They left their families in Yemen nearly three years ago through an exchange program that aimed to introduce Muslim high school students from overseas to America. But when civil war broke out at home, they couldn’t return, and what was supposed to be a 10-month visit turned into an indefinite stay.
Now the State Department — which sponsored the program and has supported these two dozen students since they arrived in 2014 — has notified them that they’ll be on their own in a few months.
For these Yemeni students, most of them thousands of miles away from their nearest relatives, that means no more housing or living stipends, and no more community-college tuition aid. Perhaps most important, it also means no more student visas. That will leave many of them facing the prospect of losing their legal status as visitors at a time when President Trump has pledged heightened immigration enforcement.
“I don’t only have to look for a place to stay and a way to pay for myself and a way to pay for my education, but now I also have to worry about racism and legal status,” said Taima Aliriani, 17, who graduated from high school in Indiana and is now at Northern Virginia Community College. “I applied for asylum, but right now I feel like I’m probably not going to get it.”
Aliriani is one of six Yemeni exchange students who were trapped here by their country’s civil war and are now at NOVA. Six others are at community colleges in Wisconsin, and a dozen are studying in Washington state.
Last month, a week after he took office, Trump signed an executive order that barred refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Yemen was one of them.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has temporarily blocked enforcement of the order, but the new administration’s push to bar citizens of those nations has terrified many Muslims, including the Yemeni exchange students who wonder what is next for them.
“We don’t know what we are going to do,” said Hamzah Alameer, 18, who attends Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis. “When May comes, we all are broke and don’t have places to live. We’re basically going to be living on the street. For us, that is really scary.”
Nathan Arnold, a State Department spokesman, said the agency made what arrangements it could to allow the students to stay in the country two years after their initial program ended. The agency has sought to ensure that the students understand their options for the future, he said.
“We want to acknowledge the amazing resilience and adaptability these students have demonstrated in this difficult situation,” Arnold said. “We have a vested interest in them — and we want to help them as much as we can.”
Kim Kraft, who previously was a program adviser for some of the students and now helps them as a friend and volunteer, said she wishes the government would do more. For the 24 affected students, their federal support and visas are set to expire after their spring semesters.
“These students are amazing young adults with promising futures, but I worry whether they are ready to be on their own in this country and if they really know what that involves,” said Kraft, who launched a GoFundMe page for the students with the goal of raising $2,000 each to help with living expenses and immigration fees.
“The State Department supported the students for the past three years, which was the right thing to do. Now, they should provide help with transitional costs and logistics to ensure the students’ basic needs will initially be met as they make this transition to adulthood and independent living.”
The students lived with host families and attended high school for the 2014-2015 school year, their first in the United States. Civil war broke out in Yemen in early 2015 after Shiite insurgents known as Houthis took the capital, Sanaa, and forced out the president. The Houthis then pushed south, besieging the port city of Aden, and the Yemeni students in the United States transitioned from high school to college.
A coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia and aided by the United States has conducted a bombing campaign in an effort to drive the Houthis back, killing more than 10,000 people and displacing more than 3 million, according to the United Nations.
Food, electricity and clean drinking water are scarce in Yemen, and it’s become impossible for many people to work, as the bombs have destroyed not just military targets but also businesses, factories and warehouses.
Alameer said he would love to go back to Yemen, but there is no future there.
“When you talk to your parents, first thing you ask is are they safe or not?” he said. “I miss them every day more and more, and I don’t know what’s going to happen for them because people die every day, every second in Yemen.”
He dreams of becoming a dentist, receiving U.S. citizenship and finding a way to bring his family to this country, where they would be safe. But that dream feels fragile now. He doesn’t know how he will support himself after June, much less pay for tuition or secure the right to stay here legally.
Students say returning to Yemen would be a death sentence, as anti-Western forces would see them as enemies after nearly three years in the United States.
“I love this country,” said Ali Alsallamni, 19, who is studying at Washington state’s Edmonds Community College. “If I go back, there is a high chance I will not be alive, because I have lived in the States for a long time and I have changed. I am more open-minded.”
At least two students left the exchange program after the first year to apply for asylum based on the threat of violence in Yemen. Ahmed Abdulghaffar said he was relieved to receive asylum in 2015, but the legal fees amounted to thousands of dollars, which he scraped together from family and friends.
He is taking college classes in Florida, working toward his dream of becoming a dentist. But he said he feels bad about depending so heavily on other people. The family of a woman who helped coordinate his exchange has taken him in, since he had nowhere else to go.
“I feel like I’m putting pressure on people,” he said.
Many of the students are grappling with homesickness at the same time they are fighting to stay in this country. “I would rather live on the street than go back to Yemen at this time,” said Talal Abdullah, 20, who is studying aeronautical engineering at Edmonds. “It’s quite unsafe.”
Akram Farag, 19, who is studying at NOVA, applied for temporary protected status, which allows citizens of certain countries, including Yemen, to stay and work in the United States. But he was denied, and now he worries about what comes next.
He does not want to stay illegally, but he doesn’t know any other options. “The situation is devastating back home. It’s not like it used to be. They’re worried about surviving,” Farag said. “I would obviously like to go back and help rebuild . . . but for now, I want to stay in a safe environment.”