Home Campus This is how Muslim students feel on Ohio U’s campus

This is how Muslim students feel on Ohio U’s campus

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Studying in the U.S presents challenges for any international student - but those coming from the Middle East are facing an extra hurdle.

Studying in the U.S presents challenges for any international student – but those coming from the Middle East are facing an extra hurdle.

It’s not the best time to be a Muslim in America.

Nor is it a great time to be coming to the United States from a country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

And it’s especially difficult if you hail from a country included in President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13769, dubbed by many as a “Muslim ban.”

But ask around on Ohio University’s campus, and you’ll find that many international students who fit this description are doing just fine.

Ohio U is home to over 24,000 students, and nearly 1,500 of them are international. Over 300 members of the international population come from Middle Eastern nations, and 82 students are native to countries that were listed on EO 13769.

Despite living in a political climate that often breeds distrust and distaste for Arab countries and people coming from them, students at Ohio U have felt like national tensions haven’t trickled down to their experience in small-town Athens.

“For the most part at OU, there’s nothing that says ‘We don’t want international students,’” junior studying political science and sociology-criminology Amal Afyouni said.

“If anything, it’s one of the most welcoming environments I’ve been in, both international and domestic.”

Afyouni hails from the United Arab Emirates, where she grew up living in Dubai. She was born in Texas before moving to the Middle East, and thus holds American citizenship as well as Jordanian citizenship. Her decision to study in the U.S. was easy, if not obvious, and she said studying in the UAE was never really on her radar.

They aren’t saying it in a negative way, just more so out of curiosity. Others ask in a very negative and arrogant way … but I’ve never felt like someone has taken my culture as something against me. – Amal Afyouni, junior political science and sociology-crimonology student

Afyouni has found her experience at Ohio U overwhelmingly positive, but she acknowledges that some cultural ignorance has affected her, like questions about whether she keeps herself covered or drinks alcohol.

“I have to teach myself to realize that some people literally don’t know anything about the culture,” Afyouni said.

“They aren’t saying it in a negative way, just more so out of curiosity. Others ask in a very negative and arrogant way … but I’ve never felt like someone has taken my culture as something against me.”

Iranian graduate student Mohammad Gholami feels similarly, stating that since he first came to campus three years ago, he felt like most people were friendly. Gholami noted that his decision to come to Ohio U was influenced by then-President Barack Obama, whose administration “seemed to be more welcoming.”

The Office of Global Affairs and International Studies (OGAIS) recognizes the importance of talking about the political climate and any potential issues it may bring students, but it also doesn’t want to instill fear in students whose minds are elsewhere.

“One of the things that we want to do is to try and be respectful of where everyone is coming from,” OGAIS Interim Director Diane Cahill said.

“It may be that a student coming here isn’t thinking about that today. So bringing that up may not be the best way to start out your welcome to the university.”

Last winter, OGAIS brought immigration attorneys from Columbus to Ohio U in the wake of Trump’s travel ban. The attorneys held a Q&A with students, faculty and staff regarding issues of immigration reform, and OGAIS is planning on bringing the attorneys back in the fall.

Cahill wants to continue to provide practical help to the students, but she believes it’s equally important for the office to be a support system for students.

“No matter what we do, we may still need to be there to just listen if someone is scared or nervous,” Cahill said.

“No matter what you tell someone, you still have to be there in case your words aren’t enough.”

OGAIS isn’t the only entity on campus that’s trying to facilitate students affected by the ban. Ohio U said it would offer free housing and dining accommodations to students who come from one of the six countries included in the ban. The financial support came from Ohio U’s Parents and Family Endowment fund, which was made specifically for students who need help in the wake of disasters.

Mapping the Mena.
Graphic by Connor Perrett

To offset tax costs that students who accepted the offer would have to pay, the local group  “Baker 70” stated that they would help pay students’ taxes. The group — comprised of both students and community activists — used money that they previously raised for their own legal costs.

Some members of the Athens community feel like it’s their duty to help international students where they can, like the Athens Friends for International Students. After several years of remaining mostly dormant, the group was revitalized in the wake of recent political tensions and has sponsored events for the Athens community to reach out to international students.

Gholami has experienced support due to being from a country on the travel ban and has felt sympathy coming from members of the Ohio U community.

“After the executive order, our graduate chair was so sad,” Gholami said. “When I wanted him to sign my I-20 to be extended, he was just saying ‘sorry for that.’”

Since the EO was announced in February, Gholami has not returned home to Iran. He hasn’t seen his family in three years, and he doesn’t envision going home before he finishes work on his thesis.

Gholami’s experience with the EO has made him wary of a permanent future in the U.S., and he doesn’t plan on staying after he graduates. He has Iranian friends who have had issues maintaining their legal status in the U.S., even after working for larger companies like Apple and Google.

“I do not want to be in such an unfair situation, which does not give me and my work any credit,” Gholami said.

Afyouni feels confident that she’ll stay in the U.S. post-graduation, but she doesn’t face the same hurdles as Gholami due to her dual citizenship. She’s almost certain she’ll remain in the states for law school, but for now, she’s trying not to think too much about leaving Ohio U.

“I literally could not imagine myself anywhere else,” Afyouni said. “Athens is my home, literally my second home. Sometimes I consider it my first because I love it so much.”

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