Dozens planned to come from across the globe to EMU for peace building training. But many got blocked.

By Nzar Sharif, contributor

By Nzar Sharif, contributor

For almost 25 years, the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU has hosted  scholars, delegates and community leaders from around the world to Harrisonburg to explore the nature of conflicts and ways to handle them. But this summer, many aspiring peacebuilders got turned away because the U.S. government wouldn’t approve travel visas so they could enter the country to attend the sessions, which ran from May 13-June 14.

In all, 20 people were denied a visa to this summer’s program, said Bill Goldberg, the institute’s director. 

Over the last decade, the program has had an average of between 150 and 200 participants taking classes each year. Last year, for instance, the program had 177 participants, including 101 people from around the U.S and 76 from other countries. 

“Numbers of international participants have declined steadily over the last decade, but the drop has been dramatic since the last presidential election,” Goldberg said.

To attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, international applicants can apply for tourist visas, exchange visitor visas or F1-visas, which are for students.

Goldberg said he couldn’t easily summarize the reasons for so many denied requests, although he said requests from certain countries seem to be more commonly rejected. 

For instance, he said while Pakistanis have had a difficult time getting approved for many years, it’s now “almost impossible.” Applicants from Ghana, Kenya and South Africa used to be “easy” to get approved but that has changed in recent years, and those from Nepal used to be “almost automatic” but those applying to the SPI have almost uniformly been rejected over the last three years, Goldberg said.  

In two cases this year, an applicant from Ghana and one from Cameroon paid their visa fees, showed up to their interview at their respective U.S. consulate offices and were each turned away, Goldberg said. 

The applicant from Cameroon was told the U.S. Embassy there was “no longer giving visas to the U.S.,” while the applicant from Ghana was told the U.S. Embassy had exhausted its quota of tourist/business visas, even though Goldberg noted there is no such quota

However, the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé, Cameroon, continues to issue visas, including 359 nonimmigrant U.S. visas in June and 26 of them were student visas, according to a State Department official who answered The Citizen’s questions on background. The official said international students “are a priority” for the State Department. 

“We recognize the important contribution these students make to our college and university campuses, the positive impact they have on U.S. communities and the rich benefits of academic cooperation in increasing cultural understanding and furthering research and knowledge,” the official told The Citizen

Overall in the last fiscal year, 74 percent of student visa applications won approval and 92.5 percent of exchange visitor visas, which also are sometimes used by prospective students at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, were approved, the official said. 

Most of the participants in this year’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute said they were afraid to share with The Citizen details about their visa processes because they were worried how it might affect their ability to get one in the future. 

One applicant who asked not to be named said in an email that the visa request was denied with little explanation. 

“I am writing to let you know I was not granted a visa to attend SPI 2019.  The consular officer did not interview me nor accept to look at my paperwork. All he said was that they are not issuing visas at this moment. This is disappointing,” the applicant wrote. 

Another applicant notified EMU officials earlier this spring when the applicant found out the U.S. government wouldn’t grant her request. 

“With a heavy heart, I have to tell you that my visa application was rejected again today. The reason given for this was having no ‘fair intention to go to the US.’ 

I feel such a big loss,” she wrote when she learned she wouldn’t be able to attend peacebuilding classes after all. 

Difficulty obtaining U.S. visas isn’t a new issue, but it’s become more pronounced in the last few years. For instance, in March 2017, a conference on economic development in Africa at the University of Southern California went on without the 60 invited guests from African nations because they couldn’t get visas, as NPR reported

Ripple effects

Fewer visa approvals affected EMU and the program in several ways. The participant rate used to be 60 percent domestic and 40 percent international, but in the last few years, the share of international participants has declined to 30 percent, Goldberg said in an email interview. 

“International participants bring a wide variety of cultural and religious diversity to SPI as well as a vast worldview,” he said. “One of SPI’s strengths have always been gathering perspectives from around the world and that is difficult with less international participants.”

And because 20 people accepted into the program weren’t allowed into the country, that accounted for between 40-50 empty seats in courses, Goldberg said.  That worked out to be about $50,000 – $60,000 in lost tuition income and potentially another $20,000 in room and board feeds, he told The Citizen.  

Last-minute visa problems also lead to late withdrawals from the program. And courses generally require 12-15 people to be “financially viable,” Goldberg said, and those cancellations from students denied visas can sometimes drop enrollment to 10 or fewer. 

Usually Summer Peacebuilding Institute starts in early May and the last sessions will end in late June. The courses that are taught in SPI vary, but can include faith-based peacebuilding, monitoring and evaluation, organizational leadership, playback theater, conflict analysis, program and project management, reconciliation and restorative justice.

Notable alumni of the program include Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee, as well as Farida Aziz, the Afghan peace and women’s rights activist, who took three courses in SPI in 1999 and returned in 2003 for a fourth. And Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who later became Somalia’s president, attended the SPI in 2001. 

The core idea behind SPI is a belief that individuals who are working to build peace and justice in all parts of the world can learn from each other, transfer their knowledge and experiences. And, through the classes, they can gain a better understanding of challenges and opportunities while learning practical skills that promote change in their communities.

But this goal becomes more difficult if international participants are increasingly limited, Goldberg said. 

EMU also has heard from several people around the world who decided not to even apply because they assume they won’t get a visa or they’re concerned about being mistreated once they arrive in the U.S. “because of the way they look or dress or speak,” Goldberg said. 

And the financial effect of visa denials doesn’t just stop at EMU but also affects Harrisonburg. In the past, many international participants go shopping and buy items to take back home and spend money on activities such as movies and eating out at local restaurants.

Reasons behind the denials

While EMU officials have had difficulty pinpointing the main reasons for visa denials, there are certain categories that applicant needs to fit in order to be eligible to obtain a U.S visa. 

For instance, the applicant needs a strong reason to visit the U.S or could have a family, job or financial reasons that would tie applicant to their home country, making it less likely to the U.S. consulate that the applicant would overstay the visa.  

“But this usually comes from the consular officer not even speaking to the individual,” Goldberg said. “I understand that the entire process is incredibly degrading, people having at most 30 seconds to plead their case through a small speaker in bulletproof glass.  And usually being denied without the consular officer even looking at their paperwork.”

EMU even solicited the help of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine to send letters of support on behalf of aspiring participants. Such approaches used to help. But not in the last three years, Goldberg added. 

The lack of financial means has been a detriment to those who were relying on scholarships or tuition paid for by other organizations, Goldberg said. 

“We have had individuals with families, including several small children as well as letters from their employer about the skills they will bring back to use at their job denied for not having enough ties to their country,” he said. 

— Ryan Alessi contributed to this article with the comments from the U.S. State Department. 

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