Syr­ian stu­dent, em­braced by Canada, opts for U.S. af­ter Trump or­der halted

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - MIKE BLANCH­FIELD

OT­TAWA — Canada be­came a brief bea­con of hope for Alaa Alsabeh of Syria af­ter his plan to study en­gi­neer­ing in Michi­gan was shat­tered by Don­ald Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der ban­ning na­tion­als from seven coun­tries, in­clud­ing his. Un­til it wasn’t. For one, long, chaotic week, Canada ap­peared as pos­si­ble oa­sis, an at­trac­tive Plan B, for the 23-year-old Syr­ian stu­dent as it ap­peared he had no hope of tak­ing Wayne State Univer­sity up on its of­fer to have him pur­sue grad­u­ate-level stud­ies there.

Ques­tions per­sist about the fu­ture of travel to the U.S. for peo­ple from the seven pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries; on Thurs­day, a fed­eral ap­peals court re­fused to re­in­state the ban, set­ting the stage for a trip to the Supreme Court.

Amid the un­cer­tainty, Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties have been tout­ing the po­ten­tial of a so-called “brain gain” of for­eign stu­dents for Canada. But the story of this one Syr­ian, deter­mined to fol­low his dream in the U.S., casts a new light on those po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive re­cruit­ing as­pi­ra­tions.

Af­ter Trump’s Jan. 27 ex­ec­u­tive or­der, Alsabeh re­ceived an email from the U.S. Em­bassy can­celling his ap­point­ment for a visa. A week later, af­ter a U.S. fed­eral judge or­dered a halt to Trump’s or­der, he re­ceived a fresh State De­part­ment in­vi­ta­tion to reap­ply.

In that in­ter­ven­ing week, Canada showed him the love. A Cana­dian con­sul­tant tried to con­nect him with var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties af­ter orig­i­nally read­ing about him i n the Washington Post. A McMaster Univer­sity dean reached out to him af­ter the two con­nected on Twit­ter.

Still, Alsabeh opted for Plan A — ap­ply­ing to go to the U.S. But he’ll never for­get Canada.

“Now that I can ap­ply once again, I’ll take my chances,” he told The Cana­dian Press from Cyprus. “I’ll never for­get who was there for me when no one was: Cana­dian peo­ple.”

The highs and low that Alsabeh ex­pe­ri­enced mir­rored the con­fu­sion un­leashed at U.S. air­ports and across Canada and the world af­ter Trump banned en­try for 90 days to cit­i­zens from seven ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries.

Alsabeh, the el­dest of three chil­dren, weathered the Syr­ian civil war by get­ting his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in Syria be­fore leav­ing his fam­ily be­hind and go­ing to Cyprus.

He’s wanted to be an en­gi­neer since he was teenager, when he would ac­com­pany his fa­ther to con­struc­tion sites.

“I felt this would ab­so­lutely be the best place to change the world as a kid,” he said.

“But as I grew up and the war started in Syria, I’ve seen a lot of de­struc­tion — mas­sive de­struc­tion in Syria — so I feel like I am ob­li­gated to be an en­gi­neer to help re­build­ing the new Syria and be­ing part of that.

“That’s my dream — build­ing the new Syria, soon.”

Dr. Ish­war K. Puri, dean of en­gi­neer­ing and a pro­fes­sor of me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing at McMaster Univer­sity in Hamilton, had a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion with Alsabeh.

Puri de­clined to dis­cuss the specifics of their talk, but made it clear in an in­ter­view McMaster was will­ing to take a long look at Alsabeh; its doors re­mained open to any­one re­gard­less of re­li­gion, eth­nic­ity, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, among other things.

“The story that came to us was: here’s a young man who wants to pur­sue a ca­reer in en­gi­neer­ing but his dreams have been thwarted be­cause of cer­tain in­ter­na­tional cir­cum­stance,” Puri said.

He said there’s been a spike in ap­pli­ca­tions from for­eign stu­dents at McMaster from a va­ri­ety of coun- tries, not just the seven that were the sub­ject of Trump’s or­der.

“Peo­ple have a fear that if one com­mu­nity is be­ing tar­geted to­day, an­other com­mu­nity may be tar­geted to­mor­row,” he said.

“Whether those ac­tual ap­pli­ca­tions will be­come re­al­i­ties, ac­tual reg­is­tra­tions this fall, I don’t know.”

Alsabeh said his de­ci­sion to forgo Canada was based on the fact he has fam­ily in Detroit who can sup­port him. He doesn’t have a net­work in Canada, but he knows he’d be wel­come based on the coun­try’s rep­u­ta­tion for tol­er­ance.

“We al­ways con­sid­ered Amer­ica a great place, while Canada was the great­est among all coun­tries in the world,” he said.

“We al­ways heard about Mus­lims be­ing treated in a very great way — peo­ple with dif­fer­ent races. I’ve al­ways con­sid­ered Canada ranked first for me.”

HANNAH YOON, HAMILTON SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO

McMaster Univer­sity’s Ish­war K. Puri, em­braced Alaa Alsabeh but the Syr­ian stu­dent chose to re­turn to the U.S.

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