COLUMBIA — Ali Siavosh-Haghighi spent 10 years without seeing his family in Iran.
A research professor and recent post-graduate student at MU, Siavosh-Haghighi said he could not leave the U.S. risk-free until he had received a green card. Because of a strict visa process, Iranian students who leave the U.S. might not be able to return.
When Siavosh-Haghighi was finally able to go home in 2009, a decade had passed. He said he felt disconnected from his relatives, whom he had communicated with only by phone and Internet.
"It was hard to even recognize my brother," Siavosh-Haghighi, 42, said. His family even kept from him "matters of sorrow" for fear of disrupting his studies.
Iranian students must apply for a new visa each time they re-enter the country, and the visas last only three months, according to the U.S. State Department.
Although they are allowed to stay as long as they are a student — even after the visa has expired — leaving the country can be risky because they might not be able to get back.
Because of the relationship between the U.S. and countries like Iran, he is not alone in this situation.
Along with Cuba, Sudan and Syria, Iran is considered a state sponsor of terrorism, according to the State Department.
There is no Iranian embassy in the U.S. and no American embassy in Iran. For that reason, Iranian students wishing to obtain a U.S. visa are advised to go to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates because consular officials there speak Farsi, said David Currey, director of international student & scholar services at MU.
Students must bring a notice issued by MU that they are eligible for a visa and then submit to a physical interview with a consular official, Currey said. If their request is denied, it is often based on a lack of evidence that they intend to return to their home country, he said.
The International Center generally advises students to remain here, even if they need to leave the country for important conferences, internships or significant family events, Currey said.
"It's never easy. Those are really difficult conversations," he said. "There are human situations that come up that they have no control over."
Rana Afzali, vice president of the Iranian Student Association, said a friend of hers plans to return home this summer because his father is sick.
"He knows he may not get back," she said. "He thinks family is worth more, so he is taking the risk."
Afzali said she plans to return home next summer, despite the gamble.
"For me, it's hard to be far away for such a long time from my family," she said.
Afzali said even though she is hopeful she will get another visa, applications often take months to clear. That means she might miss part or all of a semester.
Currey said the situation is unlikely to change as long as the relationship between Iran and the U.S. remains bad. Visas are based on reciprocity, so both American visas to Iran and Iranian visas to the U.S. are for a three-month term.
Siavosh-Haghighi and Afzali are hopeful organizations fighting for multiple-entry visas for Iranians will be successful.
"Based on some statistics, Iranians are the highest-educated minority in the U.S., yet they're actually suffering the most," Siavosh-Haghighi said. "We are the casualties of these types of decisions."