How the Trump-Era Travel Ban Impacted Syrian College Applicants

By Ritta Shahada

Latakia, Syria

Programs like SYE make the college application process easier for Syrian students (Photo Credit: Columbia University)

Attending universities in the United States was made nearly impossible for Syrian students due to travel restrictions implemented by the Trump administration. Prior to the travel ban, Syrian students were able to pursue higher education in the United States.


In comparison with other international students, Syrian students tend to have exceptional achievements in the sciences, mathematics and medicine despite their war-torn circumstances due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War. They consistently earn high scores on American standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT, demonstrating that they have the skills to apply to competitive universities, but the travel ban hindered them in their pursuits of American higher education.


To help Syrian students apply to and attend international universities, many nonprofit organizations were established both before and after the Trump administration’s mandates. One of these organizations is the Syrian Youth Empowerment (SYE), which was established by young Syrian people in 2016 and aims to help Syrian students to follow their academic and professional dreams. SYE provides guidance about the college application process and offers services from programs that help students improve their English skills. It aims to provide all the required elements to present Syrian students as qualified college applicants—SYE covers testing costs for the SAT and TOEFL, helps with the visa and travel processes (the importance of this role increased due to the travel ban), and offers mentorship programs. Thus far, SYE students have been accepted by esteemed universities, including Harvard University and Stanford University, among many others.


SYE encourages Syrian students to never give up, despite the hardships they face daily. A few months ago, the SYE team held the SYE Virtual Gala to celebrate the achievements of more than 300 Syrian and Iraqi students. The gala featured prominent figures such as Yazidi activist Abid Shamdeen and singer Rasha Rizk.


SYE programs are divided into a one-year program and a two-year program in addition to a master’s degree program. Each SYE student is connected to advisors, counselors and admissions officers to help build college lists, write essays and fulfill all necessary requirements. 95 students have graduated from SYE’s programs, and all have mentioned the influence of SYE in helping them accomplish their dreams and discover themselves.


Ever since I was fourteen years old, I have dreamed of studying at great universities outside of Syria. I have held onto these dreams to motivate myself because I believe that maintaining a dream is how one stays alive. I would never have thought that these dreams could turn into reality, but applying to SYE and being accepted into the 2020-2022 program has protected, animated and elevated my hopes and dreams.


On January 20, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to repeal the Trump administration’s travel ban.



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