Although U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries has been temporarily suspended, the results of the ban continue to have an impact. Now, with talk of a revised version tailored specifically to avoid legal challenges in the works, those who oppose the order remain obstinate in their dissent.
Kim Misfeldt, German professor and Vice Dean at UAlberta’s Augustana campus, is just one of the numerous Canadian academics who have chosen to forgo attendance at international conferences held in the United States due to the ramifications of the ban. Most researchers posit the intellectual integrity of academic discourse as their main concern for choosing to boycott – simply put, if not everyone is permitted to attend the conference, how can it be recognized as a space for open discussion and the sharing of ideas? Misfeldt was concerned about free academic discourse, but her decision not to attend a conference held in the United States last weekend held an even deeper significance.
“I have spent my career – so twenty-five plus years – teaching students to critically examine stereotypes and prejudices,” Misfeldt said, explaining that teaching German every year inevitably leads to studying the Holocaust and those who resisted as well as the many citizens who chose not to take personal responsibility to fight against the Nazi regime.
“When I woke up that morning and started reading about the travel ban, to me it said “Okay, here we go again.” This is one step along the way; there already have been a number of steps. I have to do something – I have to take a stand.”
Misfeldt’s stand came in the form of boycotting an international study abroad conference that was being held in Houston, Texas over the weekend of Feb 10. Part of the study she was presenting, titled “After Coming Home: Study Abroad Returnees,” which was funded by her McCalla Professorship, looked at how after returning home a number of study abroad participants became more empathetic towards newcomers to Canada in terms of language and understanding Canadian culture. Many of them have also volunteered to work with international students or refugees upon returning, in part because of their experiences abroad.
For Misfeldt, attending this conference would oppose the very tenets of her research, and more generally, her entire academic career. Aside from choosing not to attend, she also wrote to the manager of the hotel where she was set to stay so that he would be aware of the reason behind her decision not to come, as well as the mayor of Houston, urging him to “fight discrimination in all its forms.”
The executive order has had an impact on Augustana students as well. Farshad Labbaff, a second year student born in Tehran, Iran, wrote in an editorial for the student magazine the Augustana Medium “The travel ban is personal to me.” In the piece, titled “The real effects of hateful politics”, Labbaff describes his initial reaction to the executive order and states that even though it was challenged and temporarily suspended Feb. 3, “For all-too-long a moment, I too was painted as a threat with a broad brush of hatred and intolerance.”
“We have a number of Muslim students, faculty and staff on this campus who are being told that they are second class citizens,” Misfeldt said. “I did not feel that I could walk past the people who couldn’t get on the plane and just get on it myself because my passport happens to be a passport that’s acceptable.”Misfeldt’s decision reaches beyond academic conferences. Travelling to the U.S. is completely off the table for her for the time being, though she concedes that this is not a choice possible for everyone to make.
“Everybody has to make the decision that makes the most sense for them. I’m not taking a stand to make other people feel guilty or anything like that, my point is to say that each individual can make a difference and find a way to stand up.”
Misfeldt mentions that “standing up” could include choosing to boycott conferences, or travel to the United States in general, writing to important figures, paying attention and educating yourself on American politics, supporting organizations that are standing in solidarity against actions like the executive order – including lawyers who have been volunteering their services at airports for those who were informed they wouldn’t be able to travel – and listening when others share their stories of the discrimination they have faced.
“We get paralyzed by the idea that “I’m just one person; there’s not much I can do,” Misfeldt states. “And in reality, there is.”