Ismail Ajjawi, a Harvard freshman who said he was was denied U.S. entry because of his friends’ social media postings, arrived in Boston in time for the start of classes. He is pictured in his home near the El Buss refugee camp in Lebanon. (United Nations Relief and Works Agency)
JAWEED KALEEM, Los Angeles Times, SEP. 3, 2019
A Palestinian student who flew to Boston last month to attend Harvard but was a denied entry to the United States has been allowed into the country in time for the start of classes this week, the university said.
Ismail Ajjawi, 17, was at the center of an uproar involving top Harvard officials, immigrant advocates, international student organizations and thousands of student petitioners after the Harvard Crimson newspaper reported that immigration officials held him on Aug. 23 at Logan International Airport while combing through his social media accounts before canceling his visa.
The incident underscored concerns at Harvard and other universities over the ability of international students and scholars to enter the country as the Trump administration curtails legal immigration.
In a welcome letter Tuesday to students, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow highlighted immigration barriers for students.
“Since May, the obstacles facing individuals ensnared in the nation’s visa and immigration process have only grown,” he wrote. “Various international students and scholars eager to establish lives here on our campus find themselves the subject of scrutiny and suspicion in the name of national security, and they are reconsidering the value of joining our community in the face of disruptions and delays.”
Ajjawi was a top student in Lebanon, where lived as a refugee outside the southern city of Tyre and attended United Nations schools. He received a scholarship from an international nonprofit to attend Harvard, where he planned to study physical and chemical biology en route to becoming a surgeon.
He was allowed into to the U.S. on Monday after he “overcamve all grounds of inadmissibility,” a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement.
The spokesman did not answer a question about what had changed. Previously, immigration officials had said that Ajjawi “was deemed inadmissible to the United States based on information discovered during the CBP inspection.”
His family released a statement through its attorney, describing his experience as “difficult and anxiety-filled.”
“We truly appreciate the efforts of so many individuals and officials in Lebanon, Washington, Massachusetts and at Harvard that have made it possible for our son Ismail Ajjawi to begin his studies,” it said.
He arrived on campus just in time for his class photo, said the attorney, Albert Mokhiber.
Theodore Kattouf, president of Amideast, the nonprofit that awarded Ajjawi his scholarship, released a statement saying that he was “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,” it said.
Ajjawi did not reply to Facebook messages seeking comment.
In an interview with Al Araby TV that aired as he first flew to the U.S. last month, he talked about his interest in science and medicine. “There’s room for discoveries in this field,” he said, adding that “excellence requires work and effort too. I always had this goal. I managed my time, studied everything, to get this result.”
In the account published by the Crimson last month, Ajjawi said that immigration authorities told him he could not enter the country because friends on social media were critical of the U.S.
“When I asked every time to have my phone back so I could tell them about the situation, the officer refused and told me to sit back in [my] position and not move at all,” he said in a statement to the student newspaper. “After the five hours ended, she called me into a room, and she started screaming at me. She said that she found people posting political points of view that oppose the U.S. on my friend[s] list.”
“I responded that I have no business with such posts and that I didn’t, like, [s]hare or comment on them and told her that I shouldn’t be held responsible for what others post,” the article said. “I have no single post on my timeline discussing politics.”
He was allowed to call his parents before being sent back to Lebanon.
On a Facebook account that appears to be his, there are only four publicly visible posts, all from Ajjawi. Only one related to the U.S., an Aug. 16 announcement that he was starting his studies at Harvard that elicited dozens of comments congratulating him.
The profile, which uses the spelling Ismael Ajjawi, has several photos, including one of Harry Potter and another of members of the Dutch national soccer team in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
On Sept. 27, it was connected to 752 friends. On Tuesday, it showed 299 friends.
Jaweed Kaleem is the national race and justice correspondent at the Los Angeles Times. Before joining The Times, Kaleem was the senior religion reporter at HuffPost and a religion and general assignment reporter at the Miami Herald. He attended Emerson College in Boston and grew up in Northern Virginia.