Khaled Almilaji has been stranded in Turkey since January. His wife, pregnant with their first child, is waiting at their home in Rhode Island. His classes at Brown University’s School of Public Health are well into the second semester. Ever since his student visa was revoked, he has been trying to keep up, somehow, from across the ocean.
After a federal judge froze President Trump’s executive order on immigration this month, Almilaji had more hope of getting back to his wife. But he understands his new reality as a Syrian trying to study in the United States: “I have to accept being lost between orders and anti-orders.”
Suddenly, Canada is looking like a really good option.
“Canada is having a moment,” Ted Sargent, vice president-international at the University of Toronto, said last month. “It is a time of opportunity.”
Applications from international students have increased at universities across the country, said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada.
The number of international students coming to Canada doubled in the past decade. But in the last year, a number of events globally have added to its appeal for some students. The Brexit vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and the U.S. election, seem to have been factors, Davidson said.
Traffic to the Universities Canada website, an entry point for many people looking for more information about schools in the country, has doubled since November. Many of the most elite Canadian universities had large increases in applications from the United States: Up 25 percent at McGill, 35 percent at McMaster.
At the University of Toronto, U.S. applications increased almost 80 percent this year.
Rebekah Robinson, a high school senior from Severn, Md., was drawn to Toronto for its academic reputation and climate, as well as the diversity in the city. As an African American at a predominantly white school who hopes to one day be a translator working in diplomacy, she found the ethnic mix particularly appealing.
And she’s not a Donald Trump supporter, so his presidential win made Canada look even better. “After the election, when more and more things were happening — it just seemed like a really great idea,” she said.
Andrew Hong, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, is going to the Toronto next fall as well, eager to study artificial intelligence at a top-ranked university. The exchange rate makes it particularly affordable, he said. (At the current exchange rate, tuition and fees are about $13,000 less for an international student’s first year at the University of Toronto than they would be at Harvard, and $11,000 less than out-of-state rates at the University of Virginia.)
Hong wasn’t thinking much about Trump when he was considering which colleges to apply to, either. But given election results he doesn’t agree with, he said, “maybe going to another country would be nice for a change.”
The flow of students has traditionally been greater from north of the border to south. U.S. colleges have more than double the number of students from Canada than the roughly 10,000 American students who are in Canadian schools, according to the Institute of International Education. One reason for that disparity is the sheer number of universities in the United States, said Rajika Bhandari of the institute. But there are signs of greater interest from Americans.
Recent changes to immigration policy make it easier for international students to study in Canada and remain there, Bhandari noted.
The University of Toronto has been actively recruiting outside the country, with several events around the United States this spring, including one in Bethesda, Md., next month. Sargent said international applicants provide a few reasons for choosing the school, usually starting with its academic excellence — by one ranking, it is among the top five public institutions in the world — and the sense that studying abroad, and at UT specifically, will enhance their ability to get a job.
Many also like that the university, and the country, are so global.
“A lot of people know that half of the people in Toronto were not born in Canada,” Sargent said. “Canada is a place that is focused on attracting talent from around the world.”
The university has long signaled that its doors were open to the world, he said. “That messaging about diversity and inclusivity is very resonant today.”
During his campaign, Trump promised to strengthen national security and tighten the border, calling for a ban on Muslim immigration until the country could impose more stringent vetting procedures. In January, he vowed to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the country when he signed an executive order on immigration. “We don’t want them here,” he said. “We want to make sure we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.”
The order was frozen by federal court order, as was a subsequent order to stop the issuance of new visas for citizens of six Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, suspend the refugee program for 120 days, and allow case-by-case waivers for some people.
After Trump signed the first order, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a very different message on social media: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”
Universities Canada also responded to the ban, with a statement saying the schools welcome students, faculty and staff from around the world. “They strengthen Canada’s university communities, bringing new knowledge, talent and skills to higher education, research and innovation — to the benefit of all Canadians.
“Universities Canada does not typically comment on executive action being taken by another country, but we do so today because of the real impediment this new executive order poses to the free flow of people and ideas and to the values of diversity, inclusion and openness that are hallmarks of a strong and healthy society.”
That wasn’t just rhetorical support, Davidson said; some schools offered to waive application fees for students who were affected by the order, and to consider transcripts of those hoping to complete academic work in Canada.
During the two days after the first executive order was signed, the number of page views for the University of Toronto’s website for prospective students doubled.
In interviews after the first order, some students and faculty from affected countries said that if the ban were upheld, they would likely consider moving to Canada, or perhaps the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe. Some had already been contacted by academic colleagues in Canada.
That’s what happened to Almilaji. Even as Brown officials and other leaders worked to help him return, some of the doctors with whom he had been doing humanitarian work urged him to transfer to the University of Toronto.
Almilaji is anxious to reunite his family. His education has urgency as well: A native of Aleppo, the 35-year-old had planned to go to Germany to study for a specialty in head and neck surgery before the conflict in Syria erupted. Then, as he saw protesters shot in the streets, his work turned to public health. He was arrested in 2011.
“He was imprisoned and tortured, with no charges,” said Terrie Fox Wetle, dean of Brown’s School of Public Health. “He had fingers broken, ribs broken. The complaint was that he was providing medical care to women and children, delivering babies to rebels.”
When he was released, he fled to Turkey and founded the medical office of the humanitarian arm of the opposition forces from a city very close to the border. Their efforts identified the outbreak of polio in northern Syria, he said, and helped get vaccines to more than a million children to stop the disease from spreading as refugees fled. He helped build hospitals underground, where they would be safer from attacks.
Wanting to improve his ability to help, he joined the two-year master’s in public health program at Brown. He had just finished his first semester when he took a quick trip to Turkey for some paperwork and to check on the humanitarian work.
A snowstorm shut down the Istanbul airport for several days, delaying his flight back. During that time, his visa was revoked, and Trump’s first executive order temporarily banned people from seven countries, including Syria, from entering the United States. “That was when the suffering for me started,” he said.
Wetle said she understands the need to keep the country safe, but is sorry that Almilaji is caught up in this larger effort. She has seen the vetting of his application to study here, “18 different steps — the U.N., the consulate, background checks, letters from trusted references. I don’t know what we’re protecting by revoking his visa.”
His imprisonment and the trauma he has seen didn’t seem to embitter him, Wetle said, describing him and his wife, who is also a doctor, as warm and kind.
“My three-and-a-half-year-old grandson was all over him,” Wetle said.
“If I were in that circumstance,” she added, “and there were a country that had exhibited such a negative view about my country and my people and my religion, I would be very concerned about making a major personal and financial commitment to that country when there were other options that might be open.”
Almilaji said he had been learning so much, collaborating with researchers at Brown and Harvard. “I would love to come back, and complete my master’s in public health at Brown. But anyone would do some kind of Plan B.…”
The University of Toronto has offered him a scholarship, he said. In the next few weeks, he will decide his family’s future.
“If I don’t get the visa, I’ll be in Canada.”