Iraqi Student Denied Reentry

Anthropology student finds himself stranded in Canada after visa hurdles

Omar al-Dewachi’s studies of displaced Iraqis took an uncomfortable real-life turn after the Harvard Ph.D. candidate became caught in a legal mire that is shutting him out of the United States.

The State Department is refusing to recognize the Harvard student’s Iraqi passport, which was issued before the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government, preventing him from returning to Cambridge to resume his studies.

Dewachi, who studies social anthropology, said in a phone interview from Montreal that he received a U.S. entry visa on Jan. 31, but was told the next day that the “N” series passport with which he was planning to use the visa was invalid.

Dewachi said the only place where he could receive an acceptable, “G” series passport with certainty was in Iraq’s war-torn capital, Baghdad.

A State Department spokesman, Steve Royster, confirmed that “N” series passports were declared invalid in January because “they don’t meet international security standards.”

One of Dewachi’s key supporters throughout his ordeal has been his academic adviser, Steven Caton, the director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies.

“One wonders if it’s almost a perverse joke—I can’t imagine having to go back to Baghdad...It’s almost a death sentence, and he obviously has no intention of going back,” said Caton, a professor of contemporary Arab studies in the Department of Anthropology.

Caton said that Dewachi’s absence has made it more difficult to consult with him as he writes his dissertation, as faculty members have to rely on e-mail and phone calls.

Caton added that he and the anthropology department are working to keep Dewachi “financially solvent” by finding him grants and potential part-time research jobs.

Since beginning his studies at Harvard in August 2001, Dewachi has entered the U.S. on single-entry visas. According to Dewachi, Iraqis were denied the more convenient multi-entry visas usually granted to international students because Iraq was seen as a “state supporting terrorism” under Hussein.

Because of immigration policy, Dewachi said he had to stay in the United States for the first three years of his Ph.D. program. He said in a phone interview from Montreal that after the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003, he “got the courage to leave and visit my family in Beirut, Lebanon, who had also left Iraq.”

When it came time to return to the U.S. early the next year, he was told that the same restrictions would apply despite the regime change in Iraq. He was still eligible only for a one-entry visa.

After spending a year in London doing fieldwork for his dissertation on the Iraqi diaspora in Britain, he moved to Montreal to finish writing it and became a permanent resident of Canada in June 2005. According to Dewachi, Canada recognizes his “N” series passport.

Seeking to gain entrance to a conference in the United States last November, Dewachi secured an interview with the U.S. consulate, but he said he was never issued a visa. After months of delays, Dewachi said, he was called by the U.S. Embassy on Jan. 31 and told that the visa application had been accepted.

“I talked to them the next morning, and they literally said, ‘I have good news and bad news,’” he said.

Although the Iraqi government has extended the validity of the “N” series until the end of 2007 and Dewachi was granted a visa, his passport was invalid to the State Department as of January 2007.

Saying there was “no way” he could return to Baghdad to obtain a “G” passport and that his entire family had emigrated and couldn’t do it for him, Dewachi is now making efforts to obtain a travel document from the Canadian government that would identify him as “stateless,” and allow him to get the visa stamp to pass into the United States.

He spent yesterday in Ottawa doing just this.

According to Caton, Dewachi is not the only member of the Harvard community affected this way by State Department regulations.

He said that Asad A. Ahmed, an assistant professor who was scheduled to teach Anthropology 2675, “Secularism, Religion, and Nation in South Asia” this semester, is currently awaiting a visa to reenter the United States from Pakistan.

Ahmed did not respond to an e-mail last night.

Dewachi said he hoped that his ordeal would draw attention to the situation of stateless Iraqis.

“Most of the time, I’ve wanted to stay in the shadow, and not raise all these issues, but now, I think the most important thing is to have this out,” he said.

“There might be a possibility that because it is vocal and publicized, eventually it is going to backlash, but for me, for people to hear the story and hear what is going on, for my level and the larger Iraqi situation, is more important.”

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.