Washington, DC – Thirteen years ago, when Shayan Karimi was 11 years old, he begged his parents for a guitar. Around the same time, a relative introduced him to Elton John and Pink Floyd. From that point on, Karimi knew he wanted to be a musician.
In late 2016, his dream moved closer to reality when he was awarded a partial scholarship to study music at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Owing to the absence of a US embassy in Iran, Karimi travelled to Dubai to apply for a visa later that year. He arrived in the United States in January 2017, bringing with him a financial plan for the next four years.
But months of renewed US sanctions and US President Donald Trump‘s travel ban have made life challenging for Iranian students at American universities.
Trump’s decision last May to formally withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement triggered a currency crisis that hammered the value of the Iranian rial.
More pain followed in November after the re-imposition of oil and financial sanctions ushered in banking restrictions that have made direct wire transfers to and from the country all but impossible.
Many students, including Karimi, have struggled to afford tuition and living expenses.
“I came to Berklee with a financial plan for a four-year programme, and it made sense with the exchange rate when I left Iran,” he told Al Jazeera, but “with this devaluation, it doesn’t make sense any more.”
Karimi added, “It has been very challenging and frustrating. The money we had in Iran isn’t worth much any more”.
Karimi, who said he was already working the maximum number of hours permitted under his F1 visa, found himself stretched thin. He struggled to find the money to pay his living costs and tuition expenses not covered by his partial scholarship.
With no other options, Karimi did what many others like him have had to do: He turned to crowdfunding his education on GoFundMe.
So far, he has raised about $8,000, less than one-third of his intended goal. Despite this, he said he remains hopeful about the campaign, especially after several Iranian celebrities shared his page on their social media accounts.
Iranian strudents’ struggle
Karimi is not alone.
Leila Austin, president of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), said her organisation has received a surge of requests from students looking for help.
“We had students reaching out to us, calling and explaining the situation of struggling to pay tuition because of devaluation of currency and the difficulties in transferring money from Iran to the US because of the re-imposition of sanctions,” she told Al Jazeera.
“If they don’t have the money to pay for their tuition, they will no longer be enrolled at a US university and would then have to go back to Iran,” she added.
Hedieh*, an undergraduate engineering student in New York City, has made handmade hats and gloves to raise money for her tuition.
“Before the [reimposition of] sanctions, my parents were sending me money, but they can’t any more,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Ever since the [reimposition of] sanctions, my father said he can’t send dollars any more. It is a really high conversion rate,” she added.
Studying in New York had been Hedieh’s dream her entire life. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who had studied in the US in the 1970s. “Because of her stories, I wanted to follow her path and experiences – she always spoke highly about being in America.”
If Hedieh cannot pay for her tuition to keep her full-time student status, she risks the possibility of having to return to Iran before finishing her degree.
Hedieh said the financial situation has caused her immense anxiety, affecting her ability to focus and maintain her grades. “How can students focus on their studies and do well with this amount of stress?” she asked.
“I feel hopeless and worried. I had so many hopes but now I don’t feel confident any more. It’s an emotional rollercoaster,” Hedieh said.
There is no data showing how many students have been forced to leave the US due to insufficient funds, but according to the Institute of International Education’s 2018 report of Open Doors, 12,783 Iranian students are currently studying at US institutions.
In addition to the financial challenges, students faced another hurdle after Trump included Iran in a travel ban order, barring nationals from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.
In June 2018, in a 5-4 ruling, the US Supreme Court upheld the third iteration of the ban, which has suspended entry to nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, as well as North Korea and Venezuela.
Currently, the only visas being issued to Iranians are for students entering on F1 or J1 visas. Many receive only single-entry visas, meaning they must reapply if they leave the US.
Students have expressed frustration and disappointment that their parents could not visit during their studies and attend their graduation.
When Ali Taleghani left Iran in September 2016 to study in the US, he promised his mother he would return to visit her soon.
He had been accepted into a PhD programme in bioengineering at the University of Missouri.
“When I left Iran, I told my mother to not be upset, that I would be able to see her soon and come during the summer break,” the 32-year-old student told Al Jazeera, but Taleghani has not been able to go home or have his mother visit because of the challenges in place.
There were already several barriers to Iranian students attending American universities: application fees, test fees for entrance exams like the SAT or TOEFL, and the need to visit a consulate outside of Iran to obtain a visa.
In December 2018, the University of Reading in the UK told Iranian student Parsa Sadat to retrun to Iran to obtain $6,898 in cash to pay his tuition.
Meanwhile students like Karmimi do their best to try and navigate the geopolitical storm that threatens to derail their studies.
“This is out of our control. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves from this,” Karimi said.
“We wouldn’t be struggling if it weren’t for [the sanctions] – it has completely changed our lives.”
*The individual’s name has been changed at her the request to protect her privacy.