Iranian students at Purdue are feeling the ramifications of recent conflict between the United States and Iran, even while on campus.
For a fourth-year doctoral student, that meant losing one of his closest friends to a plane crash.
Hossein Ebrahiminejad, who studies in the College of Engineering, said his friend of more than 14 years was on the Ukrainian plane that crashed after an Iranian missile hit it by alleged mistake.
“These students with all their dreams and all the hopes they had to build a brighter future,” he said. “Everything was shut down with that.”
Though Ebrahiminejad said he was glad the situation between the U.S. and Iran “calmed down,” he is uncertain of the future.
“For the last two weeks, we were about to get into a war,” he said in an early January interview. “If they had gotten into a war — on the one side you see your family and your friends — and the other side, it’s my neighbor, it’s my community that I’m living in.”
For Ebrahiminejad and others, these issues aren’t new, given the 2017 executive order from President Donald Trump placing restrictions on visa applicants from six mostly-Muslim countries.
“This is not the story of Iranians for the last two weeks,” he said. “This is for the past three, four years that the Iranians have been going through the stress.”
Ebrahiminejad said obtaining visas is a major difficulty for Iranian students. Many of those he knows have single-entry visas, meaning if they leave the U.S. they have to reapply for a visa, which can take some time.
Some are granted multi-entry visas, he said, which only last two years, but many don’t take the risk to travel.
This has caused stress for some Iranians, since it is much more difficult to visit their families, even in emergency situations. Some hoped that if they were unable to go back, their families could visit instead, Ebrahiminejad said, but the travel ban blocked them from obtaining visas.
One graduate student, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of potential consequences on future petitions for immigration or jobs, hasn’t seen his family in six and a half years.
His parents were able to visit his brother, who’s living in Canada, but they weren’t able to obtain visas to visit him due to the travel ban. And he couldn’t go to Canada without having to reapply for a visa.
“It was (a) four-hour drive, but I couldn’t visit them,” he said. “It was very painful, very stressful having a feeling that your parents (are) just three, four hours away, and you’re not able to go see them.”
They decided to try to meet at a library that’s partly in the U.S. and partly in Canada. He said the library had one door on the Canada side, which was closed, and an open one on the U.S. side.
At the library’s doors, an immigration officer asked if he was going to visit his parents. When he said he was, the officer said he couldn’t see them.
The officer let him inside the library but wouldn’t let his parents in from the U.S. door, threatening to arrest them if they stepped in the library even though the sidewalk was also the library’s property.
“You know, I don’t know if it was legal, even,” he said. “But, you obviously don’t want to risk that.”
In the end, the student said he was only able to see his parents from behind a library window, separated from them by a few meters.
“It was a sad moment — I would say the saddest day of my life so far, by far,” he said.
Some of his friends told him not to tell the truth about going to see his family, but he refused.
“I wasn’t carrying anything. I was just an honest person (who) wanted to do a legal thing in a pretty quiet environment,” he said, “but intentionally they want to put pressure on people. For no reason, for no reason that I can see.”
Some Iranian students do go back for emergencies. Ebrahiminejad said he knows two students who have been in Iran for a year who are unable to return to the U.S.
In other cases, students can be restricted to this side of the border. A friend of Ebrahiminejad’s experienced a parent die while the family was visiting in Lafayette. Though the family wants to hold the funeral in Iran, Ebrahiminejad said his friend is unsure they will be able to return to the U.S. if they leave.
The stories Ebrahiminejad shared, he said, were just the most recent ones that came to mind as he walked to The Exponent office for an interview.
Though Ebrahiminejad said the engineering education department has been very supportive, he’s heard of other friends that haven’t seen as much support from Purdue.
“As a community, as Purdue, what can be done is to acknowledge what Iranians are going through,” he said.
John Gates, vice provost of diversity and inclusion, said Friday he encourages affected students to reach out to the Office of the Dean of Students, to the Division of Diversity and Inclusion or to the Office of International Studies.
“The University is concerned about the distress in Iran,” he said. “We’re concerned about the Iranian people and all of our faculty, students and staff who are affected.”
