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Students at Penn from the banned countries now face a heartbreaking choice: remain in the United States indefinitely, unable to travel home and see their families, or forfeit the Penn education they spent years working towards.

Credit: Joy Lee

President Donald Trump’s newly announced immigration ban has sparked panic among some international students and faculty at Penn, forcing them to reconsider their very future in the United States.

The ban, which was announced in an executive order Friday, temporarily bars nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — all majority-Muslim nations — from entering the country.

Students at Penn from the banned countries now face a heartbreaking choice: remain in the United States indefinitely, unable to travel home and see their families, or forfeit the Penn education they spent years working towards.

For College freshman Abdullah Noaman, who is from Baghdad, Iraq, attending a prestigious American university had been a lifelong dream. Especially for students hailing from conflict-torn countries, getting a visa can be a nearly insurmountable challenge.

“Coming into the United States and studying at an Ivy League school was pretty much the dream of my life,” he said. “All of us were definitely extremely ecstatic about getting into this school and actually seeing our dreams come true.”

Noaman, who hopes to study physics, is trying to act optimistic for the sake of his mother, who he said would not be able to handle four years of separation.

College freshman Aula Ali, who went to high school in Ethiopia but is originally Sudanese, has already spoken with her parents about hiring an immigration attorney to facilitate travel back to Sudan if she decides to stay at Penn; however, her parents have suggested that she should transfer.

But transferring poses its own set of difficulties. For College freshman Mohammad Oulabi, who was raised in Aleppo, Syria, and moved to Cairo, Egypt, when he was fifteen, transferring to a different school is an unlikely possibility for financial reasons. Oulabi, Ali and Noaman all are receiving aid from Penn.

“There is a big possibility that if I leave, not only will I have to leave, but I won’t be able to continue my education elsewhere because not that many scholarships are available for international students,” he said. “I’m trying not to panic and not to freak out, but it’s something very serious.”

There’s also the inescapable fact that despite their precarious situation, Oulabi, Ali and Noaman are Penn students. And life at Penn can be stressful even when one’s future in the country isn’t at stake.

“They [professors] don’t take these factors into consideration, and they compare you with other people who have been living very stable lives,” Oulabi said. “You have to compete against them, and it’s already hypercompetitive, and you already have to compete with the best people in the nation.”

In a University-wide message sent Sunday morning, Penn reassured students that it is “dedicated to ensuring that all international members of our community thrive on our campus.” And in a speech Monday evening on College Green, Gutmann denounced the executive order, calling it "injurious to our work."

Counseling and Psychological Services echoed that sentiment in a post on its Facebook page: “Reach out to loved ones. Support each other. And know that we stand by you and offer a safe space for all students.”

But Oulabi, who hopes to study logic, information, and computation, wished the University had reached out more personally to students affected by the ban. He estimated that there are only a couple dozen students at Penn in his situation.

“I’m trying to get relief from this email — like, okay, they’re taking care of us,” he said. “But I’m very skeptical, so I’m not sure.”

Students are not the only ones whose lives have spiraled into uncertainty as a result of the ban. Chemistry professor Zahra Fakhraai, who is from Iran, has already faced difficulty navigating the immigration system — after she and her husband were accepted to American universities to earn their doctoral degrees, they were unable to get visas and had to move to Canada instead.

Her first thoughts when she heard about the ban were memories of her father, who was diagnosed with cancer while she was in Canada. Although she was able to return to Iran and visit him when he was sick, she worries that students today won’t have the same chance.

Fakhraai sympathized with students who now find it difficult to focus on academics in the face of such extreme stress. When she first heard the news of the ban, she had trouble focusing on teaching — but for students whose future depends on grades and exams, the distraction could prove devastating.

"Honestly, on Wednesday, when I read the text of the executive order, I had a hard time getting up and going to my class and focusing for two hours and teaching,” she said. “And I've taught this course over and over, I'm not doing exams — this is not going to be permanent for me if I have a bad class."

Fakhraai appreciated Penn’s statement but hopes the University continues to provide help to faculty whose professional lives are affected by the ban. Fakhraai had planned to travel to Mexico in March for a conference, but she said there’s now a 90 percent chance she won’t go after all.

Although the ban is designed to protect the United States from terrorist attacks, Oulabi said the “extreme vetting” introduced by the executive order is already happening. Every time he enters or leaves the country, he is subject to multiple interviews and security checks.

Echoing the beliefs of multiple experts, Oulabi sees the ban as counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. Cutting people in third-world countries off from access to the American higher education system, he said, could contribute to ignorance that ultimately descends into violence.

Fakhraai is concerned that the ban will keep skilled, driven individuals out of the United States. Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook have already complained that the ban could keep talented workers out of the country.

She compared today’s Middle Eastern immigrants to German Jewish scientists — like Albert Einstein — who fled Europe in the face of World War II and brought their skills to America.

"Science requires diversity of background — we all come from different places, we all love science,” she said.

But for the Penn students who have already made it to the United States, only to be confronted with a strikingly anti-immigrant policy, the future is marked with uncertainty.

“I don’t even want to think about it, because to be able to focus on my studies, I have to block my mind from thinking about everything else and just live in my bubble of ‘oh, everything’s fine,’” Oulabi said. “Otherwise I can’t go on with my studies and my assignments, so it is difficult, and I’m not thinking about it.”