UPDATED: July 10, 2020, 5:39 p.m.
Abdullah M. Bannan ’23, a Syrian Harvard student, took a circuitous route to campus his freshman year. He drove from Syria to Lebanon, then flew to Italy, and finally transferred to the U.S. — a 30-hour trip in total.
He has not returned home to Syria since, and an obstacle course of closed borders and travel restrictions will prevent him from doing so anytime soon.
“Going to Europe is virtually impossible for me now due to travel restrictions, and definitely not to Lebanon because Lebanon is not letting anyone into their country, except for Lebanese people,” Bannan said. “Then the problem that comes after that is going from Lebanon to Syria, because Syria’s borders are also closed.”
But Harvard’s all-remote fall plan and new government rules may also make it equally challenging for him to remain in the U.S.
Hours after Harvard announced Monday morning that all its courses will be virtual, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released an order barring international students enrolled in universities offering only online courses from staying in the United States.
Many international undergraduates said they met the news with fear, anxiety, and grief over a profound loss of stability. Harvard and MIT have since challenged the rule in a lawsuit filed in District Court in Boston Wednesday morning.
During the town hall for international students, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said the guidelines have put universities in a bind, one where they must decide between prioritizing the health and safety of its affiliates and supporting their international students. He called the dilemma a “Sophie’s Choice” situation, referencing a 1982 film in which a woman must choose which of her children to send to gas chambers in Auschwitz.
Khurana promised town hall attendees, however, that Harvard’s senior administrators have dedicated their attention to the success of Harvard’s lawsuit against DHS and ICE.
Maureen Martin, who directs Immigration Services at the Harvard International Office, said at the town hall that while Harvard must await the results of the lawsuit before giving further guidance, the guidelines permit students currently in the U.S. to remain stateside through the summer.
“At the moment, you don't need to start packing and get a flight out this week,” she said. “This is such a rapidly evolving situation at the moment that we can't really give you a date by which you'd have to leave the U.S. and hopefully, we are going to prevail in court and it won’t come to you leaving the U.S.”
Since Monday, many international students said the federal rule and Harvard’s fall plan have upended their plans for the near future.
Estela L. Franca ’23, who hails from Brazil, was staying a few minutes from campus in Brookline, Mass. when she received news of the federal order via text.
“It was a very dramatic day,” Franca said, describing how her morning began with Bacow’s 11 a.m. missive and the realization she and her fellow sophomores would not return to campus in the fall.
“I tried to start figuring out what I was going to do, whether I wanted to go to Brazil, whether I wanted to stay and live with friends somewhere — that had been the plan all along. And then three hours later, I received a text with the new ICE guidelines, and that kind of shifted everything,” she added.
The federal decision in particular has affected Franca, she said.
“Every hour of my life since then has revolved around the situation with the new ICE ruling,” she continued. “On Monday, I cried for hours, just because it didn't seem like there was going to be any way around it.”
If Harvard’s lawsuit fails in court, Franca said she would return to Brazil and take her courses from afar. She said she is not considering taking a leave of absence because she does not want to deactivate her visa status by declining to take classes for more than five months.
During Wednesday’s town hall, Martin said students who take a leave of absence would have to forego their F1 visa status and complete another I-20 form upon their return. She said, however, that students would not need an F1 to complete their studies remotely since the visa is only required to enter the country, not to enroll in classes.
For some international students still living in the U.S., however, both staying in the U.S. and returning home appear untenable.
Tuzo Mulunda ’23, an international student from Kenya who has been living on campus since March, said she is unable to return home because Kenya’s borders remain closed.
“I would have to leave the U.S. but the thing is, I literally cannot get a flight to my country because it's still on lockdown,” she said. “So I'm stuck in this place where we have to leave. But even if I wanted to, I literally cannot.”
Bannan, subject to deportation from the U.S. and simultaneously unable to return to Syria, is in the same predicament. Even if he were able to go home, his departure from the U.S. would jeopardize his eventual return to campus due to the Trump administration’s executive order in 2017 banning travel from several mostly Muslim countries, including Syria.
He added that completing his studies in Syria would be impossible because the country has banned Zoom. Because current U.S. sanctions on Syria prohibit economic transactions and services, which may include educational services, he fears he may have to withdraw as a Harvard student lest the University face prosecution.
Mulunda and Bannan both said they intended to petition to remain on campus in the fall semester to take their online classes in Cambridge. The current guidelines, however, have dashed those expectations.
Justas Jasevicius ’21, who is currently at home in Lithuania, also said he hoped to stay with his blockmates in a Boston apartment for the semester. The federal order complicated his plan, which was already temporarily thwarted by the Trump administration’s ban on travel from nearly all European countries.
“I’m happy that Harvard is doing something. I just really hope they're prepared for a negative answer from the courts,” he said.
Several universities, including Columbia University, have decided to circumvent the federal order by committing to create a hybrid program with in-person and remote learning opportunities through which international students could attend occasional in-person class meetings to avoid deportation.
In response to student questions about the possibility of a hybrid model in the fall, Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh said during the town hall that Harvard is still “committed” to its decision to conduct all classes remotely next semester.
“We thought very hard about this for a very long time, and this is what we think is the best, so we are confident or hopeful at least that we will get relief in court,” she said.
Jasevicius said he was happy to hear many deans and professors offering to teach in-person classes for international students should Harvard resort to a hybrid model like other schools. Still, he said, such a model may not offer students recourse because of travel restrictions.
Barbara A. Oedayrajsingh Varma ’21, who is from the Netherlands, also said she worried a hybrid model would force international students unable to leave their country due to travel restrictions or health concerns to unenroll.
“A hybrid model might mean that students outside the U.S. will be forced to unenroll. But if there’s no hybrid model, students inside the U.S. will be forced to leave, which may not be possible,” Oedayrajsingh Varma said.
Fabrizio Serafini ’23 said the federal order is forcing him to take his classes at home in Italy, where he and other international students have discussed plans to forge a makeshift Harvard microcosm far away from campus. But the disruption still worries him, he added.
“It's this feeling that you don't know what's gonna happen the next year, and you cannot be happy,” he said. “You cannot be sure of how your future is gonna look because you don’t know where you're going to be. You don't know whether you will have the chance to finish your education in the United States.”
Like Serafini, Franca described the uncertainty as overwhelming.
“I've been in the country for five years, always on an F1. And it's always been a looming threat that if something happens, they could take it away,” Franca said. “This has always been a threat in the back of our minds because what guarantees us staying in the country is the stamp on our passport and the I-20 papers.”
“This is almost like a nightmare situation,” she added. “It's not gonna happen. It's not gonna happen and then it happens.”
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.