Student's future in jeopardy after UVa denies access to Grounds citing protest (2024)

A nursing student arrested during a May 4 anti-war protest at the University of Virginia is still being denied access to Grounds, a prohibition that has already cost him a job and could result in him failing his academic program.

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A total of 27 people were arrested when Virginia State Police broke up an encampment of protesters opposed to Israel’s monthslong war with Palestinian terror group Hamas, which has killed tens of thousands of people since Hamas launched a surprise attack on the country on Oct. 7. That total arrest number includes some who say they were never part of the protest but were in the area of the encampment when state police arrived. UVa issued all 27 who were arrested “no trespass” orders, or NTOs, preventing them from legally returning to Grounds. Most of those orders have since been lifted or modified.

Mustafa Abdelhamid’s has not.

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Abdelhamid, who plans to file a lawsuit against the university, claims he was not participating in the protest but completing a delivery order near the encampment. And multiple UVa faculty have expressed concern that the 35-year-old nursing student is being unfairly targeted because of his race.

Abdelhamid originally hails from a Middle Eastern country, the name of which The Daily Progress is withholding due to concerns its government may seek retribution against his family.

After graduating from medical school there, he moved to Charlottesville in 2014 to complete a research fellowship at UVa Health with hopes of eventually completing a medical residency so he can get his full medical doctorate in the U.S. Currently an award-winning student at Piedmont Virginia Community College, he has no criminal record and was granted political asylum by the U.S. government in 2023 after undergoing intensive vetting by federal authorities.

But despite repeated pleas from UVa faculty members and the American Association of University Professors, UVa Police Chief Tim Longo has so far declined requests to modify Abdelhamid’s order, citing “continued concern for the overall health, safety, and well-being” of the UVa community. UVa has declined to offer details on how Longo made that determination.

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Before receiving the NTO, Abdelhamid had been accepted as a summer extern at UVa Medical Center, UVa’s flagship hospital in Charlottesville where he was scheduled to do paid work in the intensive care unit.

“This is something I’m looking forward to because it’s going to give me a good chance to proceed in the field that I’m interested in,” Abdelhamid told The Daily Progress.

But due to the order, and despite efforts from UVa law professor Anne Coughlin, he was forced to miss orientation.

Student's future in jeopardy after UVa denies access to Grounds citing protest (4)

After learning of Abdelhamid’s circ*mstances, Coughlin emailed Longo offering to personally escort Abdelhamid to orientation, remaining with him throughout the day and then escorting him off Grounds at the end of the session.

“I was trying to educate the administration about who he was and what he had been invited to do on our Grounds,” Coughlin told The Daily Progress. “My big concern was to make sure administration was aware of the timing and that if they didn’t act quickly to modify the NTO they would in effect be destroying his career and they would need to weight that very heavily, losing the community his services as a nurse.”

Her repeated requests were denied.

On Friday, Abdelhamid received a letter from UVa Health telling him that his externship offer has been rescinded.

It had been his last opportunity to participate in the paid program. The externship is only available to nursing students in the summer, and by next summer, he will have already graduated from the PVCC nursing program.

His graduation assumes, however, that the NTO will be lifted.

When the fall semester begins, Abdelhamid will be required to complete clinical rotations at UVa Health. If his NTO is not modified, he will not be allowed to attend and will necessarily flunk out the program, despite maintaining top grades and winning PVCC’s Distinguished Student Award, the highest student honor presented by the school.

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Any person issued an NTO can have it modified by submitting a timely appeal to Longo.

“I humbly ask to appeal against the trespass warning so I can attend my training, which will help me tremendously as a future nurse serving the community of Charlottesville/Albemarle County,” Abdelhamid wrote in his May 6 appeal letter which he delivered in person, via mail and via email.

Abdelhamid, who works as a driver for DoorDash, included two brief sentences about his involvement on May 4.

Student's future in jeopardy after UVa denies access to Grounds citing protest (6)

“I was delivering food near the Rotunda. I was unaware of the unlawful assembly order issued in the area,” he wrote.

