Columbia University hopes to overcome Trump's travel ban with scholarships for Syrian refugees

Columbia University hopes to overcome Trump's travel ban with scholarships for Syrian refugees
4 min read
16 April, 2018
Columbia University is offering scholarships to displaced Syrians despite the President Donald Trump's ban on Syrian nationals entering the US.
The University of Columbia is continuing a scholarship programme for Syrian refugees [Getty]

The University of Columbia is moving ahead with a scholarship programme for Syrian students displaced by war, despite concerns that some students it accepts will be blocked from attending due to President Donald Trump's travel restrictions.

The programme, which has already allowed a handful of students into the university, recently announced it was seeking a second round of new applications from Syrian students.

Around 230 have applied so far, with the enrolment period still open. That's compared to 275 applicants the previous year.

Unless US policy changes, though, they would face a challenge getting into the country. Restrictions put in place by the Trump administration bar Syrian nationals from obtaining any visas, including student visas, with only limited possibility for case-by-case exceptions.

College administrators are holding out hope the US Supreme Court will loosen or strike down those restrictions. The justices are scheduled to hear arguments on legal challenges to the rules later this month, with the timing of a ruling uncertain.

In the interim, "what we concluded was, we go forward," said Bruce Usher, a professor at Columbia Business School who worked on creating the scholarship programme. "What we do is educate people. If we find that certain applicants are unable to attend ... hopefully they'll eventually be able to get a visa."

The latest version of the travel ban impacts six Muslim majority countries - Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The list also includes North Korea and Venezuela.   Chad had been on the list but was removed recently.

Citizens of those countries, except Venezuela, are generally barred from getting visas that would allow them to come here permanently as immigrants. The rules for visas for temporary visitors, like tourists or students, vary among the countries, with Syrian citizens blocked from getting any.

There are limited possibilities for any exceptions or waivers, like a Syrian national also holding dual citizenship with an unrestricted country.

Those rules were not in place when Columbia created the programme in 2016.

The school gave scholarships, which include free tuition and housing, to four Syrian students in the programme's first year and hopes for a similar number in the next round.

To qualify, students must have been displaced and currently living in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or the United States. Applicants must also first meet Columbia's regular academic admission requirements.

The number is tiny compared to the need but it is what we can do, and I think it's better to do something and save the lives you can

Columbia sophomore Qutaiba Idlbi, 28, was among the students who got a scholarship in the first round. Idlbi, who is studying economics and political science, said he left Syria in 2011 after being detained by Assad's security forces over his political activities.

He has been in the US since 2013, but said if it hadn't been for the scholarship, he would never have been able to afford school and may have had to leave the country.

"Education is not only a key for work, but it is basically something to implement, to make a change in the world," he said.

The travel ban on Syrians, he said, feels like betrayal.

It reinforces a message, he said, that "we don't like you as a people, we don't want you here".

Columbia is part of a consortium of several dozen US schools looking to help Syrians displaced by war with scholarships or other financial aid.

Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, a non-profit organisation that promotes students studying abroad, said US schools offering scholarships similar to the one at Columbia have assisted about 60 students so far.

"The number is tiny compared to the need but it is what we can do, and I think it's better to do something and save the lives you can," Goodman said.

Globally, a total of about 500 students and professors have been aided in the US and internationally through the Institute of International Education's efforts and lately, it has shifted to putting the bulk of its placements in universities outside of the US, Goodman said, since getting for visas for Syrians is so difficult.