Declining Enrollment for Peacebuilding Program Blamed on Trump Climate

Apr 13, 2017

NPR reported last week that President Trump’s travel ban is having a “chilling effect” on international student enrollment at universities across the country. In Harrisonburg, that’s also true when it comes to potential participants in peacebuilding coursework. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Deqa -- she asked that I not use her last name -- is a Somali humanitarian worker focused on empowering girls to play greater leadership roles. In the context of Somalia’s “deepening drought” that has left millions of people facing an acute food shortage, she also helps to identify duplication and gaps in humanitarian response efforts.

This summer wouldn’t have been Deqa’s first trip to Harrisonburg for peace training -- but earlier this year Somalia was named in both travel ban executive orders.

DEQA: Myself, I am affected because for my own professional development and building my capacity to do my work, even for my own personal well-being. Like the course I was coming was specific to my own personal well being and people around me.

She had hoped this year to attend Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resistance training. The course is part of the Eastern Mennonite University Center for Justice and Peacebuilding’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute, or SPI, which offers five sessions of various courses that develop skills of resilience in the context of natural hazards, political instability, violence and terrorism; finding unique ways to analyze and respond to oppression; organizing and resolving conflicts in communities that are fractured and polarized; and more.

Deqa said that incurring the cost of getting a visa, which for a Somali requires two separate trips into Kenya or Djibouti, was simply too much of a gamble this year. That’s because even though the travel ban is on hold due to multiple court challenges, its confusing fallout casts doubt on whether or not she actually would have been able to get to SPI, even if she would have been able to obtain a visa.

DEQA: It was concerns that I had on what’s going to happen. It’s quite uncertain because now it’s on hold. It’s not completely stopped. So you don’t know tomorrow whether another executive order will come out, and then you will be affected by that order, by that ban again, so that's the confusion that I had.

Nationwide, thirty-eight percent of U.S. universities say that their international enrollment is down. At EMU, SPI’s Director Bill Goldberg is feeling the chill.

GOLDBERG: We usually get people at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute from several of the countries that were on the travel bans, people from Iraq, people from Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan. These are the places around the world where there is a lot of violent conflict and the people who are coming are coming here to get the skills to help decrease that conflict.

International applications to SPI are 20% lower this year, Goldberg says. That’s at least in part because of the ban, as in Deqa’s situation, but it’s also because of fear of the broader climate.

GOLDBERG: There’s a woman from Kenya who was planning on coming here and taking our course on violent extremism and getting some work on trauma and on mediation. Her goal was to go back home and negotiate between Al-Shabab and try and get them to be less violent. Her stated reason for not even applying for a visa to come to the U.S. was that she was afraid of how she would be treated in the U.S. So this is a woman who’s willing to negotiate with what we consider a terrorism group in Kenya, but she’s afraid to come to Harrisonburg because she’s afraid of how she’ll be treated in Customs in the airport. If she gets a visa. Maybe she’ll be denied upon entry just because she’s from Kenya.

The enrollment downturn is also affecting SPI’s finances, Goldberg says. And while a last-minute uptick in domestic applications could improve the program’s overall numbers this year, the reduction in international applicants also takes an emotional toll: people whom SPI staff know -- and who are risking their lives, even, to improve difficult situations in their home countries -- can’t or are afraid to come to the U.S.

GOLDBERG: These are not people scamming their way into the country. These are people whose stated goal for my program and for the other programs at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding are to come, get peacebuilding skills, go home and use them in their community to make their communities better and safer places, and they’re being stopped.

For Deqa in Somalia, the ban doesn’t make sense.

DEQA: It’s counterproductive in the sense that the people who are trying to do something about the problems in that country are being affected by that ban that they can’t come here to develop themselves and then go back to their own countries to do something about the issues they are having.

Her work continues; as for attending the SPI course, she says, 'Maybe next time.'