Iranian Students in US Mobilize to Change Single-Entry Visa Law -

Virtually trapped in country for entire schooling, they take the issue to Congress.

[ dispatch ] Nasim Sabounchi was ecstatic when she received her acceptance letter to Virginia Tech's Ph.D. program in 2007. The 21-year-old's excitement soon turned to worry as she thought of how she would be far away from all she knew for the duration of her studies. "I really had to ask myself, 'Is this something I want to do?' I had the funding, I'd been accepted, but in a way, I felt like I was coming to prison for five years."

Like the many Iranians who come to the United States to further their studies, Nasim knew she would receive a single-entry visa. If she left the country, she would have to apply for a visa again. This process is unpredictable at best -- it can require a week or up to three months, a risk most students are unwilling to take. As a result, most Iranian students who come to the United States accept the fact that they will not be able to go home during the entire length of their studies.

With the support of her friends and family, Nasim decided to attend Virginia Tech and is now in her fourth year of studies. "I know so many people who weren't able to see their mothers and fathers before they died because of this policy and I just keep thinking to myself, 'God, I hope this doesn't happen to me.' Sometimes, you just want your family right next to you."

Nasim is one of the Iranian students studying in the United States who have taken matters into their own hands. Perhaps becoming more American than she anticipated, with several other students she organized a group calling for a change in the policy that received a statement of support from Virginia Tech's graduate school. Not knowing how to take the issue further than their school, they turned to the D.C.-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

NIAC advocates for Iranian Americans on Capitol Hill. Among its various activities, the group conducts civic participation workshops tailored for the Iranian-American community. "Since our civic participation workshop with NIAC, we've developed a lot," said Nasim. The students tried to contact their congressman, Rick Boucher, numerous times and frequently attended his town hall meetings. However, he never answered their calls. Like many other Democrats, Boucher lost his bid for reelection last year and the group is now trying to contact their new, Republican representative, Morgan Griffith.

With the backing of students like Nasim and her 3,650 fellow members in the Multiple Entry US Visa for Iranian Students (MEVISA) Facebook group, NIAC lobbied Congress to change the law. (MEVISA also has its own website.) Jamal Abdi, NIAC policy director, said they worked with the Senate Armed Services Committee in an attempt to insert language into the defense authorization bill that would have "required the White House to evaluate and report how the U.S. can increase educational exchanges with Iranian students and expand the number and types of visas available for Iranians to study in the U.S."

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