A Pakistani Fulbright scholar and graduate student at the Divinity School could not return to the University of Chicago for winter quarter because he was not allowed back into the United States after spending winter break in Karachi.
Syed Zia Hussain Shah was departing for Pakistan for winter break when officials at Chicago O’Hare Airport stopped him and asked whether or not he intended to return to the United States. Shah showed the officials his state-funded scholarship and he was allowed on the flight, but he could not shake off the feeling that something was wrong.
His fears were confirmed January 4, when he was not allowed to board a flight back to Chicago. The U.S. embassy in Karachi originally told him to wait four to five days to be issued a new visa, but after four months without hearing from them, he learned that he is likely to miss spring quarter as well.
Shah is the co-founder of Ravvish, an educational program in Lahore, Pakistan, which teaches schoolchildren about empathy, tolerance, and the peaceful coexistence between different cultural and religious groups. He realized that it was important for him to study religion in an academic context in order to improve Ravvish curriculum. “I want to teach religion as an academic subject where the foundational ideas would be tolerance and empathy,” Shah said. He applied to the University of Chicago due to a lack of higher education opportunities in Pakistan. In 2010, Shah lost his uncle in a terrorist attack on Karachi. This motivated Shah, who is a member of a minority religious group, to encourage inter-religious dialogue.
Shah was refused entry to the United States before President Trump signed an executive order limiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries (Pakistan is not included on the list), and Shah does not believe his case is directly related to the executive order. “I don’t blame Trump for this, I blame the system for this, because the system definitely got something wrong,” Shah said.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Buzzfeed News that they are not authorized to provide information about any specific traveller, although any foreigner can be turned away from the country for any reason.
Shah stressed the uniqueness of his case as a Divinity School student. “On the outside it’s very easy to label me as a 25-year-old Muslim terrorist travelling from Pakistan to the U.S. back and forth, and such a threat to our country, and studying Islamic Studies, oh my God, we don’t want him,” Shah said. However, he did suggest that Pakistani students avoid traveling to Pakistan for the moment.
Shah plans to apply to scholarships in the United Kingdom and Germany if he cannot return to the United States. He has already been admitted to the School of Oriental and African Students in the University of London, but he does not have the funds to attend without a scholarship. He is currently working in Pakistan and developing a program for Ravvish, but he is determined to go back to studying religion. “It doesn’t matter to me if [an offer] comes this year or the next year, or if it comes from the U.S. or the U.K. or wherever in the world,” Shah said.
Shah stressed that he was grateful for the level of support he received from the University administration and his professors. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see [my professors] again but if I ever do I will probably burst into tears because these people have been so genuine, so cooperative, so professional throughout,” Shah said.