He went on to say he’s required to attend daily nursing training at the medical center, but Longo’s sole focus appears to have been on those two preceding sentences. In denying Abdelhamid’s appeal on May 16, Longo said Abdelhamid was “actively participating” in the protest. He made the claim based on “law enforcement records” that he has not shared with Abdelhamid, the public or The Daily Progress.

“I am deeply concerned about the wholly inconsistent account that you offered in your appeal that stands in stark contrast to law enforcement records,” Longo wrote.

The appeal was denied.

“Mustafa was not part of the encampment and didn’t wake up on the morning of May 4 intending to protest,” UVa law professor Kelly Orians told The Daily Progress. “When he found himself in the area and saw friends from PVCC who were out there observing the police response to the encampment, he decided to join them.”

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Orians is among a number of UVa faculty members helping people who were arrested on May 4 navigate the legal process. Orians said that, unlike Abdelhamid, other individuals who appealed their NTOs did not include any information about their involvement in the protest, and their NTOs were modified anyway.

“Candor did not matter in those cases,” Orians said.

She also noted that NTOs include a list of boxes that the university police can check off. One of those boxes: the individual demonstrated “conduct that threatens” the safety of the UVa community. For Abdelhamid, that box was never checked, indicating university police did not consider him to be a threat.

Two other arrestees, Cierra Biel and Evan Urquhart, shared their appeal letters with The Daily Progress. Neither letter included an explanation for why they were at the protest, despite the requirement that they offer a “complete and candid explanation for the conduct that precipitate[d] the Trespass Warning.”

Both Biel and Urquhart said they’d been advised by attorneys to withhold that information.

Biel went so far as to write Longo that the university’s response against protesting students was an “overreaction” as well as “unjust and unwarranted.”

Both Biel’s and Urquhart’s NTOs were lifted.

Longo wrote them that NTOs are meant to “mitigate a threat to health and safety.” He concluded that any risk from Biel or Urquhart had been “sufficiently mitigated.”

He did not reach the same conclusion with Abdelhamid.

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It’s a conclusion with which the U.S. government disagrees.

Abdelhamid first arrived in the U.S. on a visa that required he return to his home country every six months. He did so until one trip home in the fall of 2015 when he was detained by his home government’s authorities.

They found it suspicious that he was traveling to and from the U.S. every six months. They believed he was a spy. And they found out that during the 2011 Arab Spring, Abdelhamid had been a part of the protests, where he had provided medical assistance to injured protesters. During the revolution, his home government is alleged to have committed many human rights abuses and murdered hundreds of demonstrators.

“There would be two million people in one square, and police were just shooting at us,” Abdelhamid recalled.

He was detained and brutally tortured for more than a week, deprived of sunlight and subjected to torture sessions three to five times per day. It is difficult for Abdelhamid to talk about, and he became choked up when recalling the traumatic period in an interview with The Daily Progress.

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Authorities only released him under the condition that he be strictly supervised and told him that if he ever returned to the U.S. he would be killed.

“They made it very clear,” Abdelhamid said.

He took the risk anyway, fleeing his home country in 2015.

Upon arriving back at UVa, he told a professor what had happened. He did not understand the complex U.S. immigration system but was terrified of returning home. He wanted to know if he could change his visa so that he would not be required to fly back home every six months, which he feared would effectively be a death sentence.

In the spring of 2016, Abdelhamid was ordered to go to the UVa Police Department where he was questioned by an agent with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. He was released after the interview.

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After not receiving a response on how to change his visa status, and fearful about returning home, Abdelhamid overstayed his visa. The day after he passed the six-month mark without returning to his home country, he was in the emergency room with his now ex-wife. She was having a miscarriage.

While in the ER, Abdelhamid received a call from the same ICE agent who had questioned him previously. She demanded to meet with him immediately. A UVa police officer met Abdelhamid in the ER, forcing him to leave his wife behind. He was escorted from the building, taken to the ICE officer and detained.

Soon after, he was in immigration court for removal proceedings, a hearing where a judge determines whether an individual may remain in the U.S.

