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Colleges in Boston mobilize to help students, academics affected by Trump order

Boston University students Yasmin Younis and Marwa Sayed were at a protest against President Trump’s immigration order Monday.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

The official letters, intended for wary Iranian authorities, were signed by Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie A. Leshin in hopes of aiding a PhD student and a postdoctoral fellow barred from reentering the United States.

“I am the president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the United States of America,” Leshin wrote in the letters issued to the students stuck in Iran. “I ask that anyone presented with this letter should provide [student’s name] with safe passage to travel to the United States in order to continue his studies at WPI.”

Leshin’s plea was among the many unusual steps that Massachusetts colleges were taking Monday as they scrambled to help students and academics whose careers and education have been thrown into chaos by President Trump’s executive order clamping down on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations.


For a state that prides itself on drawing the brightest minds from around the world, the order was a particularly heavy blow, and its full impact was still being tallied, three days after Trump issued it with little guidance or warning.

The most immediate fallout was felt by students and scholars who are stranded overseas, including two Iranian sisters, a mathematician and a philosopher, who were due to start positions at Harvard but were barred from boarding a plane at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Marzieh Asgari-Targhi, 44, is due to start a visiting scholar position at Harvard’s Philosophy Department, and Ameneh Asgari-Targhi, 34, has accepted a postdoctoral position at Harvard Medical School. A third sister, Mahboubeh Asgari-Targhi, already works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“We are all so shattered,” Ameneh said in a telephone interview Monday, after flying back to Glasgow, where she lives.

She said she and Marzieh may now try to enter the United States through Canada, hoping officials there will allow them to fly on their visas that are designed for visitors participating in work-and-study exchange programs.


“We are not going to give up,” Ameneh said. “We will do our best to find a way.”

Their sister said she was devastated the two were not allowed to join her at Harvard.

“I just don’t understand how this ban is going to keep terrorists away from this country,’’ Mahboubeh said. “I wish President Trump would put himself in our shoes.”

The order was also sowing anxiety and upheaval for academics from the affected countries who are already working and studying in Boston.

Mass Arts students Anisa Hosseinnezhad, left and Samantha Corsini, yelled at Boston University student Nick Fuentes, a supporter of President Trump on Monday.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Northeastern University said it was considering making campus housing available over the summer to 250 students from the seven countries affected by Trump’s immigration order — concerned that, if they leave the country they won’t be allowed back in.

Many scholars and researchers said they would be unable to travel abroad for conferences, job interviews, or family visits out of those concerns.

“It feels like being trapped in a prison,” said Sadaf Atarod, a postdoctoral associate at Boston University’s Center for Regenerative Medicine.

Atarod said her parents in Iran cannot visit because of Trump’s order, and she cannot leave the country because her student visa only allows her to enter the United States once.

Atarod, an Iranian who grew up in Dubai and the United Kingdom, said she rejected offers to work in the United Kingdom and Singapore and chose to come to Boston because the city is known as a global center of stem-cell research.


Now, she said, she regrets that decision. “Would I want to have a career here? Is it worth it?” she said. “At the moment, I don’t know.”

MIT officials said Monday they were still working to help two undergraduates who have been barred from the US because of Trump’s order.

The university did not disclose where those students were from, although it said it has a total of 47 students from the affected countries — including 38 from Iran and five from Syria.

“The executive order on Friday appeared to me a stunning violation of our deepest American values, the values of a nation of immigrants: fairness, equality, openness, generosity, courage,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in a letter to the campus community Monday.

MIT urged students from the affected countries who are traveling abroad to return to Boston as soon as possible and fly directly to Logan International Airport.

Logan is believed to offer greater protections for travelers because a decision issued Saturday by a federal judge in Boston barred US agents at the airport from detaining, deporting, or extensively interrogating travelers from the seven affected nations based on Trump’s order.

Boston University said it was seeking to help two research scholars from Iran who were expected in March but may not be able to travel to Boston and enroll, as scheduled.

The university said it is planning to make an immigration lawyer available to answer questions from anxious students and faculty at a town-hall meeting on Tuesday.


All told, BU said it has 102 students and 16 scholars from the affected countries.

Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com.