The Privilege of Going Home (Part Three: On the Travel Ban)

"The Privilege of Going Home" is a three-part story series featuring three powerful voices. Unlike many may assume, not all students can go home for the holidays to see family and friends. Being able to go home is in itself a great privilege that is often taken granted for. In the order that they will be released, the three individual stories will focus on: homelessness, coming out and the travel ban--and how some students cope with these hardships during a time when other venture out to vacation.

 

Ali’s younger sister is now an 18-year-old woman entering her first year of university in Iran, with dreams of becoming a dentist. Ali, however, was not present to witness his sister chasing these dreams nor did he see her blossoming into what is womanhood as she bid farewell to her childlike naivete. Four painstakingly long years have physically and emotionally separated Ali not only from his sister, but also from the entirety of his family. The travel ban is like an unfinished novel without an author to finish the story. It is like a void that cannot be closed, a perpetual heartache.  

 

Leaving his childhood home in Iran to pursue Ph.D. studies in physics at a school in Athens, Ohio, 28-year-old Ali opened a new chapter in his life as an immigrant scientist, hopeful to grow in a country built on a foundation of freedom, tolerance and diversity. However, just after a mere two years in the U.S., the foreignness he initially experienced hardened into a much more painful ostracism that would follow his every counting footstep.

 

 

President Trump issued the first executive order banning entry for 90 days from seven countries, including Ali’s home country Iran, on Jan. 27 last year. Families from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen would experience brokenness and jarring discrimination for the most fundamental values such as their own faith.

 

“The new U.S. President and the climate he has fostered have changed everything for me and people like me,” Ali wrote in a science journal. “Casual interactions now make me feel unwelcome and unsafe. When the first attempted travel ban was announced, I remember a conversation with someone whom I had considered a friend. He bluntly told me that if I left an American would take my place-- implying that this outcome would be preferable.”

 

As friends departed from his life, Ali’s faith in sheer humanity also plummeted. Before he could even set foot in the U.S., Ali had to wait four months to obtain a single entry visa. In 2016, he applied for his green card through the national interest waiver (NIW)-- granted to individuals who have demonstrated exceptional ability and whose work would greatly benefit the nation. Today, in 2018, as Ali is finishing off his fourth year in his Ph.D. program, the wait for his green card endures. With graduation approaching, the emotional pressures to begin sorting out his next steps intensify, with his immigration status unresolved.  

 

“No matter how many times my lawyers call the USCIS, the processing time always takes longer than it is supposed to be,” Ali said. “I spent much more than I wanted on lawyers, and went through a draining process. As of now, I have a prospective offer from Stanford University, but at this point, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to stay in the U.S. I frankly feel like a prisoner to the United States, because if I leave, I will have to start from scratch and build a new professional network again. Everything I have, the people I know, are in the U.S.”

 

Each day dragged on with uncertainty and apprehension. The longest days, however, took place during the holiday break-- a period of time Ali says was the most unbearable.

 

“It is the worst feeling anyone can feel,” Ali said. “Being the only one at the University makes me anxious too. I spent most of my time in my office where I feel most secure, and I tried to avoid social media because I knew that seeing family reunions on my feed would only worsen the alienation. It will be like this for a long time, and although I don’t want to acknowledge it, it will continue to be like so.”  

 

Even in the midst of his own anguish and fear, Ali remembers that he is not alone in the fight against bigotry and anti-immigrant rhetoric that exists today. Finding strength in numbers, Ali has helped to organize four massive rallies (that exceeded 100 attendees) at his University,  making the bold stance of standing at the forefront of the chanting crowd. He even directly spoke to his University’s interim President about the ongoing battles international communities faced.

 

                                                                                           Ali (second to the right) leading a protest at Athens, Ohio

 

“While the Ohio University  seemed understanding, no one ever released a mere statement of some sort on the travel ban,” Ali said. “They did not show any tangible action or support beyond verbal sympathy. This is why we need to speak up for ourselves-- because great scientists are found all over the world, in all fields.  I plan to stand up for immigrant scientists so that, hopefully soon, I can again spend my time thinking about scientific problems instead of my country of origin, my religion, or the color of my skin.”

 

As a young neuroscientist, Ali continues to delve into meaningful research that develops computational models to understand the brain’s functions, while also fighting for visibility and representation in his life. He has one undergraduate degree in Physics, two Master’s degrees in Atomic Physics and Biophysics and is almost near to finishing a Ph.D. in Biophysics and Computational Neuroscience.

 

 

Ali Khaledi-Nasab, Standing Up To Fear (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2017)

Justus Kromer, Ali Khaledi-Nasab, Lutz Schimansky-Geier, Alexander B. Neiman, Emergent stochastic oscillations and signal detection in tree networks of excitable elements, (Nature Publication Group, 2017)