It was around noon Jan. 28, 12 hours before an Iranian financial worker was set to travel to the U.S. to begin graduate school at GW.
The student had already said goodbye to friends and packed the Iranian nuts that his mother wanted him to give his professors in the applied economics master’s program.
The student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said a package containing a passport had recently arrived, but there was no U.S. visa inside. The student called the travel agency for clarification and they said to read the letter inside the packet.
“Per U.S. Presidential Executive Order signed on January 27th, 2017, visa issuance to aliens from the countries of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen have been suspended effective immediately until further notification. As a result, your application for immigrant visa for the United States has been refused,” the letter read.
“After hearing this news I was so depressed,” the student said in voice recordings sent through the instant messaging app WhatsApp. “I was shocked at first. I was wondering what do I do.”
The day before, President Donald Trump signed an order banning entry to the U.S. from those seven countries for 90 days. Trump’s administration said he signed the order because those countries pose terrorism threats.
The new policy meant the student would not be able to enter the U.S., and at least for the moment, he would could not begin his studies at GW. Now, still living with his father in Iran, he said he’s reevaluating his options and caught in the middle of a global controversy surrounding the travel ban that has sowed chaos at airports, sent protesters into the streets and worried international students studying in the U.S.
After receiving the letter, the economics student went to the Ministry of Science, which coordinates with students and the government. Along with other students at U.S. universities, he searched for answers but he said officials told them they would only be able to provide information if a law was officially passed.
The U.S. and Iranian governments rarely share information with each other because of the tense relationship between the countries, according to a report in The New York Times.
“They told us it’s not the law, it’s just the executive order and it’s temporary,” he said. “So now I’m so mixed up about my situation.”
He said he didn’t have enough time to apply to another university in a country outside the United States and that he might be forced into military service.
For the past 10 days, he said he has been staying in touch with University officials and watching Iranian news coverage of the executive order.
On Friday, a U.S. federal judge temporarily blocked the travel ban. But as of Saturday, the U.S. Consulate in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which issued the original visa, told him they could not yet issue visas for those who had them revoked by the order.
“Now I am just waiting for a rule,” the student said.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said GW was aware of the student’s situation but declined to offer details about his specific case.
“We have been in contact with our student in Iran and have offered our support,” she said.
Csellar said the University believes this student is the only GW-affiliated student or scholar unable to enter the U.S. because of the order.
The student said he has been speaking with officials from his program and the International Services Office who offered to enroll him for the fall semester if the travel ban is no longer in place.
“They are very kind with me,” he said. “They want to help me find another way to enter the U.S. legally.”
Throughout the week, University officials released statements calling the order a threat and offering support to international students.
“Whatever its intent may be, the presidential executive order banning citizens of seven countries from entering the United States directly threatens the well-being of students as well as of faculty and staff members who come from the affected countries,” University President Steven Knapp said in a statement last week.
Bound for America
After graduating from an Iranian university last year, the student said his father’s friend encouraged him to apply for graduate schools in the U.S. He wanted to study economics in hopes of working for a non-governmental organization to alleviate global poverty and said he dreams of becoming Iran’s finance minister.
He said he was enticed by GW’s location in D.C. with easy access to jobs in economics. He said he applied about five months ago and was accepted in November.
“I think it’s good for me and it can help me to build all my dreams,” he said. “I don’t know what happened but after two months of this day everything blew up and I don’t know — where am I now?”
It took him two months to get his now-revoked F1 visa that he needed to study in the U.S. He had to travel to the U.S. Consulate in Dubai to get it because the U.S. hasn’t had an embassy in Iran since 1979.
His visa was accepted, which is rare for Iranian students who want to leave the country. Only about 8,700 Iranian students study in the U.S., making them 1 percent of the international student population, according to a 2014 report by the Washington Institute.
There are currently 47 students from Iran studying at GW, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning.
“After I got an email from U.S. Consulate I was so excited,” he said. “I went to the kitchen to make breakfast. I invited my father. I said to my father, ‘I got visa’ and it was very good news for me.”
The road ahead
The student said he feels “mixed up” about his situation.
He said he didn’t understand the order because “Iran is not a terrorist country.” An Iranian has never been implicated in an attack on the U.S. homeland, but it is on the U.S. State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, according to The New York Times.
The student said he thought the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 would bring peace between the U.S. and Iran.
“After that I don’t know what happened,” he said.
Without an exemption for education, the student said he fears in a matter of months he will be sent into the military.
He said he is not afraid of military service but worries how it could interrupt his career plans.
“Military service for us is not fear because it is not very hard,” he said. “It’s just too long for us and we lose all our dreams at young ages.”