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Foreign Students View Capitol Riot With Fear

FILE - An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.

Shwe Einthe was about to leave her Washington apartment to grab a bite to eat when an emergency message blared on her cellphone, alerting her to violence at the U.S. Capitol building and a 6 p.m. citywide curfew.

"My first thought was, 'Oh, my God, this feels like dictator Myanmar, like I am back in my developing country,'" said Einthe, an international student at George Washington University. "'This doesn't happen in the States, curfew doesn't happen in the States. That happens in countries like mine.'"

Like other international students in the U.S., Einthe said she was shocked by the violent protests over President Donald Trump's election loss on January 6 — and how closely they resembled political violence some international students have experienced in their home countries.

"My family grew up during a revolution, coup after coup, we lived under a very brutal military dictatorship," said Einthe. "Having experienced martial law and curfew, I'm very familiar with all of that."

International student enrollment in the U.S. was down by 0.9% for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to an annual Open Doors report released in November 2020 by the Institute for International Education (IIE). While the top reasons that academic year for choosing other countries, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand for study, were cost and immigration barriers in the U.S., students also cited negative political rhetoric, perceived crime, and a feeling of unwelcomeness.

"International students and crime is an issue of major international concern, impacting on the lucrative international student market, international relations, host countries' reputations as tolerant and safe," according to "International Students and Crime," published in 2015, and referring to the billions of dollars international students bring to national economies, which reached $42 billion in the U.S. in 2017.

"And perhaps, most significantly, the safety and security of international students, as well as the broader population," wrote the authors, who specified that crime against international students is minimal, but the perception is greater.

Mariana Blanco (Courtesy of Mariana Blanco)
Mariana Blanco (Courtesy of Mariana Blanco)

Violence on Capitol Hill "reminded us of home, and not in a good way," said Mariana Blanco, a sophomore at Case Western University and originally from Colombia. "Even if it was for completely different reasons, it was mirroring what happens in other countries. The U.S. has always been, at least in my mind, on a higher pedestal. Seeing that those things can also happen here made me second guess my decision of moving here."

Panama native and Georgetown University student Angeli Nandwani said she felt disillusioned with the U.S., which she called the "father of our continent" because of the aid Panama receives from the U.S.

Angeli Nandwani (Courtesy of Angeli Nandwani)
Angeli Nandwani (Courtesy of Angeli Nandwani)

"I always counted on having the U.S. as a mentor to us, the ones who would help us fix our democracy, but now they've revealed that they also have to fix their democracy," Nandwani said. "For me, it meant that the U.S. was no longer the best guide as to how our governments should look."

Some international students in Washington said they feared the protesters, many of whom were identified as members of white supremacist groups.

Isabela Linares Uscher, a sophomore at American University, said her mother gave her advice for navigating the city during the riots at the Capitol: "Please don't go downtown, and if you do, speak English."

Isabela Linares Uscher (Courtesy of Isabela Linares Uscher)
Isabela Linares Uscher (Courtesy of Isabela Linares Uscher)

"It was so frustrating because I felt like I had to hide my identity to avoid an uncomfortable situation," the international student said.

After the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, Washington mobilized 25,000 National Guard members for the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20. Some international students amended their plans in case of violence in the nation's capital on Inauguration Day.

"My parents made me move my plane ticket to after the inauguration of President Biden's government because they didn't want me to be in [Washington] D.C.," said Nandwani.