BY TIFFANY BENJAMIN
Finally, Ahmed el-Gaili is back in the U.S.A.
El-Gaili, a 3L and citizen of Sudan, left Cambridge last May planning to split his summer between the New York and London offices of his law firm. What he didn’t know when he left was that his return to Cambridge would turn into a months-long nightmare that all too clearly highlighted the pitfalls of the heightened security measures — and resulting bureaucratic backlog — that have arisen since the September 11 attacks over a year ago.
In July, el-Gaili applied for a renewal visa to re-enter the United States. It took until late November for his application to be processed.
“Post September 11, it was taking a few weeks to get a visa,” he said. “There was a change in regulations at the end of the summer after I left, which required that if you were a male above 16 [years old] from a list of 26 Muslim countries, you have to undergo a full-fledged background security check which takes three to four months.”
El-Gaili was forced to stay in London, waiting for permission to re-enter the U.S.
“The first month or two were very difficult when I was still in limbo and didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “Even if you are in London or even Paris, it doesn’t matter when you are living off a suitcase for six weeks in a row in hotel rooms. That was not fun.”
With the help of the HLS administration and Prof. William Alford, el-Gaili was able to spend the fall semester as a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
“My classmates and friends have been incredibly supportive,” he said. “During my ‘exile’ I got a lot of e-mails expressing support at a very stressful time. I had a friend who brought me my winter clothes in London. Another who brought my computer software when my hard drive crashed, and a friend who helped me sublet my place here in Cambridge.”
El-Gaili was able to return to HLS in time for the winter semester and will graduate in May with the rest of the class of 2003. Now completing his final semester at HLS, he looks back on this situation with frustration and sadness.
“There is no way but to characterize this as ethnic profiling. I was not in class at the beginning of September because I am an Arab and a Muslim. That’s difficult to cope with because you think that at a certain point people would exercise discretion and deference to you as an individual and to what you have accomplished for yourself.”
Upon graduation, el-Gaili has accepted a position at a London firm.
“Undoubtedly, this experience influenced my decision,” he said. “I was initially planning to work in New York but it became clear in the present environment of restrictions, in addition to the whole political environment, that it is both professionally and personally difficult to work here in the immediate future.”
In the end, el-Gaili is said he is upset by his circumstances, but still looks for the positive.
“There are worse places to be exiled than London.”