In his letter to faculty and students Sunday, University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves addressed President Donald Trump’s recent executive order temporarily closing the county to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations.
“I am proud to say we have 110 students, faculty members and scholars who are citizens of the seven affected countries," Fenves wrote.
And that’s why, in part, UT student Navid Yaghmazadeh had decided to study at a table in the downstairs atrium of the Gates Dell Complex. Yaghmazadeh, 29, had typed up a sign, printed it out and taped it to the back of his laptop. It read: “I am from Iran. I am a student. I am not a terrorist. I am not scary.”
On any other day, students passing by saw a young man studying. On Monday, Yaghmazadeh wanted them to see something else.
“I just want people to see me as one of these people who are affected by this law,” he said. “I want to tell them, ‘Hey, we are like human beings all of us and there is nothing to be scared of about us.’ So, that’s the whole point.”
Yaghmazadeh is from Iran, one of the countries included in President Trump’s travel ban. He is in the U.S. on a multi-entry student visa. Per the president’s current ban, for the next 90 days if Yaghmazadeh leaves the country he will not be let back in. The other countries included in the president’s temporary ban are Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya. Refugees from all countries are banned indefinitely.
Yaghmazadeh says it took two months to be approved for his first visa. And it still astounds him that after applying for the second time – after he had already lived in the U.S. for 3 years – it took just as long to get approved.
“I’ve been here for three years,” he said. “I pay my taxes. I was here. I have all these friends. And it took them more than a month to find out if I am a decent guy or not. Wow, okay.”
Despite months of vetting, for now, Yaghmazadeh can’t leave the country.
“I feel kind of disrespected.”
He was used to feeling that way as a student in Iran.
“I didn’t get the respect, I didn’t get the freedom which I wanted to have,” said Yaghmazadeh. “I didn’t have my rights in my home country.”
So, he took a risk. He came to America to study.
“Believe me, it’s not easy to leave your country, to leave your family in your country and then you have to leave everything there and then come here, start a new life,” he said. “But I chose to do that because of all these reasons. That’s what I’m here.”
Those reasons? America represented something different than Iran.
“The U.S. is the land of opportunity,” said Yaghmazadeh.
He was hoping his parents might see this opportunity first-hand, in their son. Yaghmazadeh is scheduled to graduate with his Ph.D in computer science at the end of the year. The ban on Iranian visitors is set to expire by then. But Yaghmazadeh isn’t holding out hope. He anticipates his parents will still be barred from the country when he’s handed his diploma.
“I work hard during all these years, missing them,” he said. “I was like at least, in that day I can tell them, 'Hey parents the reason I did this is because of you.' But I can’t do that.”
Yaghmazadeh’s classmate, Sepideh Maleki, 27, is in a similar situation. Maleki, who is from Iran and in the first year of her Ph.D in computer science, says her parents were planning to visit during UT’s spring break in March. But Trump’s travel ban would still be in place.
Maleki has not seen her parents in more than two years. She said it’s been hard to focus on her work the past few days.
“I’m really, really depressed,” she said. “And I feel unwanted…I’m being called a terrorist. Not by people, but by the president. So it’s mixed feelings of being unwanted, scared and all those things.”
When asked why she came to the U.S. to study, Sepideh said it’s because "everyone thinks and knows that the United States is the best country in the world."
“You see all those immigrants that went to the United States and they all became successful and everything. I’ve heard from my families, from my friends, that it’s not like that in Europe or anywhere else. They don’t accept immigrants that easily. But I’ve heard the United States is different," she said. "They will accept immigrants. It’s a land of immigrants. So that’s why I came to the United States.”
While Sepideh said she feels unwanted by the U.S. government, she said her friends have made her feel otherwise. She said after the ban was announced, they contacted her, offering support.
“They called me and they’re like, ‘We really support you. We’re sorry,’” she said.
She said their words have made her feel welcome.