The projector in 235 Upham Hall isn’t working. That means Karim Ibrahim has to summarize the “Seinfeld” clip he’d planned to screen for his Professional Communication for Business students himself. In the scene, Jerry criticizes a car rental agent who can’t accommodate his reservation for a midsize car.
“Seinfeld” — paired with contrasting clips of Gerard Butler and George Clooney firing people in movies — is Ibrahim’s way of teaching his students about “bad news messaging.”
Ibrahim, a visiting assistant professor of English, is discussing the prevalence of bad news in business, whether it’s a boss firing an employee or a service provider hiking its rates, and giving an overview of strategies his students might use to handle tough conversations with future clients and colleagues.
“Bad news,” Ibrahim explains to his students, “is bad, no matter what.”
Ibrahim ought to know. In two years teaching at Miami, he’s faced more professional and personal hardship than some of his colleagues may in an entire career.
In some ways, Ibrahim’s story is typical of an academic. He fell in love with his chosen field as a young student, got a master’s and Ph.D., then accepted his first teaching gig as a visiting assistant professor at Miami.
Ibrahim isn’t even a native speaker of the language he teaches. A native of Cairo, Egypt, his first language is Arabic. He was bored with English classes in school, so he taught himself the language by playing video games.
That’s why Ibrahim became passionate about teaching. Education in Egypt, he says, is fairly underdeveloped and lack of a command of the English language is a barrier to advancement for many Egyptians.
Video games, Ibrahim thinks, could be part of the solution.
“Imagine playing a video game — a real video game, not one of those ‘match the colors and words,’ — no, a real video game,” Ibrahim says. “Something so immersive and engaging that, as you play the game, you learn the language.”
Ibrahim figures if he can advance a new way of teaching and learning English, he can affect generations of students to come.
With a bachelor’s degree from Cairo University, Ibrahim came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to study teaching English as a second language at the University of Arizona.
After earning his Master’s and Ph.D in Tucson, Ibrahim moved to Oxford to begin teaching English composition, professional writing and linguistics at Miami.
Beyond the job description
But a career in academia isn’t what Ibrahim thought it would be.
Being a visiting assistant professor — a position that emphasizes teaching over doing research — has meant Ibrahim isn’t able to focus as much on his work, studying educational video games.
“To focus more on teaching means less scholarship, which means losing who I am as an academic. What I learned in grad school is that as an academic, part of your job is teaching and service, of course,” Ibrahim said. “But what you really are is a scholar, someone who’s producing knowledge, someone who’s developing knowledge, someone who’s creating resources and knowledge and models for others to use and implement in education.
“That mission is fading away.”
Ibrahim is teaching four classes this semester, above the usual load of three due to a scheduling conflict. He estimates he spends 60 hours a week on teaching and related duties and devotes one day of each weekend, plus school breaks, to his scholarship.
“Life itself is not doable under so much stress.”
Somehow he’s managed to pump out five research papers, with two more under review and an additional three being drafted. He has designs on writing a book, too.
All of this Ibrahim could overcome if it weren’t for the job instability. At Miami, visiting assistant professors (VAPs) work on one-year contracts, and while they can remain a VAP for up to five years, there is no guarantee of staying in the position from one academic year to the next.
This system creates extra stress for Ibrahim and his colleagues, who he said are essentially doing three jobs at once — teaching classes, doing scholarly work on the side to further their chances at a tenure-track job and searching and applying for more permanent jobs.
“I’m always thinking, ‘Okay, so I’m going to lose my job sooner or later.’”
But losing his job would have more far-reaching consequences for Ibrahim than it might for some of his colleagues in the English department.
That’s because as an Egyptian national, Ibrahim lives in the United States on a work visa.
“Unless I have a job, I can’t stay in the country. I have to leave.”
That was the situation Ibrahim nearly found himself in a year ago.
“Last year was when things got crazy.”
Miami administrators usually review the contracts of visiting faculty in February and March. But in winter 2017, American universities were faced with the prospect of a drop in international student enrollment.
“That’s when someone higher up at Miami decided, ‘We’re not going to renew the contracts of visiting faculty until we know for sure how many students we’re getting.’”
So Ibrahim, his Egyptian wife and their children, who were born on American soil and therefore are U.S. citizens, lived in uncertainty.
