By Susan Svrluga
The school year at George Mason University had just ended, and Najwa Elyazgi was ready to go home to Libya for the summer. Her bags were packed, her belongings boxed for storage.
All she needed was one form from the Department of Homeland Security before buying plane tickets. That June morning in Virginia, she got an email with the necessary document, an essential step toward enrolling in graduate school at Harvard University in the fall.
And then she read the news: The Supreme Court had upheld the president’s right to ban people from certain countries — including Libya — if he deemed it necessary to protect the United States.
She had been planning to fly that day or the next. But the ruling plunged her into despair: If she left the country, could she be certain she would be allowed back in? Should she stay — or go?
Like many foreign scholars, for months she hasn’t been sure of the status of her education or her future. She, and many others like her, know this: The ground has shifted profoundly, with rules upended, assumptions discarded.
It soon became clear that to go home might mean risking her education at Harvard.
International students contribute nearly $37 billion to the U.S. economy, said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education, which represents college and university leaders.
“We cannot afford as a country to not be seen as the destination of choice for the people that are ultimately going to be the innovators and the business creators,” McDonough said.
But President Trump saw it differently when the Supreme Court reached its verdict.
“In this era of worldwide terrorism and extremist movements bent on harming innocent civilians, we must properly vet those coming into our country,” Trump said in a statement issued by the White House.
Advocates of the president’s ban — which mainly affects travelers from certain Muslim-majority nations — said increased scrutiny of some travelers is necessary to protect the United States. Andrew Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, said delays make sense “so we can ensure they are who they say they are.”
Technically, students from all of the affected countries — except North Korea and Syria — can get student visas. But that has not been happening consistently in practice, some advocates argue.
Considerable uncertainty exists, said Dan Berger, an immigration lawyer, noting a memo issued Thursday by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that changes the way student visa status is evaluated. Students who followed standard procedures years ago may face penalties based on new interpretations.
A USCIS official said the agency has found significant “overstay” rates on certain types of student visas; rates from some countries were greater than 20 percent.
“Foreign students who are no longer properly enrolled in school are violating the terms of their student visa and should be held accountable,” USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna said in a written statement.
Some advocates questioned the statistics, saying the agency is not accounting for students who may have moved to another legal means of staying in the country, such as a work visa or marriage.
Many universities are being circumspect in their advice to international students and faculty members, advising them that there may be extended delays and unexpected denials.
Elyazgi said she had not known her pursuit of an education would come with so much uncertainty and so much risk.
The 25-year-old remembers all too well the moment when she realized things had changed. It was January 2017, and she was in an airport in Turkey, a layover on her way back to George Mason. She glanced at her phone while she waited, then stared at the news alert in disbelief: The Trump administration had imposed a ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries entering the United States.
She was not allowed to board her flight to Dulles International Airport.
She spent the following days in a hotel room in Istanbul checking constantly for updates, wondering whether her college education had just been destroyed. It had been so difficult, and had taken so long, to get all the legal documentation and approvals to study here; it was hard to believe it could dissolve so quickly.
Then, a federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the ban. She quickly booked a flight and was allowed to return to the United States.
Trump warned last year the judge’s actions would be felt. “Because the ban was lifted by a judge, many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country,” he wrote on social media. “A terrible decision.”
When the executive order was signed last year, Elyazgi was locked out. Now, she feels locked in.
After studying so much, and staying in Virginia over the winter break to prepare her graduate-school applications, she had been looking forward to going home.
At her graduation from George Mason, she called her parents using FaceTime so they could see her in cap and gown. At times she had to put the phone in her bag or her pocket, but she didn’t hang up during the ceremony. Her emotions were jumbled, a mix of joy and pride and loneliness. “I had to have them the entire time on my phone so I can feel like they’re with me,” she said.
Going home to Libya, she knew, would mean she could sleep the most peaceful of nights at her parents’ house in Tripoli. She planned to see her not-quite-2-year-old niece, who calls out her own version of Elyazgi’s name when she hears the app buzzing on her mother’s phone, signaling an international call. Then she would go to her grandmother’s house, where the whole family gathers for celebratory meals.
Elyazgi would eat all the food she has been missing — couscous with fish, dough with date molasses (Aseeda).
She was going to be honored by the Libyan Education Ministry for her academic achievements at a ceremony this summer. She planned to celebrate at her cousin’s elaborate six-day wedding.
And then she would go on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It would be her first time. When she learned her name had been selected through the lottery process, she was so excited. “You may never get it, ever,” she said.
Immediately after the hajj, she would fly to Boston and start orientation at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, studying human development and psychology.
Instead, she found herself in a packed-up home in Virginia, wondering how to find a short-term rental for the summer. She tried to forget about the ruling that night at a farewell dinner with friends who had just graduated. She left early, too upset to enjoy any of it, and went straight to bed.
Her feelings about the United States have changed in the past year and a half. When she came to the country, her parents worried she might face hostility as a Muslim woman. She reassured them, “No, the United States is so international — people are so friendly!”
She had her first bad experience last year, at the beach, when some people followed her, shouting about her hijab. This spring in Boston, a man stopped her in the street, cursed and threw a bottle at her legs. The glass smashed.
“I honestly believe with the travel ban, people who are racist or have issues with other religions, they started to express their feelings more,” she said.
She’s grateful for the education, surely among the best the world has to offer. She hopes she will be able to complete her master’s degree uninterrupted, even dreams the policy might change again so that her parents will be able to attend her graduation from Harvard.
But once she returns to Libya, to a job she has already been offered there, she said, “I won’t be back.”
Najwa Elyazgi (top Photo) graduated from George Mason University this spring. (Courtesy of Elyazgi)
Susan Svrluga is a reporter covering higher education for The Washington Post’s Grade Point blog. Before that, she covered education and local news at The Post.