September 4, 2019 1:37:55 pm
Written by Anemona Hartocollis
Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian student denied entry to the United States last month at the airport in Boston, was allowed to enter the country Monday and was at Harvard in time for the beginning of classes, according to Amideast, the group that sponsored him.
Amideast said in a statement that the US Embassy in Beirut reviewed Ajjawi’s case and reissued a visa. Harvard officials confirmed that Ajjawi was on campus.
Ajjawi, 17, landed at Logan International Airport in Boston on Aug. 23 and was turned back after immigration officials objected to his friends’ social media posts, he told The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Ajjawi, who lives in Tyre, Lebanon, had received a visa before traveling.
The episode prompted a furor among free speech advocates. It became a rallying cry for university officials who are worried that the Trump administration is making it more arduous for foreign students and scholars to study in the United States, and possibly alienating those who would otherwise be inclined to form a favorable impression of American society.
Ajjawi has said that he wants to become a doctor and that he is apolitical. His lawyer, Albert Mokhiber, described him Tuesday as a Palestinian refugee who had attended US schools in the refugee camps of Lebanon.
Mokhiber said that Harvard and the sponsoring agency, Amideast, had put all their weight behind getting Ajjawi back into the country.
“The anxiety was beyond belief for everybody,” Mokhiber said. “Thank God it all worked out.”
Ajjawi made it to Harvard on Monday in time to appear in his class photo, Mokhiber said, adding that Ajjawi was taken aside by Lawrence Bacow, the president of the university.
“I told his dad, the hard part begins today, he’s at Harvard, and we had a little chuckle over that,” Mokhiber said.
Amideast, an American nonprofit cultural exchange and education program founded in 1951, credited the public outcry over the case with helping Ajjawi regain his visa.
“We express our gratitude to the many voices in the media and the public at large, both in the United States and abroad, who recognized the injustice of what happened to Ismail and voiced their concerns in traditional media and on social media,” the Amideast statement said.
Ajjawi’s parents issued a statement expressing relief that their son was able to begin studies at Harvard with his class, and thanking those who fought for the reinstatement of his visa. They asked for privacy for their son, who did not comment directly.
In the account given to The Crimson after he was turned back, Ajjawi said that his phone and laptop computer were searched at the airport, and that an agent had yelled at him and “said she found people posting political points of view that oppose the US on my friend list.”
He told the agent that he should not be held responsible for other peoples’ posts, the account said.
Unexpected denials and long delays have become increasingly common for international students and scholars seeking visas, according to college and university officials across the country.
Bacow, the president of Harvard, said Tuesday that Ajjawi’s case was the tip of the iceberg.
“Since May, the obstacles facing individuals ensnared in the nation’s visa and immigration process have only grown,” he said. “Various international students and scholars eager to establish lives here on our campus find themselves the subject of scrutiny and suspicion in the name of national security, and they are reconsidering the value of joining our community in the face of disruptions and delays.”
Bacow noted that he had recently traveled to Washington to share his concerns with Congress and had written a letter to the secretary of state.
After Ajjawi was turned back in August, a spokesman for the State Department said that international students were a priority, and that the government was “committed to providing the highest quality service to legitimate travelers.”
The department said the majority of international students received a visa upon application: 74% of student visa applications and 92.5% of exchange visitor visa applications were approved in fiscal year 2018.
Free speech advocates said they hoped that the Ajjawi case would raise awareness of the broader issue.
“Given the serious, chilling effect viewpoint-based decision-making creates, we hope that other cases like Ajjawi’s will receive similar attention and scrutiny,” said Sarah McLaughlin, director of targeted advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech watchdog group.
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