Last weekend, MIT mechanical engineering student Niki Mossafer Rahmati boarded a flight from Tehran to Boston with a connection in Doha, Qatar. While she was in transit, President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Iran included, from entering the US. Rahmati, who holds a valid student visa according to MIT’s campus newspaper, was blocked from boarding her flight in Qatar.
Yesterday, on a frigid Boston afternoon, 200 MIT students and faculty gathered under the school’s Great Dome to show solidarity with Rahmati and other students, staff, faculty, and family affected by the order. After a few words of support from the Chancellor and student organizers, the group, many of whom weren’t politically active before, marched across the Harvard Bridge to join thousands of Boston protesters rallying against the ban.
In Copley Square, amidst a sea of demonstrators — some leading chants, others passing out food, some simply offering free hugs to anyone walking by — MIT freshman Claudia Chen climbed up a concrete post just outside of the Boston Public Library and held a cardboard sign up over the crowd that read “You are welcome here!” She was beaming from ear to ear and when she climbed down, she laughed as her friend, Patricia Lu, another MIT freshman, held up a sign that simply had a heart drawn on it.
This was the first protest either Chen or Lu have attended. Like many others interviewed for this story, they felt compelled to political action out of a mix of solidarity with Rahmati, fear for families who don’t have the support of a major academic institution, and apprehension over Trump’s recent orders preventing EPA and USDA researchers from speaking with the press.
“I think a lot of the reason why [Trump] was successful is because people didn’t take him seriously. Now he’s doing all of these things that make you realize he’s going through with what he said,” Chen explains. “The fact that he signed an executive order and it has a direct effect on people who should be here, I think that makes it much more real for me.”
As Trump’s actions ripple through the scientific community — whether by freezing grants and contracts awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency, preventing scientists from predominantly Muslim countries from traveling, or questioning the reality of human-made global warming — researchers and academics at institutions across the country are becoming more politically active and seeking to protect their own. At schools like MIT, where 42 percent of graduate students are international and 7 percent of scholars hail from the Middle East, the effects of Trump’s immigration ban are felt throughout campus. It is inspiring those who might not otherwise engage in political action to come out of the woodwork, face the Boston cold, and march with their fellow scientists.
“To see academics, researchers, students be turned away at the borders, prevented from coming back to their work and getting their educations, I think is a disgrace,” one MIT staff member said under the condition of anonymity. “I’m here to support everybody who’s affected by this ban in the academic community.”
MIT student groups have demonstrated for issues like Black Lives Matter and fossil fuel divestment, but rallies aren’t frequent — a pattern that Chen believes might be reflective of the larger scientific community. And indeed, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has objected to the ban as well.
“I think historically scientists try to stay away from the political sphere because they’re like, ‘I’m just going to do my science and I’m not going to really try and get myself involved with something that’s not as objective as science,’” Chen says. When politics start affecting their line of work, it’s time to get involved.
Dan Goodman, an MIT alumni and current post doc at Harvard Medical School, should be working on a grant proposal that’s due in three days. Instead, he’s holding a poster that reads “Hate will not make us secure.” Goodman has three Iranian researchers working in his lab. He says that he’s worried about their futures as well as the broader repercussions a sustained ban would have on research.
“We'll be losing out on amazing talent,” Goodman says. “It's shortsighted for so many reasons. It's going to really hurt America's primacy in the sciences."
Federal judges in Boston have issued a seven-day hold on enforcement of the immigration ban for valid visa and green card holders, giving academics a small window to expedite return trips to the US. But as reports of detained scholars trickle in and incoming freshmen from banned countries question whether they’ll be allowed to attend college at all, effects of the order hit closer and closer to home for students, pushing those who haven’t protested before into the arena.
Jesus Mathus and Alfredo Yanez are in that category. Sandwiched in between one cluster of protesters chanting “This is what democracy looks like” and another cluster playing bucket drums, the MIT seniors said that they got a tiny taste of the ban’s effects the night before when Mathus was detained for two and half hours at Logan International Airport after de-boarding a flight from Greece. Returning from an internship with the aid organization, Help Refugees, Mathus, a US citizen of Mexican descent, was held while authorities performed a lengthy background check. As Mathus was detained, Yanez waited outside, unsure of when his friend would be released.
“I thought if I’m getting this mad over literally just sitting here, I can’t imagine what people that are actually prevented from coming in are feeling like,” Mathus said.
Alfredo Yanez adds that MIT administration has been supportive of students from countries listed on the ban and those that are concerned for their peers.
“They’ve been constantly reaching out to us and telling us that they’re doing whatever they can to bring these people back to classes,” Yanez says.” We feel that the administration supports the people, the students. I’m actually very proud of that.”
As Yanez and Mathus walk away, a group of four young girls take each other’s hands and yell, “No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!” Academia hopes to impart the same message to its community because, as MIT physics professor Krishna Rajagopal wrote in an email to faculty before the rally, “We are one community; this affects us all.”
Anna Nowogrodzki contributed to this report.
The author works for MIT in an administrative capacity and volunteers on voter engagement initiatives. She had no connection to any MIT affiliated sources prior to this interview.