Ismail Ajjawi, a 17-year-old Palestinian student who grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon, had achieved something remarkable: admission to Harvard University with a full scholarship. One can only imagine his feelings as he landed in the United States on August 23, at Boston Logan International Airport. But he didn't get far. He was pulled aside by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, and later described being questioned about his religious beliefs and practices. He was forced to surrender his phone and computer for examination, after which a CBP officer yelled at him, saying they had found social media posts that were critical of the U.S. -- not from him, but from some of his friends. With that, Ismail's visa was rescinded, and he was deported back to Lebanon.
"I scored the highest marks in biology in the south region in the official Lebanese Baccalaureate and the eighth overall in Lebanon. … I aim to double major and to study medicine in the future," Ismail said in a video produced by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. UNRWA runs over 700 schools for more than 500,000 students in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. UNRWA provides health care at scores of clinics, and additional social services for the Palestinian refugee population.
Ismail Ajjawi continued: "The environment in school and in the camp is very challenging. Overpopulation is a big issue … the houses are too close to each other … there's no privacy for Palestinian students to study. Every year, these limited opportunities decrease."
His treatment at Logan Airport and his summary deportation provoked outrage, from fellow and sister students at Harvard, to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, to international organizations. Summer Lopez of the free speech organization PEN America wrote, "That Ajjawi should be prevented from taking his place at Harvard because of his own political speech would be alarming; that he should be denied this opportunity based on the speech of others is downright lawless."
A diverse coalition of student and community groups organized a petition demanding that Ismail be admitted to the U.S., which thousands of people signed. One of Ismail's new classmates is David Hogg, who survived last year's Parkland, Florida, school massacre and went on to become a prominent gun control advocate. Hogg tweeted: "I cried reading this. The joy and excitement of moving into Harvard today was stolen from my classmate Ismail B. Ajjawi."
Ismail was supported in his studies by the U.S.-based nonprofit organization AMIDEAST. "Ismail … went in Beirut to a competitive college club that helped coach him on how you apply to an American university," Theodore Kattouf, president and CEO of AMIDEAST and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Syria, said on the Democracy Now! news hour. Ironically, Ismail benefited from a U.S. government "opportunity grant" that funded some of his college prep activities.
Just over a year ago, the Trump administration announced that it was going to cancel U.S. payments to UNRWA, which amount to $360 million of the aid agency's $1.2-billion annual budget. While a consortium of 42 nations and organizations worked to fill the gap, "We continue feeling this hit of losing our biggest donor," Matthias Schmale, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, said on Democracy Now!
"This is a situation in which most Palestine refugee children find themselves in," Schmale added, speaking from Gaza City. "They have the benefit of getting an education through the United Nations, through the UNRWA schools, but sadly, the opportunities are few and far between in terms of getting out."
AMIDEAST's Kattouf credits both the work of Harvard and the U.S. embassy in Beirut for quickly restoring Ismail's visa, allowing him to return to Massachusetts to begin college, just in time for classes.
While Ismail Ajjawi finally made it to school, the situation for Palestinians continues to deteriorate. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised, if re-elected next week, to annex at least one-third of the West Bank, further crushing any hopes of a viable Palestinian state. In the Gaza Strip, during the Great March of Return that has been ongoing since March 2018, over 7,400 peaceful protesters have been injured with live ammunition fired by the Israeli military, and at least 210 Palestinians have been killed, including children and medical personnel.
The siege of Gaza must be lifted, and students from there, the West Bank and from refugee camps in the surrounding area must be free to study, at home or abroad. The injustice Ismail Ajjawi suffered at the hands of Logan Airport's federal agents must be fully investigated, and prevented from happening again.
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!
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