Coming from an Iranian city of around 150,000 people, Amir Rezazadeh felt a little out of place when he arrived at Mississippi State University, more than 100 miles from any metropolitan area and deep in the heart of the Bible Belt.
But he soon came to like the quiet surroundings, where there was little to distract him from his horticulture studies, and where there was already a group of Middle Eastern students and professors to make him feel welcome.
Ignoring half-serious warnings that he could be converted, he even began spending time at the Baptist Student Union, where he honed his English, discussed Christianity and Islam, played games and watched movies, and forged friendships with some of the Mississippi-born students.
That is why he was more than a little taken aback this past week when students told him to his face that they agreed with President Donald Trump’s order to temporarily ban visa holders from Iran and six other countries from entering the United States.
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“Some people say directly to you that it’s a good order,” he said, “that our country should have this order to ban terrorists.” He finds their position especially hurtful, he said, in light of his fears of what the order might mean for him and his wife, and roughly 80 other students from the seven countries.
An estimated 17,000 students in the United States are touched by the ban, many of them in universities in the Northeast and California, where support for the president’s move has been thin. But there are also sizable numbers in universities like Mississippi State, out-of-the-way pockets in states that voted for Trump.
The move may be bringing to the surface hidden tensions between ambitious Middle Eastern students who have been welcomed to the U.S. with scholarships and job opportunities, and fellow students and other residents who believe the threat of terrorism necessitates a second look at who is let into the country.
The Mississippi State president, Mark E. Keenum, in a carefully worded statement that avoided the overt criticism of some counterparts at other universities, said that the university would try to help the students affected by the order and that its “core values of diversity, inclusion, tolerance and safety for all — regardless their country of origin — do not waver or change.”
That was a different message from that of the governor, Phil Bryant, who has said there were “a lot of people overreacting” to what he believed was a reasonable pause in immigration from the seven countries.
Many students and alumni, on Facebook and in public, have expressed support for Trump’s move. Zach Cooke, 21, an electrical engineering major from Amory, Mississippi, said that while the ban’s execution was poor, “With what’s going on at the moment, I think a limit on who can come into the country is not a bad idea.”
At the same time, a vocal segment of the school and town — county voters went narrowly for Hillary Clinton in a state that was heavily pro-Trump — has expressed support for the affected students. At a vigil Wednesday night, about 250 people gathered on an open green near the football stadium, carrying candles and holding signs. “Immigrants make America great,” read one.
One organizer, a veterinary medicine student named Anna Walker, said she was inspired by a photograph of a protest at Washington Square Park in New York. “I realized that we needed a show of support in smaller communities,” Walker, 26, said.
MSU’s core values of diversity, inclusion, tolerance, and safety for all — regardless their country of origin — do not waver or change.
MSU President Mark E. Keenum
Once known solely for its agriculture program — even today fans ring cowbells at football games, and prized herds of cows graze on campus pastures — Mississippi State has worked in recent years to excel in technology and engineering, recruited scientists from all over the world to its 21,000-student campus and attracted hundreds of millions in dollars in research money, much of it from the federal government.
The foreigners who live and work here include many Muslims; an unprepossessing mosque operates in a converted house on a residential street, and there are regular gatherings for holidays like Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
The executive order, signed Friday, barred immigration from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days, halted admission of Syrian refugees indefinitely and that of other refugees for 120 days. Though students from those countries can stay, for now, they fear that they cannot leave the U.S. because they would not be allowed back in, and they wonder how any new vetting procedures being considered by the Trump administration might affect their future studies and travel.
“Most people are distracted from school,” said Erfan Alkamil, 25, a senior who received a scholarship from the Yemeni government. “Some have been watching the news all day long. They are waiting to read something that might change the situation, or at least make them comfortable.”
Alkamil, like other Middle Eastern students, said they have generally found Mississippi State to be welcoming, even accommodating. His American friends assumed — correctly — that as a Muslim, he did not drink alcohol and now offer him juice instead of wine without even asking.
Adjustments are needed, though; there is no halal food market, so Alkamil has learned to like Subway sandwiches, and group meals are often held in private homes. Several of the students said the hardest acclimation was to Southern accents.
Negative interactions are rare, students said, but they happen. Kimia Mortezaei, 29, who just finished her Ph.D. in civil engineering, recalled how at the farmers market one day, an older woman stopped her to compliment her on her “beautiful” dress and asked where she was from. She replied that she was from Iran, and the woman asked what she planned to do after she finished her studies.
“I said I prefer to stay here,” Mortezaei recalled. “She suddenly told me aggressively, ‘You have to return to your country because you endanger our safety, because you’re a Muslim and you’re a terrorist like ISIS.”
What this stranger could not know, she added, was that she had left Iran precisely because she disagreed with Iranian politics. “I left Iran because of those problems, and now we are labeled a terrorist,” Mortezaei said.
Close to home
Fear of terrorism is indeed a theme in comments and Facebook posts from students, local residents and alumni who support the ban. Numerous people have brought up the case of two recent Mississippi State students — one a convert to Islam, the other a longtime resident in town whose father was a well-known Muslim community leader — who were arrested in 2015 and later sent to prison for plotting to join ISIS.
Even with his finely threaded statement, Keenum, the university’s president, has been criticized. This 1983 graduate’s Facebook response was typical: “President Keenum needs to stand up for the nation’s security.” (Keenum, through a spokesman, declined an interview request.)
I left Iran because of those problems, and now we are labeled a terrorist.
Kimia Mortezaei, talking about one of the few negative interactions she had with a stranger in Starkville
Outwardly, the campus remains a picture of idyllic detachment from the nation’s larger tumult. On Wednesday the Baptist Student Union held its weekly $3 lunch and prayer meeting. With dogwood and Japanese magnolia trees already in full bloom, many students were wearing shorts.
An exception was one woman who made her way across campus dressed in a niqab — a head covering with only her eyes showing. The woman, who would not give her name but said she was from Saudi Arabia, a country not covered by the ban, said she was very anxious about her future in the U.S. and called the president’s move “against humanity.”
Ashkan Khalili, 33, an Iranian about to graduate from his aerospace engineering doctoral program, is also beginning to fret. He will soon graduate from his doctoral program and his permit will expire. But he said he was hoping to stay and work in the United States, and repay the country for its hospitality. “Now the question is, do they want me to pay it back, or go back?” he asked.
Vahid Daghigh, 32, a Ph.D. engineering student from Iran, said he suddenly found himself feeling jealous of international students not from the seven countries.
“For sure, I will try to stay here,” Daghigh said. “But if not, I will go to Canada.”