The executive order on immigration banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries was announced Friday; by Saturday, our delegates from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen received notice that they would no longer be able to come to the U.S.
They were set to participate in the annual American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Summit at Stanford this April. AMENDS is a student-led initiative under the Freeman Spogli Institute that brings together young social activists and entrepreneurs from the Middle East, North Africa and the U.S. to collaborate on social impact projects. The group began after the Arab Spring in 2011 as a way to exchange ideas and affect change across the globe.
However, if we cannot travel to meet each other, this exchange cannot happen. In the wake of the executive order, our collaborative efforts have never been more urgent: Amidst fear politics that try to separate us and our Middle Eastern counterparts, we insist on knowing each other, working together and affirming our shared commitment to freedom and dignity for all people.
This year, the Stanford AMENDS Team selected 33 delegates from a pool of 500 applicants from the MENA region. The delegates represent 19 countries and work on a range of issues, from gender equality and diversity to environmental justice to education policy. In Sudan, Shiemma Ahmed manages an online platform for craftswomen in Darfur to sell their wares. In Iran, Esmaeil Pirhadi pioneers a hardware startup to provide sensory treatment for disorders like autism and PTSD. In Libya, Abdulrahman Zurghani runs coding classes for youth. During the conference, the delegates participate in workshops and discussions, work with Stanford students on Arabic and Farsi language skills and present their personal initiatives in TED-style talks attended by the Stanford community.
Part of our appeal to delegates has always been the Silicon Valley’s American Dream ethos: that anyone from anywhere can come here and be successful. We root this in the existence of a free and equal democracy. Now, we are humbled to admit that what we thought was stable was actually fragile — to tell delegates, “We are sorry about this executive order; we are working on it!” This recent uncertainty subverts the inherited assumption that we as Americans have something to teach the rest of the world about democracy.
While Trump’s executive order is certainly more drastic than ever, it is not a massive departure from the extreme vetting visitors from these seven countries faced under the previous administration. It was already incredibly difficult to secure visas from the seven countries. In fact, Trump’s executive order does not even name the seven countries; it simply makes reference to this list of countries from an earlier piece of legislation passed under the Obama administration with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Last year, a delegate from Yemen was unable to get a visa after a long and careful process. Another delegate from Iran, who applied for a visa months in advance, was made to fly to Turkey twice for his visa appointment, and he was ultimately only granted a visa the day before he was set to travel to the U.S. Visa applicants’ families and friends face grueling interviews and humiliating questions. The process costs hundreds of dollars. These are examples of people sponsored by Stanford University with high levels of education, and still mountains had to be moved in order for them to get a visa to the U.S.
In other words, traveling to the U.S. from these seven countries has gone from next to impossible to explicitly impossible. This is not to minimize the severity of this new executive order but rather to contextualize it within a long history of denying citizens of Muslim-majority countries entry to the U.S.
Exclusion on the basis of citizenship and religion runs directly counter to the values we place at the center of American life. As a university and as a country, we must uphold the free flow of people and ideas across borders. AMENDS will not back down in our efforts to enact this ideal. If the government tries to cast our peers in the Middle East and North Africa as enemies, we will strengthen our friendships. If we cannot meet face-to-face, we will still communicate. We refuse to hate each other, and in so doing, we resist together.
Writer’s note: We are in the process of reimagining our this year’s conference based on these new restrictions and are calling on our extended community to support us in any capacity you have.
Contact AMENDS Team 2016-2017 at stanfordamends ‘at’ gmail.com.