Trump's Travel Ban Is Bad News for the World's Best Students

Farhad Ramezanghorbani is just trying to get back to Florida.

After a summer studying in the United Kingdom, Farhad Ramezanghorbani was ready to return to Florida, where the Iranian Ph.D. student would reunite with his girlfriend, and the two would resume their studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville. But the fractious political climate in the United States wouldn’t make it easy, and now it appears he’ll lose his Ph.D. candidacy.

Seven months later, he still hasn’t had his student visa request approved — “administrative processing” was the reply he got from the State Department. He was hopeful he’d have his student visa approved in the weeks following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, but then the travel ban came down. Ramezanghorbani has spent the last seven months way off-campus, in England, Iran, and Turkey.

The executive order bans entry by citizens from seven countries where Islam is the majority religion for 90 days, from January 27.

He’s not alone, either. On Friday, a federal judge said that 100,000 visas had been revoked as a consequence of the ban, but the State Department disputed the figure, saying it was closer to 60,000. Either way, there could be many students like Ramezanghorbani not able to return to their studies in the United States.

Ramezanghorbani isn’t a refugee (that order extends for 120 days, by the way) and hadn’t planned on studying in the United States, either. He chose to come to the states because of his girlfriend, he explains to Inverse.

“The U.S. was not my dream as a country,” says Ramezanghorbani, who’s studying computational chemistry. “Now I can’t get into the U.S.”

If it’s not apparent, Ramezanghorbani is smart. Before pursuing a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, he had degrees in physics and computational biology.

The University of Florida still granted Ramezanghorbani a research assistant position last fall, even though he was abroad. But this semester, although the school authorities were understanding of his situation, he had no option but to take a leave of absence. Unable to return to the United States since July 5, he’s currently living in Istanbul, Turkey, working from Koç University, where he completed a Master’s of Science in computational biology in 2015. He’s been applying for other positions and finalizing his research article. He is in danger of losing his Ph.D. candidacy because of his time away from school.

So where are you right now, and what’s going on?

It’s been seven months since I’ve been waiting for that visa. I thought I could get a visa next week, but since [Trump] executed that order, that disappointed us, and there wont be hope getting back.

It’s difficult to concentrate when you see all the news thats happening. Even if they remove the ban, I may not be able to go back to the country. All day, I’ve been checking Facebook to see if there’s any good news or not. I’ve sent some professors emails to see if there are open positions. This is an everyday routine.

There’s also a limitation. I have to get in for summer semester; otherwise, I will completely lose the Ph.D. status because I’ve been away from school for more than one semester in fall, one semester in spring. I cannot be away from school more than that.

Ramezanghorbani is in danger of losing his Ph.D. status because he's been away from the program for so long.

You were a teaching assistant. How is the school handling the situation?

I’m on a leave of absence. Before I had [research assistant] status in the fall semester, I was a teaching assistant. They had to change it at the last moment before class because I thought I couldn’t get there in time, and since I couldn’t get the visa, they had to change it and reorganize. Being a research assistant and not being there is probably not efficient for my adviser. I’m not there, so I don’t have access to the facilities.

What was your first reaction to the ban?

I thought they weren’t going to do such a thing. When it became serious, I checked different sources, talked to different people. Everyone was shocked. I woke up, and the day was gone. I looked on Facebook to see what was real; is it finalized or not? I finally understand it was real. And then we were waiting for the effects of that order by checking if anyone has been able to get into the U.S. We have hope even in the last moment and think that maybe they’ll let people with the visa in. We couldn’t imagine it.

What made you want to study in the U.S.?

When I got to the U.S., I had a position in Sweden as well. The only reason I went to the U.S. was because of my girlfriend. I actually preferred Sweden because I didn’t have problems with my visa, and I could see my family frequently. And then I go to the U.S., and this ban happens, and I can’t go back to the country.

Doing your masters and Ph.D. in Iran, you’re not getting paid. You have to work and study. If I’m a Ph.D. student, I need to focus on my research.

The facilities that we get in some other universities, like American and some European universities, are much better. I need to use clusters and high-performance computing. I need the resources, a lot of what we don’t have in Iran.

How will the travel ban affect the pipeline of talent from Iran to America?

Right now there are many people who are finishing their master’s and bachelor’s in Iran. Most of them are leaving the country to go to the U.S. Now they’re trying to find alternatives, and there’s no guarantee to get in. And families cannot visit their children who are studying in the U.S. It’s just separating everyone.

Being from the Middle East, have there been instances while at university where you had to deal with racism from other students or faculty?

Not directly, no. Sometimes whenever you see other people, you can see they’re not happy about it. They look at my face and think, “You’re probably Muslim, you’re from the Middle East.” You go to a shop, and they ask where you are from, and you say, “Iran,” and they say, “Iran … that’s a nice place.” You can see a delay.

Ethnic Yemenis and supporters protest this week in New York City against President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. 

Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Have you been following protests against the ban?

I’’m just looking at them on Facebook. I’m happy American people are supporting us. Otherwise, that would be difficult, having no one behind you. Now we see people are angry. People are protesting. It’s a good feeling, but at the same time it’s not going to have any effect on the presidency. He’s serious about this. He’s not going to change his mind.

Did it surprise you when Trump won the presidency?

No it didn’t. I expected that. I saw the news that there might be a higher chance for Hillary (Clinton) to win, but I knew there were many people in the U.S. that wanted him to win. In our city, I saw many cars with stickers that said, “Vote for Trump.” In Florida, I guess Trump supporters were dominant. We could see that in the streets.

What do you miss most about being back at school?

The city I was living in was really calm. Every week we were going out to the lake or doing some hiking or climbing in the Appalachian mountains. Traveling is what I really miss about that place. I was not under stress because everything was fine. I was living with my girlfriend. I was doing my research. After summer school, I was always under pressure and stress, finding somewhere else to go. I miss it a lot.

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