Space & Innovation

Sudanese Scientist Blocked from U.S. Travel Considers Handing Over Prestigious Award

Rania Abdelhameed cannot pick up her award at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference — so now she is thinking of handing it over to someone who can.

Over the weekend, as protestors gathered at airports across the country to denounce President Donald Trump's executive order banning citizens from seven, predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the United States, a young scientist in Sudan read the news in her local newspaper in disbelief.

Rania Abdelhameed, a 39-year-old electrical engineer at Sudan University of Science and Technology, has spent a large part of her career trying to improve the efficiency of radio transmission used in broadcast television. A standout scientist in her field, Abdelhameed is the recipient of an early-career award from the Organization for Women in Science from the Developing World.

She had plans to travel to Boston in February in order to present her research and receive the award at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest general science organization. The award, she said, came as an honor to her, her university, and her family.

Now, despite having a one-year, multiple-entry visa affixed in her passport, she is worried she will have no choice but to cancel her trip.

"It is not easy to work in Sudan, and after you do all the hard work, you receive a prize and you can't go to the ceremony only because you are from Sudan," said Abdelhameed. "It just doesn't make sense at all," she added. "What did we do?"

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The international scientific community is one of many reeling since President Trump made good on one of his more controversial campaign promises on Friday, placing a 90-day travel ban on all citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - countries considered by the administration to be especially "terror prone."

In addition, the order imposed an indefinite 120-day ban on refugees entering the United States and an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria.

The AAAS responded swiftly, warning that the move will impede the free flow of international scientific talent into the United States. Many scientists have already been affected by the order, while others have started to reconsider job offers from U.S. institutions.

"The detaining of students and scientists that have already been screened, processed, and approved to receive a visa to visit the United States is contrary to the spirit of science to pursue scholarly and professional interests," AAAS CEO Rush Holt said in a statement.

Holt worries that the order could have a domino effect, generally discouraging international scholars and students not only from studying or working in the United States, but also from attending conferences like the annual meeting of the AAAS.

The ban has sparked significant backlash from other high-profile organizations and academics. The president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ken Kimmel, called the ban "fundamentally at odds with our democratic principles and the values we stand for as a nation." He also noted that one of the union's founders, Kurt Gottfried, fled from Austria with his parents at the age of nine after German soldiers raided his home in the lead-up to WWII.

More than 12,000 academics, including 44 Nobel Laureates, have also signed an online petition calling for the immediate withdrawal of the travel ban, considering it to be "inhumane, ineffective, and un-American" as well as "detrimental to the national interests of the United States" in the long term.

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Abdelhameed entered the lottery for a green card last year in hopes that she could one day carry out her research in the United States. "Before, America was a dream," she said. "Now, I don't know."

She shares the belief that the executive order could have lasting impacts on the international scientific community.

"After this, [scientists] will see the U.S. differently," Abdelhameed said, adding that she was sorry to speak in these terms about a country she had long held in high esteem. "But, we will avoid any sort of work coming from the U.S. or that is part of it because we will not be able to know how things will end."

Over the weekend, the White House clarified that green-card holders from the seven countries would be exempt from the ban. And, on Monday, tensions once again rose as President Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she instructed Department of Justice lawyers not to enforce the executive order.

Shortly after, the president appointed lawyer Dana Boente as interim head of the department while the U.S. Senate considers his nominee to fill the post, Senator Jeff Sessions. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hold its final confirmation hearing today on Sessions.

As legal challenges to the executive order mount, Abdelhameed is waiting for a definitive response from the U.S. Embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Like her, the organizations helping to plan her travel to the United States are confused about the travel ban. Today, she plans to make another visit to the embassy in hopes she can speak to an official in person.

But if she cannot travel, she is already considering an alternative: asking the organization to give her award to the second or third person in line, a woman that is not blocked from entering the United States under the travel ban.

"It's not what my family wants," Abdelhameed said, "but maybe it is the right thing to do."

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