International students, country need time to heal

SBy Meriem Chida

since Sept. 11 we have seen a surge in patriotism in the United States. Slogans such as “God bless America” and “united we stand” have been displayed everywhere. As an international student studying in this country, I can say that international students will be taking stock of the Sept. 11 attacks. How should we remember Sept. 11? What have we learned from the event?

Some international students, however, might ask: Are we invited to mourn? Just who is the “we” in the slogan “united we stand?”

I think it is time for a reality check, both for policymakers and for international students. First, before Sept. 11 there was obviously a dangerous gap in the immigration system that needed to be fixed. But putting the international students under the spotlight as if they were to blame for the problem is simply wrong. Policymakers should realize that there is an important issue at stake here – trust in the justice system. All international students should not be blamed for Sept. 11. In fact, fewer than three hijackers entered the country on student visas; the rest entered from Canada on regular visitor visas.

It would be completely unjust to direct tightened security solely around students who come here for a higher education. When the Oklahoma City bombing happened, there was no specific community targeted. This time, security checks are acceptable. Blind policies that waste time looking for someone to blame instead of fixing the real problem, however, are not. International students who come here to study and do not fall out of status should not feel tracked.

True, there is an atmosphere of discomfort among international students, probably because several changes did occur. For instance, it now takes at least a month to get a student visa. There is a security clearance that every applicant needs to go through before receiving a visa. How is this bad? Well, some economists might argue visas actually hinder the economy. But let’s be real here: This country has been attacked at its core. Three thousand victims in one day. Wouldn’t these changes be a justifiable reaction? And shouldn’t we, as international students, be supportive of such a security screening?

Not all changes are as defendable as these former ones. There was some talk about charging the international students a fee to set up a student tracking system. I’m not sure of the viability and efficiency of such a system, but I do know that any national security system should be financed from within and not be supported by the number of incoming students. There are many issues with that method. For instance, if the number of students drops, would that imply that the efficiency of the system would drop likewise for lack of funding?

This country has always followed an honor system; the problem is this system has been wrongly abused. When there was talk about issuing a different driver’s license to international students and green card holders, I was furious. I sent an American friend of mine an e-mail complaining about this array of new policies. He replied with a story about the time he lived in England, where he had to carry his passport everywhere he went. This calmed me down. After all, in the United States I am trusted to be innocent until proven guilty. I never have to carry my passport, and I’ve never been stopped by police for a documents check fueled by racial profiling.

So I ask international students to remember that this country needs time to heal. During this time we need to remember why we came here in the first place – we believe in the higher education system. International students believe they can have a happier tomorrow, a better life.

In times where all pictures show destruction, where most still cheer for revenge, and in times of war, I choose to remember Sept. 11 through my experiences with my friends. After Sept. 11, they picked up the phone to ask me how I was coping with all the negative images about terrorists carrying student visas. I choose to remember the brave who stood up to ignorance and fought back by defending mosques, churches and synagogues. My remembrance goes to those who marched for peace in New York City when everyone else was aching and hurt. I want to remember that strong grandmother in New York who lost a daughter and a granddaughter in the attacks but still found the strength to set up a nonprofit association to increase awareness, understanding and tolerance.

You are the heroes who fight to save lives and might lose your lives doing so. You are the people who take the time to understand that terrorism comes in all shapes and colors. You are the ones who eased my pain while surviving Sept. 11 and everyday after because, thanks to you, there will always be love, hope and justice. You are the heroes who make the United States a living legend for all of us.

Meriem Chida is the director-at-large for international student concerns in the Graduate and Professional Students Assembly. Send comments to [email protected].