The first class I sat in on at the university in Kyrgyzstan where I now work was a seminar devoted to Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Around me, freshmen were busily discussing what the novel had to say about commodity fetishism in 1980s America — at not merely several decades’ remove but a continent’s. Located in the capital city, Bishkek, the American University of Central Asia blends local subject matter with content from its namesake. Students analyze the politics of Spike Lee movies and the prose of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”
Last month, news broke that, along with citizens of Myanmar, Eritrea and Nigeria, citizens of Kyrgyzstan will be barred from receiving visas to immigrate to the United States. Though the ban affects immigration-related travel — not travel for tourism, business or educational purposes — it is nonetheless chilling. For my colleagues here, the expansion of the ban deepened the paradox in which we find ourselves: We teach at a university emblazoned with the name of a country where our students would not be permitted to live. We impart to them American cultural ideals even as the United States signals that its culture must remain out of reach.
In Bishkek, the dominant reaction to Kyrgyzstan’s inclusion in the new travel ban was shock and disbelief, exacerbated by the dearth of reasons on offer. After all, Kyrgyzstan had until 2014 played host to an American military base — named after the Kyrgyz national hero, Manas, no less. (Russia had long chafed at the presence of the base, and it was a divisive subject in the country.) The timing of the travel ban seems sure to sour relations with the region at the very moment the U.S. State Department is unveiling a new Central Asia strategy.
But for the students whose essays I read, the ones I counsel through the rigors of their senior theses, the rejection feels awfully personal.
The students I advise write papers on the First Amendment; they pattern their Student Senate election posters after the campaign ads of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and get a break for Thanksgiving as well as for Nowruz, the Persian new year celebration. Above all, they are promised a liberal arts education grounded in the values of freedom, respect, openness and diversity — values framed, implicitly and explicitly, as American values. (The funders of the university include the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.) Now the Trump administration is effectively declaring that the United States will not be treating those students in a way that reflects those values.
For many of the students I work with, going to the United States is a dream they've long nursed — but also one that, even without a travel ban, is hard to achieve. It's not uncommon for some of our top students to be selected for a competitive study-abroad opportunity only to be denied a visa at the last minute, a blow that some students have to endure multiple times. Often, the decisions that come down from the U.S. Consulate seem arbitrary: one sibling granted a visa, the other turned away. And with the new restrictions — despite the nominal exemption for educational travel — their odds seem set to become even slimmer. When I met a friend of mine, a recent alumna, for coffee before the official ban came down, she launched into a breathless description of her plans to move to the United States next year for work. She hadn't read about the proposed travel ban; when I pulled up an article on my phone and showed it to her, she fell silent, the future she'd imagined dissolving like sugar in tea.
I cannot help but wonder what the administration’s image of Kyrgyzstan is. Do the imaginations of Trump officials have room for my friend, or for the students and faculty members I work with (who often have personal, professional and aspirational ties to the United States)? Given the references to “terrorists, criminals and fraudulent actors” in a recent Department of Homeland Security statement on the ban, it seems more likely that the image they have in mind is something more sinister (potential Islamic State recruits?) — the kind of blanket generalization, in short, that an American liberal arts education trains our students not to make.
I find the travel ban, and its implicit generalizations about Kyrgyzstan, impossible to square with the hospitality with which I have been greeted since arriving in Central Asia: saintly patience with my leaden-tongued Russian, gifts of honey, unfailing answers to my many questions about the city around me. Above all else, the desire to make me feel at home, to give freely of the place that is theirs. When a student informed me yesterday that she had been accepted for a summer internship in Washington, I tried to imagine how America would greet her. I wonder if the place I once lived will seem cold and uninviting. And I wonder what small version of home she will be able to make there in her American summer, before the time must come, inevitably, for her to leave.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated, incorrectly, that the U.S. Agency for International Development is the largest U.S. funder of the American University of Central Asia.