After months of being barred from entering the country, Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim has received her visa and will be able to visit Penn next fall as this year’s “Writer at Risk.”
Erhaim, who has reported on the Syrian civil war from Syria but now lives in London, was previously denied a U.S. visa because of President Donald Trump's travel ban, despite receiving an invitation from the United States Department of State to enter the country. Most Syrian nationals, along with citizens of Iran, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Venezuela, and North Korea, are not allowed to enter the United States under the current ban.
She originally canceled her trip to Penn last semester to participate in the "Writer at Risk" program, launched by Perry World House and the Kelly Writers House. The program brings journalists who are “under threat and working in crisis conditions." Erhaim said she does not know why her visa was eventually granted on Dec. 19, about a week after The Daily Pennsylvanian published a report of her denial to enter the country.
“In December, just a couple of days after that article and the many reactions on Twitter, I got an email asking me to send my passport or visa issuance, which means I've got the visa,” Erhaim said. “I wasn't expecting [to get the visa], especially in December, because it's usually the month where no one is working.”
Erhaim will arrive at Penn in fall 2019 to participate in the program.
“We are delighted that Zaina was issued an exception and had been issued a visa to the US,” PWH Deputy Director LaShawn Jefferson said. "Her expertise will be invaluable in campus."
Jefferson said Erhaim will likely conduct two large lectures, hold student office hours, guest lecture in classes, mentor students, and participate in podcasts during her time on campus.
Erhaim said she is grateful to have obtained the visa and is glad certain people are receiving visas to enter the United States despite the ongoing travel ban.
“I'm really glad that some who are banned are making it through,” she said. “Just to be there, just to show up, just to prove a case, or just to remind people that we exist — we're regular, we can do good things."
But she said her case is an exceptional circumstance. She added that she remains frustrated by the discrimination bolstered by the travel ban and that her trip to Penn was postponed in the first place.
Erhaim said social media may have had an impact on the visa waiver process. In addition to her own circumstance, she said her friend and Syrian film director Talal Derki was also denied a visa after being invited to the Academy Awards, where his film “Of Fathers and Sons” was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. But Erhaim said he received his visa two days after Facebook and Twitter campaigns on his behalf garnered significant attention.
“There is no confirmation that when actually campaigning for the visa, you're going to be getting it,” Erhaim said. “But we have two examples. So maybe there is something."