Sour end to Babaks American dream

07-03-2017, 16:35

Photos: Getty Images

Silhouette of man throwing paper plane.

Babak (31), an Iranian researcher working in Nijmegen, managed to acquire a dream position at Princeton university. But because of Donald Trump's ‘Muslim ban’ - he announced a new version this week - he is watching his and his girlfriend's future go up in smoke.

In a sense, Babak calls himself crazy for not wanting to appear in VOX under his real name. ‘It’s the kind of thing you only do if you have something to hide, or if you are a criminal.’ Neither of which applies in his case. What Babak is, however, is Iranian. An Iranian who was on the verge of immigrating to the United States to take on a position as researcher at the prestigious Princeton University. Until President Trump instated his ‘Muslim ban’. To avoid making it even more difficult to obtain an American visa, Babak prefers to be invisible on the Internet. But he still wants to share his story with the world. Hence the pseudonym.

‘I can’t go, because they won’t give me a visa’

We meet for the first time in late January at the cafeteria of the Donders Institute. Trump has just announced his decree to the world: people from seven primarily Islamic countries are no longer allowed to enter the US. A slap in the face for Babak. ‘I was supposed to start as a postdoc in Princeton in June. Now I can’t go, because they won’t give me a visa.’

In December, Babak completed his PhD cum laude at the Donders Institute in Nijmegen. This led to an invitation to Princeton to conduct neuroscience research. A dream job and the right step at the right time in Babak’s career.

Trump’s argument for his ‘Muslim ban’ is that he has to protect his country. Not that any Iranians were ever involved in an attack on the US, but you never know.

Green card
Babak’s girlfriend is also Iranian. She has a good job as a researcher in Eindhoven. But she would like to join Babak in the US to start a new life there, which is why she planned some job interviews in New York. These interviews were planned a few days after Trump’s announcement. Suddenly it looked as if she couldn’t go, because of her nationality. ‘But she has a Green Card because she has worked in Silicon Valley before’, says Babak. ‘Green Card holders are still allowed to travel in the country.’

Still, it’s all very uncomfortable. She doesn’t have a job but is still allowed to enter the country; while he has been offered a dream position, but Uncle Sam refuses to let him in. What is she supposed to do by herself on the other side of the ocean? Since nobody knows what will happen with Trump and his unpredictable behaviour – a number of lawsuits have already been announced in America – Babak’s girlfriend did not cancel her job interviews. She will however play open card with her potential employers. ‘It’s all very confusing’, says Babak, seated in one of the bright orange chairs of the fancy Donders restaurant.

Babak’s Nijmegen colleagues are angry about the injustice of it all

While she is enjoying her in-flight drink Babak’s Nijmegen colleagues are angry about the injustice of it all. They are amazed at how relatively calm he is. ‘You know, it’s always been difficult for Iranians to get a US visa’, he explains. I guess you get used to it. ‘When I completed my degree in Iran and wanted to study in California, it took me five months to get a visa. I always wait to book my ticket until the visa is in.’

Under President Obama, relations between Iran and the United States were friendlier. Babak noticed immediately. During his time as a PhD student in Nijmegen, he crossed the ocean four times, without any visa problems.

Airport Walkway

Start of February
On 4 February, a federal judge in Seattle declares Trump’s ban illegal and temporarily blocks it. Is this a great relief for Babak? I ask him on the phone. ‘Not for me personally,’ he says. ‘But I am relieved to see that the American legal system still works.’ Trump’s reaction, however, is anything but reassuring. He denounces the ‘so-called judge’ and threatens to come with a new decree – very soon.

Babak is happy that some of the people affected by the entry ban are now able to slip into the US. Such as the parents of an Iranian friend, who lives in America with her partner and expects a baby soon. Her parents were supposed to come and help the couple with the baby for the first few weeks. Instead they ended up stranded in Turkey with their visa, because they were not allowed on their US-bound flight. Now they can join their daughter after all.

‘We are now thinking of a plan B’

For Babak and his girlfriend little has changed so far. They are still in the dark about what will happen. Babak’s contract at Princeton University was supposed to start in June. How will things be then? ‘Even if Trump does not manage to permanently exclude people from seven countries, he can still make life difficult for them.’ They may be welcome on paper, but in practice their visa will not be issued. ‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’

Add to this the fact that as a researcher, Babak will have to leave the country on a regular basis to attend conferences. The question is whether he will be able to re-enter the US after these trips abroad. He would rather avoid taking the risk. Suppose his girlfriend lives there, with her Green Card, and he is unable to come home; that would be a disaster. ‘It’s all so unpredictable!’

And there is another problem plaguing Babak. The researcher would like to apply for a Rubicon grant from NWO. This grant would allow him to get research funding. The application form, however, requires him to list the university abroad where he works or is going to work. That was Princeton, but now that the future is so uncertain he doesn’t want to write that anymore. ‘I have to hand in my application by the end of March. There is so much competition in this world; it would be such a shame if this whole mess leads to me losing this opportunity.’

End of February
Two weeks later we speak again. Babak has informed NWO of his Rubicon problem and is waiting for their answer. His girlfriend has returned from the US. Her job applications went well. But since the couple is Iranian her potential employers also prefer to wait and see. They don’t want to hire her only to have her resign later because her partner Babak is unable to join her.

‘We are now thinking of a plan B’, says Babak. What will that look like? No idea. ‘If you look at my CV, it would be logical for me to move to a university abroad. That’s how things work in science.’
The university in Princeton cannot do anything for him. Except send him apologetic emails. The professor who hired Babak is ashamed of his country, says the Iranian. Babak’s contract in Nijmegen ends at the end of May.

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