn and sunset during Ramadan’s month of fasting. Youths must to go to daily prayers through high school. Government patrols detain women for not wearing hijabs (veils) properly.
“There are no mandatory actions or beliefs (in the United States),” Nassiri said. “You don’t have to pretend you’re somebody else.”
One of his classmates, an Iranian female engineering student, agreed with his assessment but did not want to be identified by name or photographed to avoid problems. She doesn’t wear a hijab.
‘Cream of the crop’
It isn’t easy for international graduate students, including those from the Middle East, to get permission to study in the United States, according to Weishaar and Karacal.
First, they have to get accepted into a university program. Officials look for strong academic backgrounds, good grades and high standardized test scores.
“Those who are making it to the United States to study at U.S. institutions are the cream of the crop,” Karacal said. “Especially students from Iran and China. ... They have very good quantitative skills.”
After getting accepted into a program, a student goes to a U.S. embassy and applies for a visa. That requires ID and other documentation, a background check, personal interview and proof of financial capability and English proficiency.
Iranian students face an additional hurdle. They must travel to another country because there’s no U.S. embassy in Iran.
“Once they arrive (at a U.S. airport), they have to report to our school within a certain time period,” Weishaar said. “We review their documentation and put their current address and other information into an electronic data base.”
Why do U.S. schools recruit students from around the world? Many earn doctorates and become teaching assistants, researchers and professors.
The SIUE School of Engineering has about 10 faculty members from Iran. Most are U.S. citizens. A few are visa holders seeking permanent residency. All are affected by the travel ban.
Jeff Darabi, associate professor of mechanical engineering, can’t visit his siblings in Iran, even though he’s a U.S. citizen who’s been living in the United States for 22 years.
“I don’t have an issue traveling to Iran and getting back in (the United States),” he said. “It’s basically that the Iranian government won’t let me travel there.”
After Trump signed his executive order, the Iranian government retaliated by prohibiting U.S. citizens from entering the country.
Darabi is perhaps most troubled that the ban is likely to cause the School of Engineering to lose an entire class of Iranian students accepted for the fall semester.
“If they wait 90 days, they won’t have time to get visas,” he said.
At SIUE meetings, students from the seven countries affected by the travel ban have had many questions, including whether they can visit friends or relatives in other U.S. cities.
Weishaar’s answer is “yes,” but she warns that the university can’t help them if they cross the U.S. border.
In the past 18 months, Nassiri and Alvandipour have grown accustomed to some Americans staring at them or acting frightened, perhaps suspecting them of terrorism.
“We have good American friends who don’t feel (that way),” Alvandipour said. “But still there are other people who share the same values as Mr. Trump, and they don’t want us here.”
Dean Karacal understands some of the challenges faced by Middle Eastern students. He’s a U.S. citizen who immigrated to the United States from Turkey about 30 years ago.
Karacal periodically goes back home to visit his brother.
“I’m not pleased with the changes,” he said. “Turkey used to be westward-looking, as far as its laws and lifestyle.”
Nassiri and Alvandipour argue that the United States benefits from its Iranian immigrants because many hold key positions with major corporations.
Brent Vaughn, a civil engineering lecturer and lab specialist, sees diversity as a good thing at SIUE and tries to support international students. He recently took Nassiri and Alvandipour hiking in Missouri with two students from Nepal.
“We have students from all over the world, and I’ve really come to see the value in that,” Vaughn said. “We’re kind of like ambassadors from our countries.”