Iranian student’s options limited by status


Christmas and Fourth of July are his favorite holidays. In the winter, he loves to hunt; in the summer, he loves to shoot. For Spring Break, he plans to fly to Massachusetts for a Metallica concert. Some say he holds all the qualities of a typical Montanan, but there is only one catch: He’s Iranian.

Wearing a green down jacket and a gray beanie, Arash Akbari introduced himself, “I’m 27 years old. I study mechanical engineering with a minor in physics.” In 2015, Arash moved to Bozeman, where, almost instantly after he arrived, he felt at home.

Walking inside the MSU library with Akbari  is never a short affair, as he stops to chat with people he knows. “I haven’t seen you in so long, man,” he said to his friend. “Let’s play soccer sometime.”

About 20 minutes later, after having visited with three friends, he went back to introducing himself: “I plan to study astrophysics in the future; I love astronomy,” he said with a smile. Akbari is bound to teach you about a star or two if you spend some time with him after sundown.

Astronomy, however, is not his only love. “People say it’s weird, but I really love barbecue sauce,” he said with a laugh. “I buy pasta, other food, and barbecue sauce, and I mix them all together. I love it.” The condiments of choice in Iran were ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard. His love of barbecue sauce held a rank equal to any other detail he could share about himself.

Akbari always wears a smile on his face, complementing his curly black hair and brown eyes. But beneath his smile is so much uncertainty about the future. As all international students, Akbari pays triple the amount of in-state tuition for the duration of his academic career. No longer able to pay for his classes, he took out a loan. “It’s a stressful time,” he said while managing a faint smile.

To make matters more complicated, Akbari is prohibited from working off campus, and is limited to working 20 hours per week on campus. The restrictions are the same for all international students. Faced with odds against his favor, Akbari took a job at Miller Hall in which he crafts for others the very thing that brings him energy everyday—coffee.

Akbari is considering a range of plans to preserve the student status he worked hard to get. In fact, to live abroad as a student, Arash had to complete two years of military service in Iran, an obligation applicable to all male citizens wanting to live abroad. “He is very patient and mature,” a friend of Akbari said. “He works really hard and does not give up on his dreams.”

Indeed, to preserve his student status, Akbari is considering joining the U.S. military, as part of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. For a person holding an F student visa like Akbari, acceptance to the MAVNI program means the ability to apply for naturalization. While a MAVNI enlistee, participants may stay in the U.S. for as long as their naturalization process is ongoing. Joining the military is a plan among many, providing a range of options for Akbari to choose from when need be.

Akbari paused and sipped his Americano. He had stood in line at Brewed Awakening in the library a few minutes earlier, when he approached the cashier and made his usual order, “I’ll take a large Americano please, dark, like my soul,” he said with a laugh. The cashier chuckled and said, “You could always get power coffee.” Such are Akbari’s encounters with other people, heartening and relaxed.

“Charming,” another friend of Akbari said about him. “My family comes from across the world to see this beaming human whose affinity for democracy and education shows through his love of coffee and American flag regalia. Wine is the second best thing to come from Shiraz.”

While in Bozeman, Akbari finds he misses his family and his hometown of Shiraz. Bustling with life, nights in Shiraz are characterized by locals gathering at cafes and chatting to the early hours of the morning. “It was very lively,” he said. “Shiraz is known for that.”

Family dynamics, too, are different in the US than what he is used to in Iran. His favorite holidays there include family gatherings with his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Even when it wasn’t a formal holiday, Akbari met with his relatives every week. “I dislike that about American culture,” he said. “I want a strong family, one that meets regularly.”

When asked whether he wanted to share anything else about himself, he quickly retreated to his humorous self and said, “Cheese.” When his statement fell on deaf ears, a familiar smile grew on his face and he said, “You know, like in the movie Borat. You haven’t seen that one?”

– edited by Jared Miller

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