USF freezes email of student stuck in Iran after Trump executive order

USF student in Iran
Skype interview with USF student Mehdi Zeyghami in Iran. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (1 Feb. 2017).

WMNF interviews a University of South Florida student who is stuck in Iran after President Trump’s immigration executive order; his email access has been cut off by USF.

We hear that interview with Mehdi Zeyghami and speak with another person who is being directly affected by Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly-Muslim nations; a judge has suspended the rule, but we see how it’s still affecting people.

We also hear from a protest going in South Tampa where President Donald Trump spoke Monday at MacDill Air Force Base.

Listen to the full show here:

The executive order on immigration signed by President Donald Trump a week and a half ago is still affecting people. Over the weekend a judge in Seattle imposed a temporary, nationwide halt to Trump’s order, but it’s being appealed by Trump administration lawyers. On the other side, lawyers for Washington state and Minnesota want what’s being called the “Muslim ban” overturned, claiming a reinstatement of the ban would “unleash chaos again.” Nevertheless it’s still keeping people out of the U.S.

WMNF interviewed, via Skype, a USF student who is stuck in Iran. 35-year-old engineering graduate student Mehdi Zeyghami was very close to returning from Tehran to Tampa when Trump signed the ban.

“Currently, I’m in Iran – actually in Tehran – and what brought me here? I’ve been a student at the USF since spring 2012 and I stayed there for 4-1/2 years. During this summer — not this summer, the past summer — there was a family emergency and I had to return home and take care of my family. On beginning of May, I left U.S. and come back home and since that time, I’m stuck here. I’m stuck here because of the problems with the Visa that is coming up for Iranians.

“I had my Visa interview more than 8 months before and it went through a strict vetting and screening and after 8 months, my Visa is approved, but, there is a new Executive Order that bans me from returning and I am stuck here.”

And they gave you an email that said that you could not come home. You were granted the Visa one day and then wasn’t it the next day that they sent you an email that said you can’t come home?

“No, actually it was a few days later. I [was] granted the Visa on Thursday [Jan. 26], I think it was January 27th and I received an email the next Monday, it was 4 days — or if you can say, it’s the next “working day” maybe. On Monday, I received the email that ‘Your Visa is refused’ or my application is refused and I cannot use my Visa.”

So, you’re an Iranian citizen, what are you doing going to the United States and studying at USF? What are you studying and what’s the document that you have to get here?

“I’m a PhD candidate at the Mechanical Engineering department and I’m working on renewable energy systems and solar energy, specifically.”

As a student, to come to the United States, what kind of documentation do you have for that? Is it a Green Card? Is it a Visa?

“Oh no. I’m on an F-1 Visa, you see it’s a student Visa. F-1, they call it F-1 for the students that come to the states and study. People that are international students and want to go back after their studies are finished. That means that I’m not an immigrant or applied for an immigration status, or something, I’m just an international student.”

Is there a time limit on that? Will there be a point after which you won’t be able to use that Visa to come back?

“You see, for Iranian students, because I don’t know why, but, the Visa– usually they get their Visa as a single-entry Visa. That means that whenever you use your Visa to enter the country, [there’s] no use to it anymore. You cannot use it anymore to go out and come back or anything. Then, when I come in–my Visa is not valid anymore–and I can stay as long as my I-20 is valid. An I-20 has a time limit on it. It says ‘If you are a PhD student, you have a 5-year limit to finish your course and if you have other problems or any problems, you can extend it for a limited time, maybe 2 or 3 times, but, not more than 7 years.

“Right now, I have extended my I-20 twice, because I was out of the country for the fall semester and now for [the] spring semester. I don’t know when I can come back. If I want to extend it more, maybe I just have one more shot and I’m at the end of my program.

“Like I said, I spent 4-1/2 years there doing my program, studying and doing my project. And now it’s the time that I wrap it up and finish my experiments and defend my thesis and this is the time limit for me. Even if they resumed the Visa application after the 90 days–because they have refused so many Visas, immigrant and non-immigrant Visas, student Visas, during 1 or 2 days–there would be a long line in any embassy that they want to go [to]. And, you know, getting an appointment and again going through the vetting and screening, I think I’ve lost it already and I cannot return anymore.”

Tell us more about your research. What kind of research did you do at USF and that you hope to still continue at USF?

“I’m a research assistant at Clean Energy Research Center. We are working mostly on solar energy and clean energy systems. For me, I don’t know, specifically working on cooling systems. I have worked on solar-assisted cooling systems. I have worked on projects that we had at our lab and we have published papers on it.

“My own project or my own thesis is about passive cooling and converting solar energy into electricity. It’s a two-part project. I’m working on designing some kind of, taylored for a specific design, heat exchanger that can emit the heat by radiation from the surface of the earth to the outer sky or cool down without using any water or electricity. It’s not a new concept, but, we are doing it in a new way that can be used to cool buildings or any structure on earth without using energy or water.”

So, tell our listeners why that would be important. If you can develop an application for this source of cooling without using electricity, how would that benefit people?