“I stood in front of the immigration judge and told him my situation and why I cannot go back home,” Abdelhamid said.

He also got in touch with a nonprofit group that recommended he apply for political asylum. Abdelhamid was released on bond and was granted asylum in October of 2023, after being thoroughly vetted by U.S. law enforcement. The vetting was especially thorough because he had previously been on the “removal docket”; asylum seekers who have been involved in removal proceedings are subjected to heavier scrutiny than those who have not.

“The asylum process is extremely extensive in terms of credibility standards you have to meet to qualify for asylum and the background checks you have to meet with the Department of Homeland Security,” Karla McKanders, director of the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told The Daily Progress.

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Authorities investigate if asylum seekers have any criminal record in the U.S. or abroad; even loose connections with anyone associated with a terrorist organization will result in a denial. And an applicant must also get a green light from an immigration judge.

“Even if you meet all the criteria, it’s in the judge’s discretion to deny asylum,” McKanders said.

Abdelhamid’s yearslong ordeal with immigration authorities effectively prevented him from doing a medical residency in the U.S.; priority is given to prospective residents who are within three years of graduating medical school, and it had been eight years since Abdelhamid had graduated from his home university.

In the fall of 2022, he chose to enroll in the PVCC nursing program.

“He wanted to do a medical residency to get his full MD here in the United States. And that was completely derailed by what happened with ICE,” Orians said. “So he found another way to contribute to the health care sector, which is to go into nursing.”

Multiple faculty members have made repeated requests to UVa administration and to Longo that Abdelhamid’s NTO be lifted.

UVa told The Daily Progress it does not comment on individual NTOs and would not provide details on why Longo has refused to modify Abdelhamid’s. UVa also has not released who has and hasn’t had their NTOs modified after the events of May 4.

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With his future at stake, people in the UVa community are making regular efforts to have the university reconsider its decision.

On May 20, the UVa chapter of the American Association of University Professors penned a letter to UVa President Jim Ryan. It asked that the NTO be dropped, or at least modified so Abdelhamid can pursue his education.

“We are deeply concerned that the denial of Mr. Abdelhamid’s NTO appeal grossly infringes on his student rights,” reads the letter, “and unjustly impairs his ability to pursue his education.”

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It also floats the same possibility that people familiar with Abdelhamid’s case have considered: that his appeal was denied because he is Arab.

“This extremely punitive state of affairs, selectively applied to him, as it appears to us, is prejudicial to his minority status,” reads the letter.

Neither Biel nor Urquhart, two arrestees who had their NTOs lifted, understand why Abdelhamid is being treated any differently. Unlike Abdelhamid, Urquhart doesn’t spend much time on Grounds.

“It wasn’t super high urgency for me to get back on campus,” Urquhart, who is a local freelance journalist who says he was covering not participating in the protest when he was arrested, told The Daily Progress.

Abdelhamid has been “incredibly nice” in all the interactions she’s had with him, said Biel, who is an administrative coordinator in the school’s Department of Pharmacology. As a UVa employee, she said she’s done significant research on local history and is skeptical of Longo’s reasoning.

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“I’m suspicious why Longo would deny him and not anyone else,” said Biel. “Longo has a really long history of racist decisions in various positions.”

Biel said she was referring, in part, to a 2011 episode when Longo was police chief for the Charlottesville City Police Department. While searching for a serial rapist, Longo authorized a policy where officers could approach Black men on the street and request DNA samples. The “dragnet” deeply strained relationships between Charlottesville’s Black community and its police department.

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With the university so far showing no appetite to amend Longo’s decision, Abdelhamid is considering turning to a last resort: filing a lawsuit.

“Mustafa does not want to sue UVa. It’s been a decade since he first got here, and all he has wanted to do is contribute to the health and well-being of UVa and the greater Charlottesville community,” Orians said. “UVa has left him in a position where he’s run out of options except to sue to have his rights respected so he can fulfill his dream to be a health care provider in this community.”

Jason Armesto (717) 599-8470

jarmesto@dailyprogress.com

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