Beyond our Shores: International students strive to find peace in a severed post 9/11 world

By Brienne Prusak, Daily News Editor
Published September 6, 2011

Like many children around the world on September 11, 2001, 11-year-old Wan Aisyah was getting ready for school before mayhem struck in lower Manhattan and Washington D.C.

But unlike many children whose lives were changed that day because their parents were the victims of the catastrophic attack, Aisyah’s life did not change much. That is until he left his home country of Malaysia to go to college in the United States — at the University.

“September 11 didn't cause much stir in my life until I left for the U.S. in 2008 to study at the University," said Aisyah, an LSA senior. "That was when I first realized that my identity as a Muslim is strongly linked to the September 11 event, although I wasn't from the Middle East nor affiliated with any political parties."

Aisyah is one of many international students at the University who have felt the ripple effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Whether they’ve been questioned about their religious identification, seen their country divide because of people’s beliefs or faced challenges attaining jobs in the U.S. because of their immigration status, international students have — like many people around the world — experienced the effects of that day that changed not only the U.S. but every country on the globe.

Aisyah said he has seen the assumptions people make as a result of 9/11 about people who identify with the Islam religion.

“I feel like there's a bigger sense of responsibility now as a Muslim to clear up the misconceptions that the world has towards Islam,” he said. “There has never been an issue of extremist activities among Malaysian Muslims, but people tend to label you negatively just because of the Muslim label we wear.”

Because of these misconceptions, Aisyah has taken it upon himself to make students on campus more aware of the injustice that the closed-mindedness brings. The repercussions of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have also fed his drive for success.

“Just because of the simple misunderstandings, feelings of hatred began to arise between both sides — the Muslims and the non-Muslims,” Aisyah said. “9/11 had shaped my career goals in motivating myself to become the bridge that help(s) both sides of the party gain better understanding towards each other."

Aisyah has also found that many people on campus are more curious than fearful of his religious identity and have asked questions about his religious practices.

“But it was more of a genuine curiosity rather than an attempt to offend me,” he said.

Unlike Aisyah, who didn’t see many changes in his home country following 9/11, Engineering sophomore Joe Kaewbaidhoon said in the wake of 9/11, tensions clearly arose between Arabs and non-Arabs in Thailand. Kaewbaidhoon, who was nine years old when his mother woke him up in the middle of the night and told him about the attacks, said he immediately noticed a higher level of security in the country following 9/11.

“It’s almost ironically tragic: Terror brings about heightened security, which brings about mistrust, which further alienates innocent Arabians and thus raising their inclination to sympathize with the terrorists,” Kaewbaidhoon said.

LSA freshman Ayeza Siddiqi also saw instant changes in her home country of Pakistan following 9/11. Siddiqi was 11 years old when she woke up on Sept. 12 to a different world. Siddiqi moved to the United States last month and said the terrorist attacks on that day changed Pakistan’s ties to the rest of the world. The event brought negative attention upon Pakistan, she added.

“(9/11) has had a huge impact on the general population in my country, and there’s a lot of anti-Americanism,” Siddiqi said. “People are always hesitant to send their kids to the U.S. They just have this anti-American sentiment, which is really sad.”

Like Aisyah, who is determined to positively change relations between different groups of people through his studies and future career, Siddiqi said the tension between Pakistan and other countries had a significant impact on her decision to study political science at the University.

“I feel that doing political science, in some ways, I might be able to bring about change,” she said. “I know this sounds very optimistic and whatnot, but I want to take this education back to my country and help out in some way.”

Though Aisyah and Siddiqi aim to harness negative repercussions of 9/11 into a positive career path to create change, other students have seen firsthand the effects of the terrorist attacks on their future career plans.

Alireza Tabatabaeenejad, a native of Iran and former Engineering graduate student who began studying at the University three weeks before 9/11, said the attacks limited his career options because there were certain companies that couldn’t hire him due to his immigration status.

Tabatabaeenejad applied to NASA and was granted an interview, but the interview was cancelled because his potential employer realized Tabatabaeenejad wouldn’t be able to enter the laboratory because of his Iranian nationality. While he was able to secure a second interview, he was told it would take too long for him to gain clearance and would not be offered a position.

Because of these limitations, there are few jobs in the field of electrical engineering available for Tabatabaeenejad. He is currently trying to find an academic position that doesn’t require clearance.

Engineering graduate student Mehrzad Samadi, who is also from Iran, found himself in a similar situation. Samadi was offered an internship in the field of computer engineering, but his export license, which is required if someone who is here on a visa will be exposed or have access to certain technologies, was rejected two years in a row without explanation. He said he wants to gain experience working in America, but if he isn’t hired, he’ll have to return to Iran to find employment.

However, if Samadi were to return home, he would have to reapply for entrance — which takes about a month — if he wanted to return to the U.S. Iran is one of five countries that the U.S. doesn’t allow automatic revalidation of visas if the person holding the visa leaves the country.

“My problem is not the rejection,” Samadi said of his employment situation in the U.S. “My problem is that I can’t contact anyone about the reason for the rejection. The U.S. government is paying for my tuition, but they don’t let me work for them.”