“Oh, yeah. You see, one of the main uses of it would be in solar power plants. A solar power plant is usually located in a desert. In an arid location there is no water, you don’t have any source of cooling. They usually use air-cooled condensers or air-cooled coolers at the solar power plants. If you can find a way that uses no energy and no water for cooling, that will improve the performance of the solar power plant.

“The other uses: using it for cooling at remote locations. You see, at a location that you don’t have electricity or have access to [the] city. How can you preserve your food or medicine? This can be used for cooling food and medicine at a very far location from great– remote locations.”

Well, there was a protest on the campus of University of South Florida, your campus, on Monday. There were dozens and dozens of people who were protesting against Donald Trump’s immigration ban. I don’t know if any of them specifically knew about your case or are friends of yours, but, there were a lot of people who were speaking out against it. What do you think about those protests?

“Actually yes, there were a lot of my friends there and I saw the video there. A few of my friends were sharing it on Facebook and I was seeing it from here. The thoughts that I have is that this is the only way or this is the right way to do it, if anybody is opposing this ban–this blanket ban on countries–without any reason.

“There is no reason to ban Iranians from entering the country. There is no connection between any, any terror attack on U.S. soils and any Iranian immigrant or refugee or anything. You can Google it. If you can find one case that an Iranian was involved in any terror attacks, I can say: ‘OK, this is right. You don’t need to protest, Iranians are bad people.’ But, Iranians are not bad people.”

Here’s a video clip of part of that interview:

But Zeyghami’s problems don’t end there.

For an update, here is part of what Zeyghami emailed WMNF Monday:

The thing is everything has happened through weekend here. When the federal court order released in the web it was Friday afternoon local time here. [Monday] is the first working day of the US embassy in [Armenia] where I had my visa approved and then refused due to [Trump’s executive order]. …

The US embassy does not answers any email and I could not talk to any representative from the consular section to see if they issue approved visas or not. I have reserved a flight for [Tuesday] morning to travel to [Armenia] and see what happens if I drop my visa to the visa issuance section at the embassy.

WMNF was emailing Zeyghami him through his gmail account because USF has frozen his email account, apparently because the university is concerned that providing its students access to email while they are home in Iran is a violation of law.

WMNF invited the USF administration on to the show but they declined, saying, “due to student privacy laws we are unable to discuss additional details about an individual student’s situation.”

Instead they sent an email statement. This is what Adam Freeman, University of South Florida Media/Public Affairs Manager, wrote to WMNF:

The University of South Florida System’s commitment to cultural and institutional diversity remains steadfast, even as the university continues to monitor any new developments regarding the federal government’s immigration policies.  We ask our international students to remain focused on their pursuit of a world class education, while knowing USF will always provide support, guidance and an environment that allows them to be successful.

USF works closely with students to provide the necessary resources to complete their degrees and pursue their career goals, while operating within the requirements of state and federal laws.

Because of information reported to the public through the Tampa Bay Times on January 31 regarding the presence of an Iranian USF student reportedly in Tehran, the university’s Export Control Office has temporarily suspended the student’s access to USF servers to ensure compliance with federal law.

U.S. sanctions law and USF policy prohibit the university from providing services to countries classified as embargoed by the federal government, without authorization from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.  Sanctions against Iran have been in place since 1979.  These sanctions prohibit any student in Iran from accessing USF servers or other institutional resources without federal permission.  To be clear, this law is unrelated to the recent Executive Order regarding the citizens of seven foreign countries.

USF is currently reviewing all aspects of this matter to determine compliance with university policies and state and federal laws.  Student privacy laws prevent the university from publicly discussing additional details.

In case you need it, the relevant federal law in this matter is here:

More broadly, you can find information about U.S. sanctions against Iran here:

We also spoke with a Floridian of Iranian descent who is afraid to travel because she’s worried she won’t be able to get back in the country. Ghazal Tajalli holds dual citizenship with Iran and the U.S. She had plans for overseas travel next month, including a trip to visit her family in Iran. But now she’s afraid to go because of the chance of not getting back because of the travel ban.

In our interview Zeyghami referred to a The Daily Show series about Iran. Here’s one episode:

Here’s a related article from AP:

College responds to Trump’s order with refugee scholarship

BOSTON (AP) — A Massachusetts college has created a refugee scholarship in response to President Donald Trump’s order on immigration and refugees and is calling on other colleges to do the same.

Wheaton College President Dennis Hanno says the scholarship announced Jan. 31 is meant to show that the college in Norton embraces its foreign-born community.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities says there are a number of scholarships and fellowships nationwide already offered to refugees and immigrants, but that Wheaton appears to be the first created in response to Trump’s Jan. 27 order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The U.S. government on Saturday suspended enforcement of the ban a day after a federal judge in Washington state temporarily blocked it.

President Donald Trump spoke at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base Monday. A protest began at 8:00 a.m. and we heard some chanting from a video posted on Facebook.

We also played listeners commenting about our last show; the topics were: Trump’s Muslim ban and phosphate mining in Manatee County. One listener wanted to draw more attention to the Sabal Trail Pipeline that’s being built through Florida.

Information from the AP was used in this report.


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