Palestinian Harvard student denied entry to US finally arrives

Freshman Ismail Ajjawi arrives on campus just in time for classes after originally being denied entry to the US.

Harvard University
Ajjawi is planning to study physical and chemical biology at Harvard and pursue a career in medicine, according to UNRWA and Amideast [Saba Aziz/Al Jazeera]

A Palestinian Harvard University student originally denied entry to the United States arrived on campus on Monday, just a day before classes were set to begin. 

Ismail Ajjawi, a 17-year-old refugee, was denied entry on August 23 and sent back to his home in Lebanon after spending hours in the Boston Logan International Airport. 

The teenager said he was told his visa had been cancelled by immigration officers after being questioned about politically-oriented social media posts by his friends. He also reportedly said his phone and laptop were searched and he was asked about his religious practices in Lebanon. 

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesman Michael McCarthy told Al Jazeera last week that Ajjawi had been “deemed inadmissible … based on information discovered during the CBP inspection”. He did not elaborate. 

But the US Embassy in Beirut reviewed Ajjawi’s case and reissued his visa, according to Amideast, a nonprofit that awarded Ajjawi a scholarship to attend university. Ajjawi arrived on the Cambridge, Massachusetts campus on Monday. 

‘Ismail’s Harvard dream will come true’

Ajjawi grew up in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon and graduated from the Deir Yassin High School, which is run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in the city of Tyre. 

He hopes to study physical and chemical biology at Harvard and pursue a career in medicine, according to UNRWA and Amideast. 

UNRWA called him a “beacon of hope” for hundreds of thousands of young Palestinians.

Ajjawi’s family said in a statement on Monday that it appreciated the efforts of all those who helped him.

“The last 10 days have been difficult and anxiety-filled, but we are most grateful for the thousands of messages of support,” the family said. “We hope now that everyone can respect our and Ismail’s privacy and he can now simply focus on settling into college and his important class work.”

According to the Harvard Crimson, a petition supporting Ajjawi had more than 7,000 signatures by Monday night. The petition was started by several Havard student groups.

Harvard spokesman Jason Newton said in a statement to Al Jazeera last week that the university was working on getting Ajjawi to campus in time to start his classes.

Ajjawi also received the support from activists and politicians worldwide, with many slamming US President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigrants, particularly those from Arab and Muslim-majority countries. 

“We are pleased that Ismail’s Harvard dream will come true after all. Ismail is a bright young man whose hard work, intelligence and drive enabled him to overcome the challenges that Palestinian refugee youth continue to face in order to earn a scholarship,” said AMIDEAST President and CEO Theodore Kattouf in a statement on Monday. 

Elsa Auerbach, a member of advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace Boston, told Al Jazeera that Ajjawi’s case was “one more act of aggression by the current US administration”.

In 2018, more than 37,000 visa applications to the US were rejected because of the Trump administration’s travel ban, which restricts travel for most individuals from five Muslim-majority countries, including, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. The ban also includes restrictions on North Koreans and some individuals from Venezuela. 

‘Many tools being used to deny entry’

According to rights groups, Ajjawi’s case is not an isolated one.

At least twice a month I have clients denied entry because of something in their WhatsApp,” Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, tweeted a day before Ajjawi was initially denied entry. 

Most of the time it’s pictures or videos forwarded to them in a WhatsApp Group. Many tools being used to stop immigrants from legally entering,” he said. 

CBP has broad authority to seize and search the electronic devices of individuals wishing to enter the US, according to a CBP tear sheet.

The US State Department announced earlier this year that they would require most visa applicants to list their social media accounts for screening.

Additionally, US media reported last week that immigration officers would be allowed to create fake accounts to monitor social media activity on individuals seeking visas, green cards and citizenship. The move comes despite Facebook and Twitter policies that prohibit impersonation.  

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera