UMKC student stuck overseas amid international controversy

What was originally intended to be a quiet, long overdue visit with family overseas turned into a crisis for UMKC student Fatma Abdalla. President Trump’s recent travel ban left her stuck in Libya, separated from her three children and uncertain how or when they would be reunited.

Abdalla poses next to her most recent research project. Although her student status will not change, she continues to miss valuable time in the lab and in the classroom while stuck overseas.

Abdalla presenting her most recent research project.

Abdalla is originally from Libya and has been living in the U.S. for five years, working towards her Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology. She remembers the moment when news of President Trump’s executive order, barring entry into the country for citizens of seven Middle Eastern countries, broke in Libya.

“I was spending nice time with my father and mother after a long time of being away from each other,” said Abdalla. “Me and my family were shocked. My first reaction was a mix between fear and not believing it could be true.”

Her disbelief was so strong, in fact, that she made no changes in her plans to board the plane home on Jan. 29.

Like many people traveling abroad that weekend, Abdalla believed she would be able to re-enter the U.S. without any issues. She received her new visa from the US Embassy in Tunis—which is common protocol for Libyans due to the lack of an embassy in their country—a few days before the executive order was signed. Abdalla made it from Libya to Tunis, where she was supposed to board a flight to Frankfurt, which in turn would take her back to the states.

Before she could make it from Tunis to Frankfurt, she was stopped by flight clerks while attempting to board her plane. Abdalla asked to speak to the manager of the airline company, arguing that it was illegal to stop her from boarding with a valid U.S. visa.

The manager then told her that there were new rules and she would not be allowed to board the plane.

“At that moment I was disappointed and crying very fearfully,” said Abdalla. “A lot of things are hard for me to say, especially when I realized I can’t see my children.”

Her three children remained in the states during her visit home, and the news that she was now unable to return to them sparked an internal crisis.

“How they will tolerate to live away from me? For how long could they stay strong? I felt that my dream to get a higher degree in my profession just went away,” said Abdalla. “Believe me, there is nothing harder than a mom who feels she can’t come to back to her kids. That she is out of control to solve this issue is even harder.”

That feeling of disappointment is shared by many in the UMKC community, both within and outside the country.

UNews spoke with another international student from Iran, one of the seven countries affected by the executive order. He wished to remain anonymous, citing the current “volatility” and “hardcore policies” towards foreigners— and Iranians in particular.

“When I first heard about the executive order, I guess more than anything I was disappointed and sort of embarrassed,” he said. “When I came here everybody was so kind to me and everybody was respectful to each other. That order is not respecting my presence here.”

On the day the order was announced, he was presenting research on the social progress being made on Persian television at the University of Kansas. When the news broke, his peers at the symposium in Lawrence were sympathetic and supportive.

“When I came back here, the department was very supportive as well,” he said.

Messages were written around UMKC campus showing support for Muslim community.

Messages were written around UMKC campus showing support for Muslim community.

The University of Missouri administration released a statement last Sunday evening expressing support for international students, guaranteeing communication with the community and promising to work with national higher education associations to find solutions to the problems the order has created on campuses around the country.

According to Vice Chancellor Mel Tyler, leaders at UMKC wanted to communicate with students earlier, but were forced to work with the other three campuses in the UM system before releasing an official statement.

“When the order was signed we knew we had to say something,” said Tyler. “Now it is clear we need to do something.”

On Monday, the UMKC administration held a forum where community members gathered to provide emotional support for those affected and express their questions and concerns.

Although the forum left many questions unanswered, administrators pledged to remain transparent and communicative.

“Maintaining student status is key,” said Associate Dean of Students Tiffany Hamilton.

Ensuring that students remain enrolled at UMKC is important not only for academic success, but also addresses the potential problem of student visas becoming invalid during the 90-day ban. For Abdalla, maintaining student status is particularly important because her oldest child is not yet an American citizen.

Abdalla agreed with her Iranian peer’s praise of UMKC’s response. After learning she was unable to come back to the U.S., she contacted the adviser in her Ph.D. program. Soon, she was speaking with the chair of the department and dean of the School of Pharmacy. After that, people from within the school contacted her to collect information and offer whatever support was needed.

The school also put her in contact with Sen. Claire McCaskill, who Abdalla believes is willing to help. She is currently filling out paperwork requested by the senator. Additionally, UMKC has put Abdalla in contact with civil organizations and groups trying to help students in similar situations.

“In terms of action nothing is guaranteed,” said Abdalla.

Because of this uncertainty, she took it upon herself to contact legal support organizations, some of which have answered and some of which have not.

International students in the U.S. have expressed concern over cancelled travel plans. Some planned to visit sick or elderly relatives, attend important family events or engaging in research vital to their academic goals.

In his interview, the Iranian student reflected on his own canceled plans to return home.

“I miss my family. And every day just feels a little bit gloomier now,” he said.

While the knowledge that his highly anticipated trip home will no longer take place was a heavy emotional burden, he recognized others who lost much more than a trip overseas.

He recently spoke to a fellow international student whose mother has cancer. The ban forced many students to make an impossible decision: continue with their schedules trips—traveling overseas and risking serious damage to their lives in the U.S.—or remain here and miss milestone moments in their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

These messages appeared across UMKC Campus.

These messages appeared across UMKC Campus.

Similarly, those stuck overseas were concerned over how long it could take them to return.

Abdalla will likely miss her daughter’s 7th birthday later this month. While her two younger children do not understand why their mother cannot return home, her oldest daughter is aware of the circumstances causing the separation.

“She cries every night when she calls me, saying she will try to talk to Mr. President to let me come back,” said a teary-eyed Abdalla.

Despite all this turmoil, those affected by Trump’s executive order remain hopeful about the future and the country they have come to call home. The news that a federal judge ruled against the order on Feb. 3 is encouraging, but the lack of clarity from the government remains a major for concern for those stuck overseas.

“Everyone loves to be in a situation where there is reciprocal respect between different people,” said the Iranian student. “I still believe that exists in American culture. If I could talk the president, I would try and get him to see what kind of effects his signature can have on people’s’ lives.”

Abdalla also believes in the greatness of America and the people who live here. She encourages those who wish to help to contact McCaskill or any elected official.

“Please, keep supporting us loudly,” said Abdalla. “My hope comes from Americans like [those at UMKC] who are standing by me and believing in my rights.”

As of Sunday, Feb. 5, Abdalla remains stuck in Libya. She is attempting to book flights home but is unsure when she will be reunited with her children.

“I hope to be back very soon,” said Abdalla. “But until I reach home, I remain under pressure.”

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