Travel bans in Middle East restrict study abroad options

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Due to ongoing conflict in the the Middle East and new travel warnings issued by the U.S. State Department, the Occidental International Programs Office (IPO) recently revised its application process to be more stringent for several territories in the region, including Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The stricter application process has caused some students committed to traveling to these regions to take a leave of absence and enroll directly in foreign universities.

Occidental policy states that if the Department of State issues a travel warning in a country, the school cannot send students to that country without permission from the dean of students. Students have the option to appeal to the IPO to have their case reassessed so they can remain enrolled in their program.

In determining its decision, the office examines the individual study abroad program, personal information about the student and time frame of the travel warning, according to IPO Executive Director Robin Craggs. She noted these decisions can be difficult given how unpredictable the situations in certain countries can be.

“If things had changed one week, two weeks, a month into their program, we would be in a position of having to reassess,” Craggs said. “We would be obligated to bring them back to Occidental College and have them finish the semester with us.”

The IPO offers programs in five Middle Eastern countries: Israel, Jordan, Oman, Turkey and United Arab Emirates. Five students have applied to study abroad in the Middle East for the upcoming semester as of Sept. 8, according to Craggs, a small decrease from the six students who went last spring.

“There are so many options for study abroad now, the Middle East just isn’t drawing students,” Craggs said. “Can I say that it’s a direct result of the tensions in the areas? I’m afraid I cannot.”

The travel warnings affect Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) major Ali Goldberg (junior), who will leave for Haifa, Israel in October for her semester abroad. She knew before applying that there would be additional forms and signatures needed to be able to study abroad in Israel due to its long-standing travel warning. However, this summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas complicated her application process even further.

“The fighting broke out and basically what ended up happening was that I was told [by the IPO] that I probably wouldn’t be able to go,” Goldberg said.

The IPO rejected Goldberg’s initial appeal to study abroad due to the renewed violence in the region. Goldberg ultimately decided to take a leave of absence from Occidental and enroll directly through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program in Haifa, Israel. To her, having the opportunity to learn first-hand about the culture she focuses her studies on in school is crucial.

“I’m a DWA major and because I want my area of focus to be in the Middle East, I thought it was pretty instrumental that I go abroad in the Middle East. And, especially because I’m studying Arabic, I’d like to go to a country where I could really study it and learn it,” Goldberg said.

Although there is an official cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, there is still no guarantee that CIEE will hold its international study abroad program in Haifa, which is supposed to begin on Oct. 22.

“I’m just terrified that something is going to happen between now and then and CIEE will cancel its program and then I won’t be able to attend school for a semester,” Goldberg said.

But according to IPO, Goldberg’s case is rare, and appeal reassessment is only necessary when the travel warning is as high as Israel’s.

“The college is really in a position where, unless there is direct evidence that the student can be safe, we cannot officially sponsor a student,” Craggs said.

For DWA major Janan Burni (senior), who studied abroad in Oman and Jordan in the summer and fall of 2014, there was no additional process needed to apply to her programs.

“I went specifically because I’ve been studying Arabic since the beginning of high school and the Middle East is my focus through DWA so it made sense,” Burni said.

During her time abroad, the advisory committee issued a travel alert, a warning of potential conflict, but Burni’s studies were unaffected.

“There was a travel warning when I was in [Amman]. IPO contacted me to make sure I was okay. Jordan is a pretty stable country. I didn’t feel unsafe at all,” Burni said.

To Burni, living in the Middle East means being constantly aware of political affairs, but this directed attention is part of the educational experience of studying in a foreign country.

“There is a lot of stigma about the Middle East and about all the conflict, you know, ‘It’s so dangerous to be over there,’ but there’s so much more to it,” Burni said. “People just think it’s constant chaos, and it’s not the case. There are a lot of real issues happening, but there is so much more to people’s lives. Depending on where you live, your situation is different, too. We got to see a little bit of both.”