If Ibrahim lost his job at Miami, his visa would be invalidated and the entire family would have to move back to Egypt — the children would have been allowed to stay, but their parents weren’t going to abandon them.
In late March, Ibrahim learned his job was safe for another academic year. But his visa wasn’t. After graduating with his Ph.D, he’d applied for and received a temporary employment permit that essentially extended his student visa by a year.
Ibrahim’s year would be up in May 2017, so he applied for a J-1 visa, a non-immigrant status frequently used by scholars. Having a J-1 would allow him to stay in the U.S. for up to five years, as long as he had a job. The change of status, he was told, would take two or three months for the U.S. government to process.
So, Ibrahim found himself in limbo once again. Two months into the waiting period, a colleague from Russia who’d applied at the same time got her J-1 visa approved.
“We were all excited for her, and we were expecting mine should come in the mail in a week, maybe two.”
But no mail came.
A week before classes would start for the fall, Ibrahim’s change of status hadn’t been cleared. He scheduled an appointment with an immigration officer in Cincinnati who told Ibrahim the hangup was with his security clearance.
“I have been here for eight years, almost nine years,” Ibrahim said. “I didn’t receive a single speeding ticket, not a single speeding ticket. I’ve been more abiding by the law than Barack Obama, and after all that time they can’t provide a security clearance for me? Are you kidding me?”
As it turned out, U.S. security had still not started processing Ibrahim’s case, after three months. His only option would be to take his family, leave the country and, from Egypt, apply to return to the U.S., which would trigger an automatic status change.
“So I told my wife, ‘We need to leave to Egypt in a week.’”
The Ibrahim family had just been moving from one house to another in Oxford, but they packed everything they owned — not an easy task with three young children, he recalled. He informed his supervisors at Miami he’d be back as soon as possible, or as long as it took to start the visa process back in Egypt.
In Cairo, Ibrahim’s wife’s visa arrived three days after their application interview. His hadn’t showed up after a full month.
By that point, the semester was in full swing in Oxford. Miami’s English department had arranged for substitutes to cover Ibrahim’s classes temporarily, but he worried the instability of his status would force Miami to let him go. He began applying for jobs in Egypt and even asked a friend in Oxford to sell the furniture he’d left behind.
During the sixth week of the semester, Ibrahim’s visa came in the mail. That was on a Tuesday; on Friday, Ibrahim was on a plane to Ohio. He has only seen his family once since.
His wife, Lamyaa, and the children stayed in Egypt to avoid yet another relocation. They would reunite when Ibrahim had a more stable job in the States.
The couple knew further change would be especially hard on their oldest son, Hamza, who is autistic.
“Being under the constant stress of being unstable and facing this idea of having to relocate to a completely different country and disrupt all of your life activities…this sudden complete, unusual change can be very annoying to him,” Ibrahim said.
An alternate reality
Living 6,000 miles from Lamyaa and the children is the only viable option for their family, who depend on Ibrahim’s salary from Miami. A comparable offer Ibrahim got from an Egyptian university, as a full-time faculty member, came with a gross pay of 700 U.S. dollars a month.
“This is why I can’t be with my family,” Ibrahim explained. Their basic expenses, he said, are around $1,500 a month, plus specialized therapy for Hamza. The education system in Egypt doesn’t provide adequate services for Ibrahim’s son, but to send him to a private institution in Egypt would set the family back about $10,000 a year.
Ibrahim also doesn’t like the idea of his family living in politically-charged Egypt, especially without him there. Terrorist attacks are frequent, as are criminal incidents in which men rape children or, worse, kidnap them in order to harvest their organs.
“Having a job is a matter of life or death to me,” Ibrahim said. “[Without a job,] you go back to your country, where everything is volatile and your family’s exposed to everything from hunger to death and rape at the hands of jihadist militarists, or being subjected to police brutality because there is a breakdown on anyone who expresses an opinion against the government, or being subject to rape or kidnapping by gangsters or just regular people who find that it’s okay to rape children because no one is watching.
“Life in Egypt is very hard…We don’t have a car, we don’t have a house, we don’t have anything to start with. We’re starting from scratch.”
Ibrahim tries to make himself as valuable as possible at Miami.
“The pay is very low, the cost of living is very high, and I’m just on very soft ground, if I may say,” Ibrahim said. “I’m just on thin ice here, trying, working hard to maintain my position, but I know sooner or later I have to leave, and I know that it might happen next month.”
