The call was long distance.
Niku Jafarnia, a student at Harvard Law School, dialed her mother and father in the Bay Area, where the couple, who emigrated from Iran in the 1970s, has lived for over twenty years.
Jafarnia asked them about President Donald Trump’s immigration suspension: A few days earlier, the president had signed an executive order barring immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, for 90 days.
She hoped for reassurance. In the past, her parents had always told her not to worry about “these types” of things. They had been through much worse, they said.
This call was different.
“For the first time in her life, my mother said, ‘You know what, maybe it’s a good idea for us not to be living in this country,’” Jafarnia says.
Harvard currently hosts 111 student and scholar visa holders who are nationals of the countries named in Trump’s act, according to the Harvard International Office, which processes visas for University affiliates. When Trump signed the order, the University was in the middle of processing visas for 21 additional scholars from these countries.
For its part, Harvard has taken a number of steps to challenge the order and provide resources for affiliates affected by it, including lobbying lawmakers, filing legal arguments, and hosting a town hall event.
Still, Harvard students and scholars impacted by the suspension say they are still trying to grasp its exact implications for their work at the University, their families, and their futures in the United States. Many say they are struggling to understand the reason for the order, which they call unjust.
Sitting in a Law School classroom, fidgeting with her red “Criminal Law” textbook, Jafarnia says she found her phone call with her mother and father “heartbreaking.” Her parents told her they were so anxious about Trump’s order they had stopped sleeping.
“They moved here to give us a better life, and they don’t want to see us dealing with these things,” Jafarnia says. “And they shouldn’t have to deal with it all over again—it’s the same thing, and they emigrated here 40 years ago.”
‘YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE’
For Mohsen Goudarzi and Narges Afshordi, a married couple who traveled from Iran eight years ago to do research and pursue postgraduate degrees at Stanford and now Harvard, Trump’s suspension made a bad situation worse.
Seated next to her husband in a cafe, hair covered in a bright hijab, Afshordi squints a little in the sunlight streaming in from the cafe’s large windows as she tries to explain.
“All of the things in the news make it sound like there was no vetting or there was just vetting for refugees, but there has been really pretty extreme vetting for Iranians coming to the United States forever,” she says.
The two were too scared to visit home, Afshordi says, worried they might not be able to come back to the United States if they did.
“It wasn’t unheard of that people would leave in the middle of their studies, and then they wouldn’t be able to obtain a visa to come back to the United States,” Goudarzi, who is studying religion, adds.
Eventually, Afshordi and Goudarzi began to take a few trips—to Iran to see their parents, to Europe for vacation. Still, nearly every time they left the United States, they were subjected to extensive questioning on their return, Goudarzi says. These sessions often took hours.
Leaning back in her chair, Afshordi recalls one occasion when she flew back to Boston after a visit to Spain. She was pregnant at the time, and had just debarked from a nearly eight-hour flight, she says. Airport security officials pulled her aside immediately.
“They kept asking me things they already had answers to, and then also weird questions like, ‘Were you in Iran?’” she remembers. “No, I was coming back from a visit to Spain. ‘Did you go to Syria?’ No, why are you asking me?”
Afshordi and Goudarzi have a one-and-a-half year old daughter. She has met her grandparents just once, when Afshordi and Goudarzi visited Iran over a year ago.
Though Afshordi’s parents have applied for visas to visit the United States multiple times over the past three years, their bids have been rejected every time, Afshordi says. Afshordi’s mother, a psychologist, was unable to be with Afshordi when she gave birth, Goudarzi notes.
The couple had just begun to “make peace” with the fact that their daughter would likely be three years old before she met any of her extended family when Trump signed the order, Afshordi says. Now, visits are out of the question.
“It’s been very, very difficult,” Goudarzi says. “Now it’s impossible.”
Afshordi says the days since the immigration order took effect have been “completely not productive.” She says she and her husband “do whatever is necessary” and spend the rest of their time glued to the news, checking for updates.
Goudarzi passes a hand over his eyes and looks quickly at his wife.
“If there is, now, a death in the family, then you have to choose,” he says, slowly. “You have to choose between either finishing your studies or going back and attending the funeral. Even if it’s your brother or your father.”
‘WILL WE BE ALLOWED IN?’
Ziad Reslan says he fell in love with the United States as a kid. Reslan, who was born and raised in Lebanon and whose father is Syrian, used to practice speaking English for hours, trying “very hard” not to have an accent.
