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Lives of two Iranian students upturned by Trump immigration bans

Bans disrupt studies, family relationships of Hemmatian GS, Zamanian GS

As President Trump signed his first executive order on immigration Jan. 27, Babak Hemmatian GS discovered that his father’s colon cancer had spread to his other organs. Under the terms of the first immigration ban, if Hemmatian were to visit his father in Iran, he would risk being barred from re-entering the United States.

“It was really painful for me because, on the one hand, I felt like if I left the United States to come and visit, there’s a possibility that I will not be able to return to finish my studies. And on the other hand, I felt like I couldn’t just stay there and wait,” Hemmatian said over Skype from Tehran. “I would say it was the most difficult time in my entire life.” Hemmatian eventually traveled to Iran to care for his father only after Trump’s second immigration order exempted Iranians with valid visas from being barred.

In August, Erfan Zamanian GS left the United States to present a paper at a conference in India. He had been in the United States on a single-entry F-1 visa, and he had reapplied for another visa in order to reenter the country, certain that it “wouldn’t take long to be issued.” By the time Trump signed his first immigration order, Zamanian had already been stranded in Iran for nearly five months and had spent his entire fall semester enrolled at Brown but unable to take his courses.

“It was really frustrating, because I had my courses and my studies here pending for such a long time,” Zamanian said. Just as he was finally granted a visa in January, Trump’s first immigration ban came into effect. Zamanian finally returned to the United States once the first ban was blocked by a federal court in early February.

While both of Trump’s executive orders on immigration were subsequently blocked by federal judges, Trump’s immigration bans continue to take a toll on both Hemmatian’s and Zamanian’s personal and professional lives.

Scholars in search of knowledge and freedom

When the ban was put into place “I had to TA, I had to do my research, I had to go to my classes, and that was really difficult,” Hemmatian said. “I had a number of different pretty serious health problems myself, which (I) can only think were in part caused by this stress,” he added, noting that his father’s condition likely played a role in his poor health as well.

He acted out “a couple times in ways I didn’t expect myself to,” he said. And he has been experiencing cold sinusitis, coughing, fatigue, cold sores, digestive problems and anxiety. He even had a minor surgery.

Hemmatian decided to come to the United States because of his desire to study reasoning. “There wasn’t really anyone in Iran” doing research in that area of cognitive science, he said. “The United States definitely isn’t the only place where major figures in the field work, but I would say it is — at least it was — the most attractive one, because there is this perception of U.S. universities as being great places in terms of the culture of education and also in terms of funding,” he added.

Zamanian came to the United States not only because he feels it is the best place to be for computer science, but also because he likes American culture and wanted to have new experiences that he thought the United States could provide. Here, “I have Christian friends, I have atheist friends, I have friends from Africa, I have friends from South America. I don’t have that luxury in Iran,” he said.

Hemmatian is an atheist and identifies as bisexual. “There’s this fantastic view of the United States that’s in the minds of people everywhere,” he said. That view appeals to him because he does not feel aligned with his country’s culture “in terms of (his) beliefs, in terms of (his) lifestyle,” he said.

In the United States, Hemmatian has a boyfriend. Because he was able to be “open about pretty much every aspect of (his) life,” coming to the United States has been “quite liberating,” he said. Having this freedom “allows me to focus on my research and other stuff that matters to me.”

Hemmatian said that he has made great friends at Brown. “Just talking to those people gives me the best feeling in the world. The feeling that I’m alive, the feeling that I’m growing, the feeling that I’m contributing something to this wonderful mixture of ideas. That’s the most exciting aspect (of being) at Brown for me.”

Because of Hemmatian’s sexual orientation and religious beliefs, “returning to Iran to live permanently isn’t really an option,” he said. “Once you’ve lived as openly as I have in the United States in the past couple of years, you really can’t go back to living the way you would have to in Iran, at least at the moment. It’s difficult to put those kinds of constraints on your life,” Hemmatian said.

He said that he has already had job offers rescinded when Iranian employers found out about his atheism or bisexuality. “Right now, with the articles that are out there, it doesn’t seem very likely that I could get any job” in Iran, he added, referring to a feature the Washington Post published about him Feb. 1.

Professional lives and University support

Hemmatian studies how people use names and categories as explanations for issues, a practice exemplified by Trump’s banning of certain nationalities — essentially people of a certain religion — in order to stop terrorism. Trump’s ban relies on the association of certain nationalities with terrorism though nobody from the banned countries has committed a fatal terrorist attack in the United States in over 40 years. “I think it’s kind of ironic,” Hemmatian said about his field of research, “because it could be related to what I’m experiencing.”

After the first ban made him unsure if he would be able to return home and continue his studies, Hemmatian was unable to focus on his career. “Sometimes working on homework, I would just sit in front of my notes and look at them for hours getting nowhere,” he said. He started “talking to people about alternative plans,” thinking about going to another country, such as Canada, to finish his dissertation.