Because of that instability, Oxford for Ibrahim isn’t home. Neither, though, is Egypt.
“I don’t feel like I have home anywhere,” he said. “I feel like I’m just torn between two worlds. I feel alien — E.T. on planet Earth. I don’t know, I just feel I have no place. I’m dispensable.”
Fathering from a distance
Ibrahim uses Facebook Messenger to stay in touch with Lamyaa, who sends him photos and videos of the kids. Every day — morning in Oxford and evening in Cairo — the family talks via video chat.
When his children — Hamza, who’s almost 5, Noura, almost 3, and Noha, nearly 1 — ask where Ibrahim is, Lamyaa tells them he went to work.
“When we talked over Skype, my daughter told me, ‘Hey, tell your work that I’m mad at him because he took my daddy away from me.’”
On the Skype call, Ibrahim laughed. But tears fill his eyes when he recounts the exchange.
“She thought that work is some guy that I have to go see,” Ibrahim said. “She doesn’t understand that this is life and how I don’t really have a choice in it. I’m working hard trying to find stability somewhere so they can be with me.”
In early fall 2016, Ibrahim was on the highway, driving to Target with his family to buy clothes for his kids, when he got an international call from his brother back home.
Ibrahim’s brother is married with children of his own, so they don’t talk a lot. When they do, they usually plan a time to connect over Skype, so the unplanned call was jarring.
“What’s wrong?” Ibrahim asked his brother. “Is our mother still alive?” he joked.
“Well,” the response came, “let’s talk when you get home.”
“No,” Ibrahim pressed. “What’s wrong?”
“Well, she was diagnosed with cancer.”
In a Target in southwest Ohio, her son cried.
“Take the kids away from me, just do your shopping and let’s get out of here,” he told Lamyaa.
Wondering if treatment options would be more plentiful in the United States, Ibrahim emailed his mother’s scans to American friends who are doctors. One of those friends, a radiologist, confirmed the diagnosis Egyptian doctors had given the family.
The cancer wasn’t treatable; it had spread to her entire liver, affording her only months to live.
Ibrahim was determined to spend those months with her. But Lamyaa was pregnant, and with two more toddlers at home, he worried about stranding her in the States.
“It’s your mom,” she told him. “If you want to go, you can go.”
But if Ibrahim left the country to be with his mother in Egypt, he risked being denied reentry, and it was the middle of the semester.
Six weeks later, on Nov. 6, 2016, Ibrahim’s mother died.
He never made it home.
“It felt like the pain was pouring out of my heart and into every part of my body, cutting through my flesh like a sharp knife, and there was nothing I could do to stop it,” Ibrahim said. “It was a pain that could not be turned off. I was dreaming of her all the time and just remembering that I didn’t see her in the past five years because I was always afraid if I go back, I might be denied a visa.”
Two days after Ibrahim’s mother died, the knife cut even deeper when Donald Trump was elected president, intensifying the anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric Ibrahim had been hearing so much of.
He was afraid of being detained at the airport, afraid at the sight of so many Trump campaign signs around Oxford, afraid of being profiled by his neighbors — one of whom accused him of tearing down Trump signs on a fence near his condo.
“Every time we hear about an accident or a terrorist activity or a shooting, I think the natural response would be, ‘I hope everyone is okay. I hope there are no victims; I hope everyone is safe.
“But, unfortunately, my natural response is, ‘I hope it’s not a Muslim.’ I hope that the perpetrator, the terrorist, the gunman is not a Muslim, because I will have to suffer the backlash if it’s a Muslim. The backlash is there, whether we acknowledge it or not.”
‘It just passed’
Grief — for his mother and for the political environment he found himself in — enveloped Ibrahim for about a month.
“It just passed. That’s all I can say: It’s passed,” Ibrahim said. “It’s a blessing that we forget, that we can forget things because the pain at first was unbearable, but then it was like, ‘Okay, this is life.’ And you just live with it.”
After all, he knows, it could be worse.
“I wonder if you should even write my story. I feel it’s really insignificant, considering what other people are going through,” Ibrahim said. “As much as I want resolution for my case, when I think about other people’s, especially Syrian refugees and what they go through, I realize that, ‘Oh my god, I’m in heaven, I have nothing to worry about.’”