Opinion | The Fulbright Catch-22: We’ll be arrested if we go home. But we must go.

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Violetta Soboleva is studying for a PhD in educational psychology at the City University of New York.

Two years ago, when I received the email accepting me into the Fulbright exchange program, it felt like a dream come true. With fully paid tuition at Syracuse University, plus a monthly stipend, I could envision my plan to study instructional design, then return to Russia to create an innovative textbook for teaching English as a second language.

Today, that dream is history. Today, I am regarded as a security threat and potential fifth columnist by my own country. If I return home — as I am required to do under the Fulbright rules — I face the very real possibility of arrest and a 15-year prison sentence. Roughly 150 fellow Russian scholars are in the same boat; more than 30 will lose their legal status to remain in the United States within a month.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin cracked down on dissent, particularly coming from abroad. Many international NGOs were shut down, including the Institute of International Education (IIE), which administers the Fulbright program; it was later labeled an “undesirable organization,” putting Fulbright students at risk of imprisonment because of our association with it. Moreover, we might now be considered “foreign agents” because we received scholarships from a foreign government. This will severely restrict our ability to work and operate freely in Russia.

Instead of being recognized as cultural ambassadors when we return home, we face the prospect of being denied employment or, even worse, imprisoned for our ties to the U.S. State Department. The Fulbright program, designed to foster mutual understanding and cooperation between nations, has become a liability.

Among our cohort are activists who have participated in opposition campaigns, human rights organizations and LGBTQ+ rights movements. Some, like me, have taken part in antiwar protests.

Before embarking on my Fulbright journey in 2021, I volunteered at Navalny Headquarters in Rostov-on-Don near the border with Ukraine, dedicating myself to promoting democratic values and fighting corruption in Russia. However, just as I settled into my studies in the United States, the Russian government designated opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his organizations “extremists.” Now, the government is actively seeking to prosecute anyone affiliated with them — whether they were coordinators or volunteers — imprisoning them for up to 15 years.

Despite this, I had still hoped to return to Russia and improve the education system. Then came Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. In a desperate attempt to raise awareness about the war, I created a poster that read “Putin is Hitler. Stop the war” and stood for hours on the university square at Syracuse, aware that thousands of people in Russia were being detained for expressing similar antiwar sentiments. I also organized an open-letter campaign against the war with more than a hundred fellow Russian Fulbrighters here and abroad. Meanwhile, the Russian government introduced strict censorship laws, punishing dissent and further stifling freedom of expression. Even calling the war a “war” is forbidden; it has to be a “special military operation.”

LGBTQ+ Fulbrighters face additional risks because the Russian government recently added the LGBTQ+ movement to its list of extremists; they could face prison for this as well. The chilling climate was further exacerbated when Navalny died in a prison colony in February, sending a brutal message about the consequences of dissent.

The cloud of suspicion surrounding Fulbright scholars in Russia has reached a critical point. The head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service recently labeled Russian graduates of U.S. exchange programs “the core element of the fifth column” and suggested Washington could “activate” us to interfere in Russian elections. These charges have left us with a sinking feeling about our future academic and professional pursuits. And, of course, we face threats on social media. Many of us are afraid to return to a country where citizens are informing on one another — which is reminiscent of the Stalinist era. Still, our J-1 exchange visas demand that we do just that.

Last month the IIE, acknowledging its new “undesirable” status, suggested four options for those who didn’t want to return home: We could go “to a third country as a private citizen”; try to get a new sponsor for our J-1 visa; apply for post-degree academic training; or apply for a different status to remain legally in the United States after our programs are completed. All these options require multiple steps and lengthy lead times. (At the moment, the wait time for an application for a waiver of the home residency requirement is 16 months.)

Our situation demands a more urgent and coordinated response. We have appealed to the State Department and Congress to assist us in dealing with our Catch-22: being forced to return to a country that, by virtue of who we are, regards us as traitors. Though the State Department can’t extend our visas — that’s up to the Department of Homeland Security — it can waive the home residency requirement and advocate for special immigrant visas that would allow us to remain in the United States after we complete our fellowships.

My intention — as is true for many of my Fulbright colleagues — was always to return to Russia and be a force for good. But the country I once called home now thinks of me as a security threat. Given the danger we face in Russia through no fault of our own, we ask the government that brought us here for a vital lifeline: a blanket waiver for all Fulbright scholars and a path to a green card.

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