The long journey from Syria to Northeastern that almost didn’t happen

Bushra Dabbagh, a Syrian student accepted to Northeastern’s biotechnology master’s program, had to secure her visa in the short window before the Trump administration’s travel ban locked her out of the United States altogether. Photo courtesy of Bushra Dabbagh.

Bushra Dabbagh was in a race against time. A Syrian student accepted to Northeastern’s biotechnology master’s program, she had to secure her visa in the short window before the Trump administration’s travel ban locked her out of the United States altogether.

This was late-2017, during a brief window of time before the final version of the travel ban—which blocks citizens of largely majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States—was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dabbagh has two bachelor’s degrees—one from Aleppo University in Syria and another from Corvinus University in Hungary. In Aleppo, she tutored girls whose schools had been destroyed in the country’s violent civil war. Her dreams led her abroad, though, and she’s known her whole life that she’d have to work twice as hard to earn a spot in an international program.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting the wind just to walk on the same level of other normal students who have a normal life and never had to worry about things working or not,” she said. “For me, sometimes things just don’t work and I don’t have another choice. It’s so frustrating to know that you’re classified [a certain way] just because you belong to a certain place or area or religion.”

Dabbagh was accepted to Northeastern for the 2017-18 academic year, placing her firmly in a time when she and people in similar situations had to mobilize quickly in order to gain entry into the United States while the extent of the travel ban was still being decided. Dabbagh was supposed to start in the fall of 2017, giving her mere months to obtain a student visa.

For many international students, that would be more than enough time. “A visa advisor told me that the embassy typically gives you an answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the same day,” Dabbagh said.

For a Syrian citizen, however, the process was more complicated.

First, there’s no U.S. embassy in Syria, so Dabbagh had to take a six-hour flight to Beirut, where there is one. Then, as a Syrian citizen, she was required to fill out supplementary forms. Dabbagh applied for her visa at the end of August 2017 and didn’t hear back for months. She didn’t dare go back to Syria in the meantime lest the United States permanently ban travelers from her country (which it eventually did).  

She delayed the start of her classes until the spring to allow more time for her visa application to process. As the spring loomed closer and she still hadn’t heard anything from the embassy, Dabbagh started formulating a backup plan. She could go to a university in Canada instead, as so many of her friends, family, and colleagues encouraged her to do. But she couldn’t find a biotechnology program that matched the one offered by Northeastern.

By October 2017, when Dabbagh still hadn’t heard anything from the embassy after months of waiting, Northeastern staff jumped in. Members of the Office of the General Counsel, Office of Government Relations, and International Safety Office, upon hearing the difficulty Dabbagh was having and knowing the travel ban could slam into effect with little warning, wrote letters of support and contacted the Beirut embassy to get Dabbagh an interview quickly.

This meant Dabbagh had to get from Vienna, where she’d been staying after speaking at an educational conference, to Beirut in less than 24 hours. In fact, by the time everything came together, she had three hours to make the last flight out.

But there was a problem: Dabbagh didn’t have the money to book a last-minute flight. So the university offered to pay. Another problem: Turkish Air didn’t accept American Express—the bank used by the university—to purchase tickets so close to departure time. This time, Jigisha Patel, Northeastern’s assistant general counsel, paid for the ticket herself with a different card.

“None of us thought we’d have time to wait and figure something else out,” Patel said of the staff who invested in Dabbagh’s case. “I was immediately so impressed with Bushra—with her intelligence, with the way she thinks, the way she doesn’t take anything for granted. I knew she was perfect for Northeastern.”

Dabbagh said: “I just grabbed my passport and got on a plane. I didn’t even pack anything else.”

She got to Beirut at 3 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 27, and a friend of her father’s was waiting at the airport for her. They spent the next five hours close to the embassy so they could be there when it opened.

Except, it didn’t open.

Dabbagh was informed by security guards at the door that the embassy was closed on the last Friday of every month. And it was the last Friday of the month.

“I was shocked, I had traveled in a hurry, and my flight out was on Sunday, so I had no other option, there was no other day I could manage to go,” Dabbagh said. She pleaded with the guards to let her in, or at least let someone inside know she was there. “I told them the university had already arranged everything, that someone in there was probably expecting me.”

The guards didn’t relent, but Northeastern staff stepped in again, delaying Dabbagh’s flight so she could go to the embassy Monday morning.

And finally, finally, on Oct. 30, she got her visa.

“It was like a dream,” Dabbagh said. “It was so shocking—in a positive way. I didn’t know what to do. I was so happy. For months I’d been worrying, ‘am I going to get it or not.’ I’d been praying all the time just to get that visa. Logic told me to give up; I’d heard so many stories of it being impossible. I didn’t want to think logically, though; I only wanted to feel like something was going to happen, and I believed it would.”

Dabbagh wants to work at a big pharmaceutical company, where she can develop medicine to treat chronic disease. But even this dream is tenuous.

“I don’t have a stable goal for the future because I don’t know what will happen in the future,” she said. “I can’t really schedule for the long term because I don’t know when another ban or something else will happen. I’ve learned not really to plan for the long term. In the blink of an eye, everything could shift and change my destiny.”

What she is doing, though, the “fixed point” toward which she’s always moving, is sharing her story, in hopes that it will help another student like her down the road.

“For a while I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I follow my dreams just because I’m a citizen of a certain country?’” Dabbagh said. “I know what I’ve been through, and I want to help anybody who’s going through the same thing. It’s so hard. I feel privileged to study at Northeastern, and I feel the responsibility to help others who only want to follow their dreams.”