News, University News

Syrian student stranded in Turkey due to visa complications

Petition circulating demanding student’s return cites unfair federal process

By and
Senior Staff Writer and Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2017

When Khaled Almilaji GS got to the airport in Gaziantep, Turkey Jan. 7 to come back to Brown and his pregnant wife in Providence, he was told by Turkish Airlines that he would not be allowed to enter the United States. Almilaji, a Syrian, had traveled to Turkey for a week to check up on the humanitarian team at the aid organization that he chairs, known as Canadian International Medical Relief Organization in the United States.

It took until Jan. 17 for the U.S. consulate to notify him that his J-1 visa had been revoked, Almilaji said over WhatsApp from Gaziantep. They did not give a reason for the revocation but gave him an expedited appointment to file a new visa application. However, his interviewers at the consulate did not ask him any questions when he resubmitted his application.

By contrast, Almilaji was “heavily vetted” when he and his Syrian wife first applied for a U.S. visa before beginning his studies at Brown. His wife, now beginning her second trimester, is “alone in a new country without family,” Almilaji said.

A humanitarian and scholar

“When they informed me that my visa was revoked, maybe someone else would collapse, but for me and maybe for most Syrians now, we are used to bad news every day,” Almilaji said. “We are losing our friends and relatives every day.”

When protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime broke out in Syria in 2011, Almilaji worked at secret, makeshift hospitals to aid protesters. He was soon arrested, imprisoned and tortured for six months. When he was released, he moved to Turkey, where he worked with charities and established the health branch of the Syrian Opposition, The Herald previously reported.

Among Almilaji’s greatest accomplishments was vaccinating over a million children against polio, stopping a potential regional epidemic. This required “negotiating with a bunch of different rebel groups and operating in the middle of a war zone,” said Kenneth Roth ’77 P’12, executive director of the Human Rights Watch. “He was very impressive.”

Almilaji came to Brown in fall 2016 as part of a program to bring “students and scholars (who had been) displaced from war-torn areas (to Brown) to continue their studies … and continue (contributing) to their fields” said Marisa Quinn, chief of staff to the provost.

Almilaji said that he and his wife, who is studying to become a pediatrician, planned to “get the maximum education” possible in the United States and then go to the Middle East to continue working with Syrians.

“Public health in Syria is very needed. With very limited resources and lack of health workers and medical workers, the only way to be very efficient in dealing with the health in most of the regions of Syria is prevention. And that is the mandate of public health.”

Getting a visa and being accepted to the University was a door being “opened to a lot of opportunity. I was very lucky to be at Brown last semester,” Almilaji said.

University support and response

“I could not have guessed that I could find any community or family like Brown,” Almilaji said. He said that many administrators and faculty, including President Christina Paxson P’19, have reached out to him and have been “very supportive.” A recent petition calling for his visa to be reissued was created by his classmate, Andriy Chybisov GS, and has garnered over 2,000 signatures, Chybisov said.

“With the removal of (President) Trump’s travel ban, we thought he’d be able to come back without a problem,” Chybisov said. “It’s (been) more than a month, so we decided we needed to do something.”

The University has been working to provide Almilaji with academic and legal support while he is barred from the United States, said Terrie Fox Wetle, dean of the School of Public Health.

Paxson also reached out to the U.S. ambassador to Turkey to advocate for Almilaji’s return, Quinn wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

The administration has connected Almilaji to an attorney and has pursued other resources to help him with his case, Quinn added. Administrators and Almilaji declined to comment on the nature of legal support due to privacy concerns. The administration has also been in “constant communication with members of Congress advocating for the … students (who might potentially be affected) at Brown and around the country,” said Steve Gerencser, the assistant director of governmental relations who also acts as the University’s liaison to Rhode Island’s congressional delegation.

Senator Jack Reed’s, D-RI, office has “been assured that Mr. Almilaji’s case is being handled in a fair and timely manner and are continuing to monitor the progress,” wrote Chip Unruh, Reed’s press secretary, in an email to The Herald. However, he noted that the visa application process can take 90 days or more and “there are rules and procedures in place that must be followed by everyone.”

The University is continuing to provide him with a stipend and tuition support, Almilaji said. This support completely covers tuition and provides health insurance to his wife, he added.

Almilaji is currently enrolled as a student at Brown and has the option to take classes long distance, Wetle said. Though Almilaji is trying his “best to follow up, it is difficult because those courses are not meant to be remote or part-time courses,” and studying remotely is not going very well, he said.

Bringing Almilaji back to the United States is the University’s primary goal, but, Wetle said, “I want to make sure that he can complete his studies for (a master’s in public health), so I’ve also contacted and have been writing letters of reference to Canadian universities.” Almilaji said he received a verbal offer from the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and is waiting to see what kind of financial package they can offer him.

“I respect and appreciate the support of Brown,” Almilaji said. “But I cannot just stay (in Gaziantep) for an indefinite time.” He said that he will have to decide in the coming weeks if he wants to transfer or try to return to Brown.

“I need the time to finish my master’s. Everything postponing this goal is postponing me coming back (to Gaziantep) and working full-time on the projects here,” Alimaji said. While he waits for a decision on his visa application, “everything is on hold now,” he added.

A new world

Daniel Berger, an immigration lawyer based in Massachusetts, said embassies have the authority to cancel visas without offering an explanation under a practice known as “administrative processing.” “Administrative processing is just a general (phrase) for background check … usually the FBI is involved, and we don’t usually have details on what they’re looking for,” he said.

“If you’re not a U.S. citizen and you’re not on U.S. soil, you have very few due process rights,” Berger said. “The State Department, as a part of foreign policy, doesn’t have to answer a lot of questions.”

Though Trump’s immigration ban has been effectively “nullified” by the courts’ decision to implement a legal stay, Berger said administrative processing has not stopped and that there has been a “general trend toward giving immigration officials discretion … to be extra careful.”

While consulates generally cancel visas under minor criminal infractions, Berger said that after 9/11, Iran had been a “particular concern for security.” As a result, international students from Iran were often subjected to administrative processing.

To revoke Almilaji’s visa under the suspicion of Almilaji being a security threat “shows the complete arbitrariness of the whole process. (The officials) didn’t even bother to do a simple Google search to figure out who Khaled was,” Roth said.  “It’s essentially on the basis of profiling that they did this.”

Clearing the security check can take three months, which is “pure bureaucracy,” he added.

Roth also said, “There’s no reason to think there’s any genuine security concern. This is just paranoia that has only been (exacerbated) by Trump’s arrival.”

“The (United States) is not a normal country — it’s the leader in calling for a free world and democracy,” Almilaji said. “As activists fighting for democracy, for the free world, we are worried because we all need support from a country like the (United States).”

Almilaji has noticed changes in the way people view the United States since Trump’s election. “I can feel, I hear it and I see it every time I talk my U.S. colleagues and friends. They are worried about the principles and life of American society,” he said.

Revoking Almilaji’s visa “is a black eye for the (United States). We look horrible,” said Cindy Coffman, an American humanitarian aid worker who met Almilaji while working for Relief International in Gaziantep. “He should be welcomed with open arms,” she added.

When talking to American colleagues and friends, Almilaji often ends up having to reassure the person on the other end of the line. “Every time I talk to (colleagues and friends), it starts with them telling me that they are supporting me. And at the end of the call … I am supporting them. I am telling them that everything will be okay … There’s a storm, and it will pass.”