One friend of Ebrahiminejad’s applied for a doctoral degree at Purdue, but after applying for an I-20 visa had to defer his admission because he was told he wouldn’t get it on time.
Another student Ebrahiminejad knows is stuck in Iran for a year, and the Office of International Students and Scholars closed his Purdue account and asked him to reapply.
Beheshteh Rakhshan, an Iranian-American doctoral student in the College of Science, is currently in Canada waiting for her visa to be processed.
She and her fiancé applied for visas in 2016, each admitted to a different university. She got a multi-entry visa, but he was rejected multiple times and ultimately applied to study in Canada.
Rakhshan said her fiancé was rejected for not having enough social ties to the U.S., but reasons for rejection are not always clear.
“I just call it chance,” she said. “Some of us have (a) chance to get (a) visa, some of us are unfortunate.”
Rakhshan ultimately left the U.S. to visit her family in Iran and her fiancé in Canada.
“Otherwise I had to stay in United States for three years or more, not visiting my family and my fiancé. ... (I thought) I should maybe say goodbye to my fiancé,” she said with a laugh. “But I didn’t do that.”
She reapplied for her expired visa in May 2019, and said the officer told her that her case was over and she’d be informed soon. In October, she was told her case was cleared and she just needed to send her passport to the Armenian consulate, since there isn’t a U.S. embassy in Iran. After she did, it was returned saying it needed more processing.
She missed Purdue’s fall semester, and this is her second semester off campus.
ISS told her that if she takes two semesters in a row off she should reapply for her doctoral position, despite the fact that she’s been studying for four years.
Last semester she said she tried to remain enrolled at Purdue, and was employed as a remote teaching assistant. But this semester she was unable to do so.
Rakhshan also doesn’t have insurance right now, despite needing treatment for multiple sclerosis. Her doctor told her she shouldn’t be under any stress.
“The future is unclear for me right now,” Rakhshan said. “I’m thinking about applying for another Ph.D. position from beginning in Canada, and this is not fair because I’m (a) fourth-year Ph.D. student right now and at the middle of my studies.”
She said the head of the math department has been very kind, but she felt that ISS has been unable to help her much.
“You don’t have (the) feeling that they want to help you. I myself think that they don’t want to help you maybe in some cases,” she said. “Maybe because I’m Iranian, I’m not sure.”
Christine Collins, the director of International Student Services — a division within ISS — said that some students, not just Iranian students, go through a process called administrative processing, which Collins said refers visa applications to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The U.S. Department of State may require further administrative processing for refused visas, and at the end of that processing the applicant is deemed either qualified or still ineligible.
She said visa applications are outside of the control of anyone at Purdue. Who qualifies for a visa is up to the departments of State and Homeland Security.
Administrative processing can take anywhere from three months to a year or more, she said, and there’s nothing Purdue can do to expedite the process.
“Any time a student contacts us and informs us that they’re going through administrative processing, we send an email of support basically letting them know that unfortunately there’s nothing we can do to help move the process forward,” she said. “But we give them resources on how to contact the various departments at Purdue to let them know what’s happening and to protect their eligibility to enroll and things like that.”
Collins said though administrative processing existed before the current presidential administration, she has seen increases in administrative processing, though not for one particular country.
“I would say the last year and a half, we would see on average about 10 to 15 Purdue students who were referred to administrative processing in a year,” she said. “I would say that that has at least doubled and maybe tripled over the course of the last year.”
Collins said issues with visas are not specific to Iranians and it’s difficult to say how the U.S. will be affected.
Right now, Ebrahiminejad said that Iranians, regardless of location, need support from their community.
“It’s getting worse and worse and not getting better,” he said. “So everyone is in the same boat, and there’s nothing that people can do. ... The cost is people’s mental health. That cost is all the lives that have been taken away.”
Ebrahiminejad has dual citizenship in Iran and the U.S., which is why he said he felt more comfortable speaking about issues facing Iranians. He said many don’t talk because they want to apply for green cards and employment and may be worried that doing so would jeopardize the process.
Though Ebrahiminejad said he was fortunate to have dual citizenship and is able to visit his family each year, some haven’t seen their families in years.
“If you ask any of the Iranians on campus,” he said, “they have a sad story to give.”