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International students, grads grappling with travel ban face uncertain future

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When 22-year-old Jude Roufael filled out his paperwork to graduate from Kent State University, he had a big smile on his face -- not only because he was about to earn his degree, but because he would finally be able to see his family again. 

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Jude Roufael, a public health student and a Christian from Mashta al-Helu, Syria. Courtesy Jude Roufael

The smile lasted until he heard about the executive order issued on January 27 by President Donald Trump

Roufael, a public health student and a Christian from Mashta al-Helu, Syria, has not seen his family in four years. He moved to Ohio in 2012 and, due to the ongoing conflict in his country, has not been back to Syria since.

“It’s just too complicated to visit them, it’s dangerous to go back,” Roufael said. “That’s why they were going to come here instead.”

Everything was set. The big reunion was to take place in early May, as Roufael’s parents planned to travel to the U.S. for his graduation. 

International reaction to President Trump's travel ban

But a travel ban resulting from Mr. Trump’s executive order -- which barred travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries
including Syria from entering the U.S. for 90 days -- put a wrench in the plan. While the travel ban has been temporarily suspended, the situation regarding the ban remains up in the air.

Roufael’s parents fear they won’t be able to get visas in time for the May reunion.

“It’s been four years and I was really excited,” Roufael said. “Now, I don’t know when I’ll be able to see them again.”

Roufael says he and his family are hoping for the best following a temporary suspension of the travel ban. It was suspended on Friday. Then, on Thursday, a U.S. appeals court announced it would not reinstate the ban after hearing arguments two days earlier in which the government -- on one side -- asked that Mr. Trump’s executive order be reinstated and several states -- on the other side -- said the decision to temporarily suspend the travel ban should stand. 

Roufael, however, doesn’t believe that a continued suspension of the ban will help his family’s case. A rigid vetting process in place even before the ban makes the process of issuing new tourist visas for Syrians long and expensive.

Roufael is also worried about his own status in the U.S. His visa expires soon after he graduates. Roufael, who is the social chair of his fraternity, planned on attending medical school in the U.S. after earning his undergraduate degree.

“The halt helped my case a bit, but I need to go back home in order to renew my visa,” he said. “What if when I leave the U.S. the ban is reinstated?”

Some waiting for green cards are also concerned. 

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Nasim Eftekhari moved to the U.S. in 2012 from Iran. She is pictured here with her husband, Keivan Sadrerafi. Courtesy Nasim Eftekhari

Nasim Eftekhari moved to the U.S. in 2012 from Tehran, Iran -- a country on the travel ban list -- and earned a master’s degree in computer science from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. She has worked legally since, through Optional Practical Training (OPT), which can allow international students to work for up to 12 months after completing their academic studies in the U.S. 

Now, there is a chance Eftekhari won’t be able to stay in the country. She fears she is in danger of being deported. 

Eftekhari, who is married to a U.S. citizen, was told to pick up her green card on January 30, which was the first business day after President Trump signed the executive order on immigration. Her OPT had expired two weeks earlier, and she says a work visa or a green card were her only options to stay in the country legally after a grace period. (Once an OPT expires, a graduate has a grace period of 60 days before having to leave the United States.)

“Once I got to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, they told me they couldn’t help me,” said Eftekhari, who resides in Pasadena, California. “I had been waiting for a long time and thought the wait was finally over.”

When reached for comment, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office said they are not allowed to comment on individual cases.

“I went through an extremely tough and extensive selection process to get a job,” Eftekhari said. “It took five interviews and four months, but they finally offered me the position and now I can’t take it.”

Eftekhari was supposed to start a new job at a cancer research institute. Her husband is a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry and works on cancer drugs. The executive order, however, has changed their plans.

“I think we should take our expertise elsewhere, rather than me having to beg for a work permit to stay,” Eftekhari said.

If she had been granted her green card before January 27, Eftekhari likely would have been able to stay and come and go as she pleased. The White House said it issued a guidance that exempted green card holders from the travel ban.

Despite the challenges the travel ban can pose for nationals of her country, Eftekhari believes that the sentiment in Iran is almost unanimous: Iranians like Americans, just not the ones who lead the country.

“Things were a bit calmer these past few years with Obama in the White House, but the new administration has Iranians scared,” she said.

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