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Somali-born UK scholar fears impact of US visa refusal

Nasir Warfa believes he is on a US security watch list, writes David Matthews

American visa and European passport

A Somali-born British academic fears that he is unable to gain a visa for the US because he believes that his work and background have put him on a security watch list, with damaging consequences for his career.

Nasir Warfa, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Psychiatry at Queen Mary, University of London, appears to be the first UK academic to be affected by US restrictions on those of East African background, following similar travel problems for US scholars with East African origins.

In August last year, he was denied a visa that would have allowed him to change aircraft in Houston on his way to an academic conference in Mexico, forcing him to take a different route. He was also unable to obtain a visa to visit relatives in the US in December 2012.

Dr Warfa, who grew up in Somalia, has not been told why he has been refused a visa, but suspects it is due to his country of origin and the fact that he conducted research in Somalia before his application to go to the US.

“My suspicion is that [the problems are because] I am from East Africa,” he said.

“A lot of people from there have [been] trained [by] Al-Shabaab” - the militant Islamist force that controls parts of Somalia - he explained. “Anyone who goes to those places is flagged up.”

Others affected have included double Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah. The runner was reportedly detained by US border guards in December when they saw he was originally from Somalia.

Dr Warfa, who is a British citizen, is due to meet colleagues at Harvard Medical School this month and has been invited to present an abstract at a cross-cultural psychology conference in Los Angeles in June, but he is still waiting for a decision on his visa applications.

An effective ban on visiting the US would seriously hamper his career, he said.

Such restrictions on academics originally from Somalia would be “a disaster because Somalia is coming back from a civil war” and those who left the country during the fighting are “trying to rebuild universities and institutions” there.

If he was unable to obtain a visa for this year’s visits, Dr Warfa said he would feel “marginalised” and “humiliated”.

“I have written 20 publications promoting human rights and this happens to me,” he added.

In December, three professorial colleagues from Queen Mary’s Centre for Psychiatry wrote to the US Embassy in London asking it to look into Dr Warfa’s visa applications for 2013.

The embassy replied that it would update them when a decision was made, Dr Warfa said.

It had not provided a response by the time Times Higher Education went to press.

In the US, two American academics with East African backgrounds at the University of Minnesota were subjected to repeated, lengthy airport searches in 2009, it was reported at the time.

Abdi Samatar, chair of the geography department, and his wife Cawo Abdi, a sociology professor, believed their origin had put them on a government watch list.

Professor Samatar told THE that although he had been stopped and searched again in 2010, since his case had received publicity the checks had ceased.

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Readers' comments (16)

  • Increasing xenophobia relating to immigration, security etc on both sides of the Atlantic (and elsewhere) is contributing to a vicious circle. This illustration is a good one: hampering academic discourse is part of a bigger picture. In the long term, it will inevitably be counter-productive in terms of global security, understanding, tolerance etc. Here's hoping the US authorities see some sense on this one and other cases like it... BTW, I know Nasir, and can think of no less likely terrorist!! Is being born in Somalia (or anywhere else) enough to be branded so? If so, how unsophisticated we remain.

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  • I fully agree with what Michael says above - how small-minded and unsophisticated can we be to assume that all people from certain parts of the world are to be grouped together. This is called discrimination, racism, and xenophobia, and represents the inability or unwillingness to see and appreciate the diversity of our humanity. I also know Nasir from the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma's Global Mental Health program, and he is a warm, caring, smart, and generally wonderful scholar and defender of human rights. Not allowing him into the US to pursue his professional and humanitarian endeavors is a shame and a loss for all of us.

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  • I have worked with Nasir through the Global Mental Health program of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma and it would be tragic and outrageous if he were denied access to the US to pursue educational and humanitarian initiatives with us or others. He is exactly the kind of person that the US should be seeking to encourage and support. I hope this turns out to be a foolish bureaucratic mistake that gets quickly corrected.

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  • I met Nasir in November, 2012 in Orvieto, Italy. He was a faculty member for the Harvard International Course on Refugee Trauma. He is a remarkable person, well educated, of excellent character and good humor. There is no reason why he should now be allowed to come to the US to visit and work with colleagues and to see his many relatives who reside here.

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  • I have also taught, as part of a small and close knit faculty group, with Nasir Warfa and am outraged that the US would deny a visa to a citizen of the UK who also happens to be a well respected scholar, committed to human rights. Not only is Dr. Warfa being denied his right to travel but those of us in the US who benefit from his work are also being denied the benefit of his wisdom.

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  • Revi Sterling

    On one hand, the US makes quite a show of support for stability ops and peacekeeping efforts in Somalia, and on the other hand, continues to apply a one-size fits all approach to visa mgmt, financial transactions, etc. in Somalia. The hypocrisy here - esp with US-led NGOs setting up all sorts of capacity building programs and lending legal and livelihoods expertise - is stunning. Somaliland and Puntland get singled out as examples of positive change in the Horn, but we won't let a shining example of a researcher and bridge-builder come ashore. Travesty.

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  • Barbara Martini

    I'm astonished to learn that Dr. Warfa has been denied a visa to travel to the US. I've known him personally when attending the Harvard Program on Refugee Trauma in November 2012, where he was a member of the faculty. He's also a scholar at Queen Mary, University of London, and a renowned researcher, devouting much of his energies in building a culture of inclusion and equality through the world. These incidents bring about doubts on the real "democratic soul" of US authorities, on the accuracy and appropriatness of the criteria used to grant or refuse visas, and on the training on diverse cultures given to the people in charge of making such decisions. Only a rough biased ignorance can explain this case.

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  • Being familiar with Professor Warfa's work, I feel that this is a case of over-application of a policy with no examination of the details or of the affect of the policy in this case. If the U.S. is going to deny visas to researchers and scholars that study certain regions of the world, this is going to just penalize the researchers who could be providing information that would be most helpful to the U.S. in trying to combat situations it sees as threatening (i.e. terrorism) in those regions. Something seems to have gone wrong here.

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  • Having had the great privilege of working with Dr Warfa via Harvard's program on refugee trauma and coming to know him for the humanitarian and peace advocate that he is I find this appalling. It is rare to find someone with his level of commitment to non-violence and helping those who have been the victims of barbaric acts. Nasir is an incredible asset to the US and as a citizen of the same I support anything that can be done to change this one particular very wrong decision.

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  • I have worked with Dr Warfa in the Harvard Program on Refugee Trauma and feel that he is an excellent teacher and a sterling role model for other mental health professionals. While I am wanting our country to be safe, I thik I would rather hear of how Homeland Security is actually using some brains to figure out who might be a danger, rather than taking the, "You're from there? Bugger off!!" approach to protecting us. There is a far higher danger stemming from domestic criminals than there is from Somali academics. They should stop getting their intel from TV and start actually checking out the backgrounds of those they have questions about.

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