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Syrian student, embraced by Canada, opts for U.S. after Trump order halted

Syrian embraced by Canada opts for U.S.

OTTAWA — Canada became a brief beacon of hope for Alaa Alsabeh of Syria after his plan to study engineering in Michigan was shattered by Donald Trump's executive order banning nationals from seven countries, including his.

Until it wasn't.

For one, long, chaotic week, Canada appeared as possible oasis, an attractive Plan B, for the 23-year-old Syrian student as it appeared he had no hope of taking Wayne State University up on its offer to have him pursue graduate-level studies there.

Questions persist about the future of travel to the U.S. for people from the seven predominantly Muslim countries; on Thursday, a federal appeals court refused to reinstate the ban, setting the stage for a trip to the Supreme Court.

Amid the uncertainty, Canadian universities have been touting the potential of a so-called "brain gain" of foreign students for Canada. But the story of this one Syrian, determined to follow his dream in the U.S., casts a new light on those potentially lucrative recruiting aspirations.

After Trump's Jan. 27 executive order, Alsabeh received an email from the U.S. Embassy cancelling his appointment for a visa. A week later, after a U.S. federal judge ordered a halt to Trump's order, he received a fresh State Department invitation to reapply.

In that intervening week, Canada showed him the love. A Canadian consultant tried to connect him with various universities after originally reading about him in the Washington Post. A McMaster University dean reached out to him after the two connected on Twitter.

Still, Alsabeh opted for Plan A â€” applying to go to the U.S. But he'll never forget Canada.

"Now that I can apply once again, I'll take my chances," he told The Canadian Press from Cyprus. "I'll never forget who was there for me when no one was: Canadian people."

The highs and low that Alsabeh experienced mirrored the confusion unleashed at U.S. airports and across Canada and the world after Trump banned entry for 90 days to citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries.

Alsabeh, the eldest of three children, weathered the Syrian civil war by getting his undergraduate degree in Syria before leaving his family behind and going to Cyprus.

He's wanted to be an engineer since he was teenager, when he would accompany his father to construction sites.

"I felt this would absolutely be the best place to change the world as a kid," he said.

"But as I grew up and the war started in Syria, I've seen a lot of destruction â€” massive destruction in Syria â€” so I feel like I am obligated to be an engineer to help rebuilding the new Syria and being part of that.

"That's my dream â€” building the new Syria, soon."

Dr. Ishwar K. Puri, dean of engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, had a recent conversation with Alsabeh.

Puri declined to discuss the specifics of their talk, but made it clear in an interview McMaster was willing to take a long look at Alsabeh; its doors remained open to anyone regardless of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, among other things.

"The story that came to us was: here's a young man who wants to pursue a career in engineering but his dreams have been thwarted because of certain international circumstance," Puri said.

He said there's been a spike in applications from foreign students at McMaster from a variety of countries, not just the seven that were the subject of Trump's order.

"People have a fear that if one community is being targeted today, another community may be targeted tomorrow,"he said. 

"Whether those actual applications will become realities, actual registrations this fall, I don't know."

Alsabeh said his decision to forgo Canada was based on the fact he has family in Detroit who can support him during his studies. He doesn't have a network in Canada, but he knows he'd be welcome based on the country's reputation for tolerance.

"We always considered America a great place, while Canada was the greatest among all countries in the world," he said.

"We always heard about Muslims being treated in a very great way — people with different races. I've always considered Canada ranked first for me."

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version described Puri as McMaster's dean of mechanical engineering.