Inspired by “what America has done” in the world, Reslan decided to pursue a career in international affairs. He dreamed of attending Harvard and traveling around the world. Now a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he says he felt close to his goal, at least until the immigration order.
Reslan, who has Syrian citizenship, is no longer sure he can go.
Apart from personal troubles, Reslan says he worries Trump’s immigration suspension will have a “chilling effect” on academics around the world who want to come to the United States. As an example, he cites the “Emirates Leadership Initiative Fellowship,” a program run by the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership that brings ten scholars from the Middle East to study at Harvard each year.
Reslan, an Emirates fellow, notes that, under the restrictions of Trump’s order, half of the current class of Emirates fellows would be unable to enter the United States.
He recalls an online admissions session for the program held a few days ago, when he heard questions from applicants for next year’s iteration of the fellowship. Reslan says every single attendee asked the same question.
“They are not even asking questions about what it is like to be at Harvard, what kind of courses can you take. Literally every question has been, ‘Will I be allowed in?’” he says. “And Harvard can’t say yes—it’s still up in the air.”
Reslan says Trump’s immigration suspension, and the closed-borders ideology it champions, may eliminate “the exact cultural exchange” of knowledge “we would want to happen,” especially at Harvard. He adds he is concerned that other nations may follow the example of the United States and start shuttering their borders, too.
At one point in the past two weeks, Reslan says, he started to question his childhood dreams. For the first time since he came to the United States, he asked himself, “If this place doesn’t want me, then why I am I staying here?”
But last Sunday, he says, something happened that convinced him to stay at Harvard. That weekend, Reslan was staffing a Center for Public Leadership program, called the Middle Eastern Refugee Service Initiative, that gathers together Arabic-speaking Harvard students and refugees from Syria and Iraq—mostly between 16 and 20 years of age—who have resettled in Boston.
The idea behind the day-long event was to start a “social connection,” he explains. The only rules were that no one could say the words “Trump” or “refugee.”
At the end of the day, Reslan recalls, a young Syrian refugee forced to take a five-year hiatus from school approached and thanked him, but said she was disappointed. She wanted to know why she had not received admissions materials.
“In that moment, Trump didn’t matter; immigration law didn’t matter. This 20-year-old woman who has been out of school for five years wants to come to Harvard,” Reslan says.
‘DON’T LABEL US’
It is Monday, and Professor Ali Khademhosseini’s laboratory at Harvard Medical School is buzzing with people. Some researchers tap furiously at computers. Others bustle by with pipettes and trays.
“This lab is probably one of the most multinational and multicultural labs in Boston, and actually this is one of the most productive labs in the Boston area,” he says. “I think that’s an important fact.”
Khademhosseini’s laboratory boasts more than a dozen affiliates who come from countries listed on Trump’s order. In the wake of the immigration order, some of these scientists say they may leave the United States to pursue their research elsewhere.
Elmira Jalilian, an Iranian researcher in the laboratory who uses 3D-printing technology to engineer artificial muscles, says the executive order changed her “entire plan.” Jalilian, who moved to Boston seven months ago and hoped to earn a permanent position at Harvard, notes the suspension prevents her from visiting her family, many of whom live in Iran. She says she does not want to work in a country where she cannot see her family.
“This is a very important issue for me, and I will consider going somewhere else,” she adds.
Elaheh Zare, an Iranian scientist in the lab studying anticancer drugs, agrees with Jalilian. She says she would rather live in a place “where they respect other nationalities.”
Mostafalu says he is working on developing smart, wearable devices that can be used to help monitor and treat diseases. He adds he came to the United States for “science, science, science,” and says he does not understand why Trump’s order would target researchers like himself and his colleagues.
“We are here to solve the problems in healthcare in the United States and to contribute in any way we can. That’s why I’m here,” he says. “There is a disease in politics. We are asking other people, other experts [to] solve this disease in politics.”
Jalilian adds that she does not see how Trump will make America “great” by disincentivizing “highly skilled” engineers and scientists from coming to the country. She warns that science moves quickly and that, if Trump’s immigration suspension remains in place, the United States may lose its leadership in the field.
Tamayol shakes his head in agreement.
“It’s not only overlooking the value of what we are doing in terms of science, or research, or developments,” he says slowly. “It’s overlooking our value as human beings.”
All are quiet.
Suddenly, Jalilian pulls out a much-scribbled and well-worn piece of paper. She consulted with other members of the lab, she says, and they have a message for Trump.
“We would like to say,” she reads, “Don’t label us because of our nationality. We are scientists, and science doesn’t have any borders.”