Zamanian also considered moving to Canada while waiting for a visa in Iran. Zamanian was receiving funding for his research while in Iran, but he felt guilty that he was not able to perform at his best while he was constantly distracted by his situation. Zamanian’s advisor and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Tim Kraska promised him unconditional support, Zamanian said.

Kraska discussed a backup plan of transferring to University of Waterloo so he could work remotely. His research team could make annual trips “to Canada and … have some sort of reunion,” Zamanian said. When the first immigration ban was signed, Kraska reached out to a colleague there to give Zamanian the option of transferring.

Hemmatian also worries about how the order will affect his research in the long term. Once his F-1 student visa expires in July, he will not be able to re-enter the United States without a new visa — which he may not be able to get. This means that he will not be able to go to conferences outside the United States, like the 39th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society in London in 2017.

“Science is a social endeavor, and we have to have connections with researchers in other labs … Conferences are one of the main ways of doing that, but right now I’m confined to the United States,” he said. “It’s difficult not to feel bad when you see, for example, people around you in the program just so easily leaving for conferences,” he added.

Zamanian is also worried about the effects travel restrictions will have on his research. Zamanian had a paper about his research accepted by the Very Large Data Bases conference in Munich this summer, but he cannot leave the country to present because his F-1 student visa is single-entry. This is a big problem for him because conferences are “the major venue for researchers to collaborate” in his field, he said. He is now looking for someone to present it for him.

Perception of the United States and envisioning a future

Hemmatian plans to return to the United States before his multiple-entry F-1 visa expires in July and stay on his I-20 status until he completes his PhD. He said he does not anticipate problems returning to the United States because he is allowed to enter under the most recent immigration executive order, which has also been blocked by a federal court.

Overall, the United States is a better place compared to Germany, Switzerland or Finland, all countries where he has spent significant time, for people like Zamanian, he said. But the election and events following it made him realize that “this wasn’t the heaven that (he) thought it was,” he said. “And I faced the reality in perhaps the harshest way possible.”

Nevertheless, Zamanian is grateful for how supportive the Brown community has been. “I felt that even if the whole United States was against me, at least there is a small community (at Brown) that I truly feel like I belong to and they belong to me, and I am welcome there,” he added.

But Zamanian sees Brown as a bubble. The election made him realize that “the United States is a big country with diverse opinions about everything, including immigration and immigrants.” When he first arrived in Providence, his landlord asked him: “How can I know that you’re not a terrorist?” He later became “good friends” with his landlord, he added.

“In the news, the channels that I usually watched like BBC, CNN … you always get the feeling that everybody’s against the executive order, everybody’s protesting. This is also the feeling that I got from all the emails that I received from people here at Brown. But then, when you take a step back and look at the general population, you see that no — (Trump) has his supporters,” Zamanian said. He does not feel comfortable traveling to places like the South or Midwest, where he imagines he might not be welcomed.

“I can’t help but be a little paranoid that whenever I say ‘hi’ and introduce myself and say where I’m from — what’s going on in the other person’s head? Do they have some idea of me as being some kind of crazy, backwards, sexist person? Would they be willing to have more meaningful human interaction with me, or not? Are they thinking that I might be a terrorist? Because that’s really absurd,” Hemmatian said. “It’s hard not to take that to heart. It’s hard not to let that affect you.”

Finding a job and creating a life in the United States was “the prime option” before the election, Hemmatian said. But now, “I probably will leave the United States after I am done with my studies,” he said. “I definitely don’t feel welcome anymore,” he said, adding that he is looking to build a life elsewhere in the West. In Iran, Hemmatian faced discrimination for “things that (he) could control like (his) beliefs,” he said. But in the United States, he faces discrimination because of his birthplace — “something that I had no role in.”

Zamanian had previously planned to work in the United States after completing his PhD. “But now with this new executive order I (am) questioning my future and my plans in the United States,” he said. Though the United States is the global leader in his field, he can see a life for himself in Iran.

“Even if you’re allowed to stay, what if one day someone wakes up from his bed and issues another executive order forcing you to leave the country?” Zamanian asked. “In the long term, (the ban) is actually helping Iran because it convinces students that: ‘You see, we don’t have the best infrastructure and we don’t have the best environment for you,’” but you wouldn’t have the problems that you would face in the United States, he said. “Universities in Iran — good universities — said that if you’re a student studying in America, and now your education is (paused), you can come back and get your education from us,” he added. 

But Hemmatian still finds reasons to be hopeful about the future of the United States. “When the visa ban first came out, … I was pleasantly surprised that so many people staged protests,” he said. “I think it’s a beautiful thing, the fact that the judiciary system can decide against the president of the country to defend the rights of a number of people who don’t have all that much power to represent themselves.”

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