When Omar Mahmassani arrived in the United States from Lebanon to begin studying dentistry at Georgetown University, he felt positively awed.
“I felt so lucky,” he says of that day in 1984. “A degree from the United States is the gold standard. People look up to the United States as being the world economic power.” Today that education has paid off for Mahmassani. His private dental practice in Frederick, Maryland, brings in $1.2 million in annual revenue and employs five full-time staffers, all of whom were born in America.
But recent rhetoric surrounding foreign nationals has radically changed the way many of today’s foreign students view the United States. In a 2017 survey conducted by a coalition of U.S. higher education associations, 39 percent of U.S. colleges and universities reported a decline in international applications, with the sharpest drop reported from the Middle East. International students cited a perceived rise in visa denials, a perception that America had become less welcoming to outsiders, and concerns that travel and employment opportunities would be further restricted.
Mahmassani, a practicing Muslim, finds the tensions surrounding United States relations with the Middle East frustrating, particularly since he sees no evidence of this strife in his relationship with his neighbors, patients, and colleagues.
When you strip down the politics, human beings can get along. Unfortunately, politicians try to divide us.
“My experience in the United States has been nothing but positive. I experience the kindness and compassion of the people I treat on a day-to-day basis,” he says. Just as Americans don’t hate Middle Easterners, Middle Easterners don’t hate Americans, he says.
“People in the Middle East all want to dress like Americans. They want to live like Americans. There is a yearning in the general population to really embrace American values. People want to have free speech. They want to have freedom of worship. They want to be entrepreneurs. They want to provide a better life for their families,” he says.
On both sides, he believes, the tensions arise not from the people themselves, but from leaders attempting to gin up conflict for their own political gain. “When you strip down the politics, human beings can get along. Unfortunately, politicians try to divide us,” he says.
If international students stop coming to the United States, he believes the country will suffer. “It will be an economic loss and a brain loss,” he says, noting that Apple founder Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant.
But he is optimistic that the will of the majority of Americans — those who believe in openness, kindness, and common sense — will ultimately prevail. “I have faith that we will overcome,” he says. “This is a great country with great institutions, and the best part about it is the people who live here.”