School tries to survive visa abuse

Egypt college seeks to uphold program that lost students

August 12, 2006|By GADI DECHTER | GADI DECHTER,SUN REPORTER

Even as federal agents continued their nationwide hunt to arrest and possibly deport his students, the president of Egypt's Mansoura University was preparing yesterday to send two more students to study in the United States - his sons.

Two of 11 Mansoura students who violated their student visas were captured this week in Dundalk, but five others remain unaccounted for, authorities said.

President Magdy Abou Rayan said the failure of the students to show up to a one-month academic program at Montana State University had damaged his plans for a burgeoning cross-cultural exchange, but pledged to continue promoting American culture to Egypt's rural Nile delta, where he said the incident has triggered a backlash against his university's exchange program in the fundamentalist Muslim press.

His first step will be to see off his two sons today to America, where Sharif Rayan, 23, is pursuing a master's degree in electrical engineering at Indiana's Purdue University, and Mohammed Rayan, 18, will begin college at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

The next step - persuading American universities and U.S. immigration authorities to take a chance on Mansoura University students again - will be far more difficult, Rayan acknowledged.

"But we will not stop the [exchange] program and we are looking to strengthen the cooperation with the American people," he said. "And also to have American students come to Egypt."

Rayan said State Department officials have assured him that the disappearance of the 11 students will not prejudice future student visa applications from Mansoura, but he said that "of course, sure" they will.

An official at Montana State University said the college would have to re-examine its relationship with Mansoura, which began this summer.

"Clearly there are some significant issues that have been raised by this issue," said David Dooley, the university's provost and vice president of academic affairs. "We are going to have to have a real heart-to-heart with representatives of Mansoura University and find out what happened."

It's no great mystery to Rayan.

"It's very simple. Most of the young people here think about the American dream. It's a problem," he said, laughing. "They dream to work and live in the United States, where they have better [pay] and better way of life."

Rayan said he has not talked to the six Mansoura students who were arrested this week - in Maryland, New Jersey, Minnesota and Illinois - but, like immigration agents, he believes they violated their visas with the intention of staying and working in the U.S.

Federal agents have repeatedly emphasized that they don't believe the Egyptians pose a security threat. When they are returned to Egypt, they might be expelled, Rayan said.

The university president has been in daily contact with the six Mansoura students who did make it to the Bozeman campus in Montana, where they are taking immersion courses in English language and American culture.

After the FBI initiated a nationwide search last week, those six students' reception at Montana State University turned "unfriendly," Rayan said the students told him. "They feel like they are not free," he said, adding that the students told him campus officials would not let them travel off campus without supervision.

After talking to them again yesterday evening, Rayan said the students reported being happier than they had been earlier in the week. Dooley said the Montana university was doing its best to make the Egyptian students comfortable under difficult circumstances. "It's not easy for these students, as they have been repeatedly interviewed by Homeland Security. They do suffer a bit ... but we're working hard to deliver to these students the kind of program that we designed for them."

Rayan said he is planning to visit the students in Montana when he travels to the United States next week.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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