I was 12 when I first realized that I could no longer envision a future in my native Turkey. Beyond the standard adventures and friendships and upsets in gym class (of which there were many), my childhood was marked by the rise of a tyrant with the perfect recipe for populism—someone who made me feel like I didn’t matter and wouldn’t belong. That’s even worse than gym class. So, I thought of better days and started looking West.
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the perfectly-packaged ideal of the American Dream. “I want to be in New York City,” I would say, doting on the name as if it were my very own Eden. My father—voicing cynicism common among locals who had lived through the prime of U.S. interventionism—reminded me that every Eden came with a serpent, and this one was cursed with a particularly cruel sting. But even as I applied to Barnard and prepared for my new life, the Dream seemed impervious to vice: too strong, too good, too golden in ambition.
I assumed the tough part would be getting here. I never even considered the possibility of meeting resistance once I arrived. I never thought I would be detained at Newark airport for five hours after an immigration officer saw “Islam” stamped on my passport or that the incident would be followed by a presidential executive order barring entrance to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. My catchphrase remains, with a crucial twist: “I want to stay in New York City.”
I’m not sure how to describe the loss I feel to see my new home fall prey to the exact same serpents as my old one. What I do know is that I shouldn’t be left to fight them alone. Although the executive order is currently on pause, President Donald Trump has been vocal in his intention to reinstate it by any means necessary. Columbia needs to stay diligent and prepared with its responses.
Muslim-identifying international students remain uniquely isolated from mainstream campus frameworks of support. We’re talking about people who uproot their lives for an Ivy League education but who have no administrative guarantee that an attempt to travel won’t result in the loss of their diploma. Amid reports of multiple visa or green card holders being denied entry (some from countries not even listed on the order), they face indefinite separation from their homes and exorbitant interim housing fees as a crappy substitute. They are wholly reliant on Columbia—an institution not fully prepared to shelter them—for guidance.
The University’s shortcomings begin with a neglect of the international narrative. Although the class of 2020 for Columbia College and SEAS boasts a 15 percent international undergraduate student population, the categorization is delegated based on “home address or place of schooling” rather than country of citizenship, thus vastly overrepresenting the number of students who might be impacted by the full legal repercussions of the order. While it’s possible for us to find solidarity in a broader sense, the specificity and severity of our concerns call for a space of their own—space that is difficult to demand with small numbers.
As Columbia’s International Students and Scholars Office takes important steps to secure the creation of that space, Barnard lags behind. Within student government, the only participatory representation for impacted students comes from the “Transfer, International, and Commuter Student Interests Committee”—three populations that have nothing in common other than a connection to the vague concept of travel. Even then, it would seem obvious that there is a remarkable difference between commuting to Barnard from the Upper West Side and moving to Barnard from a Middle Eastern country.
Most strikingly, the Barnard office concerned with visas and immigration has been grouped together with study abroad as one department: “International and Intercultural Student Programs.” Out of countless administrative offices, the one that determines whether or not I’m sufficiently documented has its attention divided between the more than 200 Barnard students who spend at least a semester abroad each year.
Debora Spar’s response? A softly-worded email. Unfortunately, she has yet to realize that hiding behind bureaucratic curtains and neglecting to explicitly repudiate this executive order won’t help anyone but Trump. And, although Lee Bollinger has co-signed an amicus brief opposing the executive order and administrative offices have expanded resources available for undocumented and international students, I believe he has not yet done enough to support international students like me outside of legal actions. Both leaders need to stay true to their promise of “attending to the needs of those who are most vulnerable” by working toward more concrete, tangible changes in University policy.
Our undergraduate colleges could start by waiving interim accommodation fees for students unable to leave the country, a process we underwent two years ago with Barnard winter housing. They could create opportunities for affected students to intern or work on campus, easing the financial burden on a population largely ineligible not only for off-campus employment but also for need-blind federal aid. They could provide more pro bono legal assistance, or maintain an emergency fund in case of student detainment. There’s no shortage of options on the table.
As for unaffected students: We need your support more than ever. It’s easy for us to feel like we’ve put everything into an investment that’s going to chew us up and spit us back out after two years just because we taste a little different. So, reach out to your Muslim friends. Let them know they’re welcome here and that the actions of a government don’t necessarily reflect the thoughts of the majority.
That being said, be careful with your words. A lot of liberal pro-immigrant rhetoric can be covertly harmful. Yes, immigrants do get the job done, but their eligibility to seek out a better future for themselves should be based on their fundamental rights as humans, and not on their ability to contribute to the workforce. “Immigrants do the jobs Americans won’t!” might be true, but use it as your sole argument and you sound like you want to exploit our labor.
Non-Muslim American women: Please don’t wear your scarves as hijab. It’s appropriation, and it diminishes hundreds of years of religious and cultural nuance. We know you want to absolve yourselves of guilt, but your super cool ethnic Instagram with 245 likes won’t help us out at the airport immigration line.
If you wouldn’t circulate images of dead Americans on your social media, stop doing the same thing for Middle Eastern children. Belonging to an unstable country doesn’t make them any less deserving of your respect (or the images any less traumatizing for us to see).
Finally, accept that you are not Muslim, no matter how hard you might try to chant it at a protest. Acknowledge that you’re lucky enough to avoid firsthand experience of Islamophobia; stand with our community without trying to center yourself as the savior.
Of course, my father was right. The Dream is broken—at best, a historical artifact. It does not welcome me. It does not want the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But while I might have been mistaken in my overall idealism, I see day after day that I wasn’t wrong in my judgment of people—there is a spirit, resounding, that weaves through every impromptu demonstration and donation.
The Dream might be broken, but we don’t have to be. Columbia has every tool in its arsenal to fight back.
It’s time to get to work.
The author is a Barnard College sophomore studying political science and English. She fights for herself, her friends, and, most importantly, the halal cart guy on 116th and Broadway.
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