As I spoke to Loubna Mrie over the phone about her experience as a graduate student studying the Middle East, her sentiments felt familiar. Her experience echoed mine, finding kinship among a diverse cohort, each with different research interests bringing different perspectives. “You feel like an actual family… everyone is learning from everyone,” she told me. But a feeling of uncertainty is increasingly looming. “Last year I didn’t know I would be here,” she said. “Every year something changes.”
Those who follow Syria closely may already know Loubna’s name. In the earlier years of the uprising in her native Syria, she was a photojournalist for Reuters, documenting the armed and unarmed resistance in liberated areas of the country. As a first year graduate student, she now hopes to further understand the modern history of Syria, perhaps write a book on the ongoing Syrian revolution and war. Meanwhile, she is a freelance writer on Syria and holds exhibitions of her photography.
Loubna is one of many students from one of the six countries from which President Trump has tried to ban immigration to the US to pursue graduate studies in Middle Eastern studies. Her presence in the field is essential. There is a dearth of academic study on Syria these days, and it has been impossible for any scholar to do fieldwork since the start of the war over the past six years. However, she is in a precarious situation. She fled from Syria to Turkey, and later came to New York in 2014 to complete the Magnum, ICP, and Atlantic Media fellowships before she started graduate school. As an asylum seeker, she could be one of the first people to be targeted by President Trump’s ban on foreign nationals from Syria, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, and Libya.
Whether or not Trump’s Muslim ban comes to fruition, the rhetoric and discourse around the ban is having wide-spreading consequences. In a survey of 250 colleges and universities throughout the US, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found a 40 percent decline in applications from international students. The steepest decline is in applicants from the Middle East. This is only the latest, and among the most damaging, set of restrictions in limiting scholar mobility.
For a discipline that relies heavily on students traveling to the region, Middle East studies in the US is also at risk of losing essential funding. The current federal budget proposal would make supporting students interested in Middle East studies, American and non-American, even more difficult. The current proposal cuts Title VI funding for higher education and Fulbright-Hays funding, which supports Foreign Language Area Studies funding for less-commonly taught languages, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, and Farsi being among them.
For several decades, “there’s been some anxiety around mobility issues” said Greta Scharnweber, the associate director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern studies at NYU, who oversees the center’s operations and academic programming. Concerns surrounding whether Palestinian scholars and students can get security clearance to leave Israel or the occupied territories, or whether an Iranian scholar can secure a visa to participate in a conference have been a concern for decades. “Scholars from those regions have been… marginalized in the north American community.” Most recently, the uprisings across the region in 2011 have made several countries unsafe to impossible for travel. “This travel ban is the latest thing in the long line of events that are having devastating effects on our ability to do this work,” said Scharnweber.