Palestinian with Harvard scholarship finally allowed into US

A teenager writes in a book

Ismail Ajjawi has started his classes at Harvard University. (UNRWA)

A young Palestinian refugee has begun studying at Harvard University after previously being refused entry to the US.

When he arrived at Boston Logan Airport on 23 August with a student visa, Ismail Ajjawi, 17, was interrogated by Customs and Border Patrol agents who repeatedly questioned his personal religious practices, took his phone and laptop and scrutinized the political opinions expressed by his friends on social media.

Ajjawi’s ordeal attracted international attention and outcry.

In a statement released by his lawyer on Monday, Ajjawi’s family said it hoped “that everyone can respect our and Ismail’s privacy and he can now simply focus on settling into college and his important classwork.”

More than 20 Harvard student groups launched a petition demanding Ajjawi be able to re-enter the US and begin his academic studies. The petition was signed by nearly 8,000 supporters.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib joined the demands for Ajjawi’s entry:

Ajjawi, a resident of the El Buss Palestinian refugee camp near Tyre, Lebanon, graduated from the camp’s Deir Yassin High School which is administered by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

“He achieved the highest score in the life science stream of the Official Lebanese Baccalaureate exams in the south region and eighth highest in all of Lebanon,” UNRWA stated on 30 August.

Ajjawi has described the challenges students face in El Buss camp, similar to what other Palestinian students encounter in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Conditions such as cramped housing make it “really difficult for students to concentrate on their studies,” he has stated.

He said that there are a limited number of scholarships to attend university, “and each year the amount is reduced.”

“A large proportion of students are unable to study,” he added. “I advise all my classmates to study hard and maintain their studies, so that they can achieve their dreams as I have been able to achieve mine.”

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).