Syrian aid worker has full scholarship to Johns Hopkins, but worries he can't get a visa

Hazem Rihawi hopes to come to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health this fall to learn ways to better help his countrymen in war-torn Syria.

An industrial pharmacist turned aid worker, who learned about humanitarian work in the field and wants more formal training, Rihawi has secured a full scholarship to the school. But his dream of coming to the Baltimore school rests on whether he can get a student visa amid restrictions on who can study in the United States.

“Of course I am worried,” Rihawi said from Somalia, where he is now doing humanitarian work. “I am happy to be accepted to one of the best schools in the world, but I don’t know if I will be able to go.”

Under restrictions put in place by the Trump administration, Syrian nationals are prohibited from getting student visas. So are North Koreans. The student visa restrictions are part of broader travel curbs put on several countries — including Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Venezeula and Yemen — last year because of security concerns.

The Associated Press reported this week that the State Department plans to shorten the length of some visas issued to Chinese residents beginning June 11 as Trump works to counter alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property by Beijing. Chinese graduate students would be limited to one-year visas if they are studying in fields such as robotics, aviation and high-tech manufacturing. (A State Department official reached by The Baltimore Sun would not confirm the AP report, instead saying visas could be limited on a case-by-case basis).

Education advocates argue that the restrictions not only hurt the talent pool universities can draw from, but leave potential foreign students like Rihawi in limbo.

“We have heard heartbreaking stories from international students and the higher education community of delays coming to the United States for academic study, and in some cases, those delays have caused research and innovation opportunities to halt,” said Jill Welch, deputy executive director for public policy of the Association for International Educators. “Other students who are in the United States are too afraid to leave for fear they will be unable to return, even for important family events like weddings or funerals.”

Those who support the security-based visa restrictions say they are necessary because some countries don’t share information about their citizens, which makes it hard to vet people who want to come into the United States.

While acknowledging the value for international students to study in the United States, Matthew O’Brien, director of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said it shouldn’t happen at the expense of security.

“You have to be careful when doing that,” O’Brien said, “that you are not letting people in who are going to be a threat.”

It is too early to determine how much of an effect the bans have had and will have on enrollment, since the restrictions are relatively new.

Any enrollment drops would come on top of existing declines. During the 2016-2017 school year, enrollment of new foreign students dropped by 10,000 students to 291,000 — or 3 percent, according to the Institute of International Education. It is the first time such enrollment has dropped in the 12 years the group has tracked the data.

Education advocates attribute the decline to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant tone, which even makes foreign students and other visitors feel less welcome in the United States. Earlier this month, the administration issued a draft policy to enforce stricter rules for international students who try to stay in the country longer than their visas allow.

“The anti-immigrant rhetoric stemming from the administration makes the United States less attractive to prospective students,” Welch said.

And the rules dim the chances of those who want to study here.

“I think it is unfair for those of us who are trying to learn more and get more knowledge,” Rihawi said. “It is not my fault what is going on in my home. I wish I was able to change everything, but what can I do?”

Some Baltimore area-institutions are watching for potential effects of the student visa ban and eyeing the new restrictions on China warily.

Officials with the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which has 275 international students, said it may be too early to know the impact, a spokeswoman said. Students are admitted in January through April, while the visa process takes place in May, June and July. If there are going to be difficulties, they might become apparent in July or early August.

Johns Hopkins University officials declined to comment on the obstacles of international students trying to enroll at its various campuses, while the University of Maryland School of Medicine said it doesn’t have many students on visas.

A visa ban for students from China could prove troubling for area business schools, such as The Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business and the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, where Chinese enrollment is high.

Officials at the Carey School, where 36 percent of students are from China, declined to comment.

Restrictions on visas are just one of the things the Smith School monitors regarding international students during admissions time, said Cliff McCormick, assistant dean of admissions. So far, officials don’t think students have had difficulty getting visas. About 60 percent of the school’s new students were international last year, including 41 percent that came from China.

But McCormick said the number of new applicants dropped from 3,427 in 2016 to 3,270 in 2017. He is not sure whether visa restrictions played a role.

“The hesistancy and uncertainty is being reflected from the top of the funnel by some students not applying,” he said. “It is hard to know why.”

Dr. Paul Spiegel, director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health in the Bloomberg School’s department of international health, where Rihawi wants to study, is concerned about the reach of the visa restrictions.

“I am hopeful at this time,” Spiegel said. “But frankly, there are so many unknowns. It is not as if we have had experience with these restrictions that are now in place and know what will happen.”

Rihawi spent nine years working as a factory manager for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the Middle East. After civil war erupted, he began taking medications, baby formula and other supplies to people in need in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the heart of the fighting. It was risky work that involved crossing a street heavy with snipers that separated the government and opposition-held sections of the city.

He was so drawn to humanitarian work that he quit his job to do it full-time, but the danger forced him to flee his homeland in 2013. As a refugee in Turkey, Rihawi worked for the Syrian American Medical Society, providing aid to hospitals, which had become deliberate targets of bombing.

While working for the relief group, he became involved with the Bloomberg School on a project to document attacks on hospitals, which got him interested in studying at the school.

Rihawi wants to return to Syria after he completes his degree to help rebuild the country. He hopes formal training will better prepare him to help his country.

“There is a vibrant civil society that has risen out of the ashes of this war,” Rihawi said. “People are rising up to the occasion... We want to do it in the right way.”

The Association of American Universities has requested meetings with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office to talk about the benefits of enrolling international students. Pedro Ribeiro, an association spokesman, said international students help the country remain a world leader in education and innovation.

Our] American “universities are the best research universities in the world and our science and scholarship depend not only on the best and brightest American students and researchers, but also on the world’s best and brightest,” Ribeiro said in an email. “The United States has long benefited from attracting and retaining leading students, scholars and researchers whose discoveries and contributions help protect our country, create new jobs and companies, and spur economic growth.”

A state department spokesman said the restrictions are not intended to be permanent. There are some some case-by-case exceptions. For instance, a Syrian with dual citizenship in another country may get approval.

But if restrictions persist, it could make U.S. schools less competitive, education advocates worry.

“The United States is not the only contender for the highest-quality education anymore, and as we’ve seen this year, students can and will choose other countries,” Welch said.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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