Teachers, community question why international student was barred from school exchange

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(Host) Twenty Swiss exchange students are winding up a ten-day stay with students at Brattleboro Union High School. But for one would-be visitor, an Ethiopian-born Muslim, the goodwill trip never got off the ground. The boy was denied entrance to the country because his name – or someone else’s like it – appeared on a government watch list.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Court official) “Do you have any metal on you?” (Sound of metal detector beeping.)

(Keese) The students had no trouble getting through security at the Brattleboro District Courthouse this week. They’d been invited to glimpse the American justice system at work.

It wasn’t their first encounter with American officialdom. Last week the group was forced to leave without their classmate Fuad – they asked that his last name not be used. The boy and his family had lived in Switzerland for many years. He’d worked to earn money for the exchange. He was issued a visa this summer. But it had the wrong dates.

Katherine Conliffe, his teacher, says he got a puzzling answer when he tried to fix the error.

(Conliffe) “And that’s when he told me that somewhere there was someone who had exactly the same family name and exact first name that was undesirable and had done something wrong and that they had to check that it was not him, and this person had applied for a visa so they needed to check him out.”

(Keese) When Conliffe tried to help, the U.S. embassy said the situation could take anywhere from two weeks to two years to iron out. Conliffe turned to Senator Patrick Leahy for help. Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie has also gotten involved. But with the trip about to end, the problem still hasn’t been resolved.

Conliffe says it was hard for the group to leave without their classmate. She says Brattleboro’s warm response has helped to ease her bitterness and disappointment. People have offered to host the boy and even pay his expenses if and when he can come.

(Conliffe) “But I find that this security scare on the part of the government is almost dangerous. I mean it scares me when you see that some people can be actually considered guilty when they are really innocent. And I think this is pretty anti-democratic and my student is not the only person who has had to suffer from that kind of policy.”

(John Wesley) “I hope it was just kind of a bureaucratic mistake that was very unfortunate. But I have fears that it was something much more ominous than that.”

(Keese) District Judge John Wesley has a daughter involved in the exchange. He says he invited the students to his courtroom to show them how seriously individual rights are taken in this country. But he says the visa incident sends another message.

(Wesley) “And it makes me very concerned about a number of fundamental things, like the state of civil liberties in our society now. An incident like this, for which there is no redress as far as I can see, calls our ultimate respect for our ideals into some question, it seems to me. Here and probably in the eyes of the world.”

(Keese) Conliffe says the story has been reported on Swiss television and newspapers. The result?

(Conliffe) “Probably anti-American feeling. This is damaging the image of America. But again if you’re intelligent enough, you can make the difference between people and the system.”

(Keese) The students and their teachers leave on Saturday. Brattleboro high school students will return the exchange this spring.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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