When you walk into Faten Arfaoui’s classroom, the first thing you’ll notice is her beaming smile.

Next is her laugh. She’ll greet you in Arabic, or perhaps English, with room-filling laughter to accompany it. She compliments her students on well-done final papers as they turn them in and individually chats with several students before class starts.

“I was kind of intimidated at first because she’s kind of loud,” said Iman Al Khachi, a junior in Arfaoui’s Arabic 203 class. “But it was a comforting kind of loud because my dad is Middle Eastern as well and it just reminded me of home.”

Arfaoui, who was born and raised in Tunisia, had always dreamed of living in America, but now, that dream is being threatened.

Arfaoui is fighting to keep her visa that allows her to work in the United States as an instructor of Arabic at the University of Oregon. She has been teaching here since 2014, but her visa expires at the end of the academic year.

She also has Type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed in 2011, Arfaoui has been able to receive medical treatment in the U.S. with her health insurance from the university. If she returns to Tunisia, the likelihood of her being able to get her medication is slim.

Her livelihood, and her life, are both at stake.

But what you won’t see in Arfaoui’s classroom is any negativity — her students say it doesn’t affect her work.

When Al Khachi ran into Arfaoui before class, Arfaoui told her she was stressed out. But when she stepped into the classroom, Al Khachi said, her energy picked up. After class, Arfaoui told Al Khachi that she doesn’t want to bring any negativity into the classroom.

“She’s always so happy to see us,” said Al Khachi.

Last Thursday, Arfaoui introduced her Arabic 203 class to Mounir Khélifa, a native of Tunisia,  where Arfaoui is also from. Khélifa called over Facebook video chat and the class gathered around to listen.

The video didn’t work, but the call went through. “Our internet is really bad in Tunisia,” said Arfaoui.

Arfaoui came to the United States from Tunisia in 2008 after receiving a Fulbright scholarship to begin a master’s program at Texas Tech University.

The Tunisian instructor, one of two Arabic instructors at UO, is known back home as “The American,” she said.

Her father was in the Tunisian army and came to the U.S. on multiple occasions, returning with gifts each time. Arfaoui fell in love with the country when she was a young girl and became determined to travel here. Even her bedroom is decorated in red, white and blue, she said.

At the time, she didn’t know how she would afford to go to America or what she would do when she got here. That didn’t matter, though; she had a dream and worked to make it come true. She even collected money that she would put in a box called her “America money,” she said.

Faten Arfaoui, Arabic language instructor, gives a presentation on Arabic at the Annual Foreign Language and International Studies day

University of Oregon Arabic language instructor Faten Arfaoui starts her presentation by identifying all of the Arabic speaking countries in world. High school students across Oregon arrived at the University of Oregon on Friday May 3 to attend the 41st Annual Foreign Language and International Studies Day in the Erb Memorial Union on campus. (Photo by Payton Bruni)

“It’s worth it. I am here now, but I really also deserve to be here because you know, it’s like a dream that became true,” Arfaoui said. “This is the country that I chose when I was 14.”

Though her English is accented, it’s fluent and easily understandable. She began learning when she was in school as a kid. She taught herself because there weren’t many English instructors in Tunisia growing up. She went to an English-speaking church to practice with others and eventually studied it in college.

“Years ago, if you asked me, ‘What do you want to be?’ I’d tell you, ‘English teacher’ because I feel like the love toward America led me to English,” she said, “and English led me to discover everything about America.”

She came to the states in 2008 on the Fulbright scholarship with a J1 visa, which requires that the holder return to their home country for a cumulative two years during the 5-year stay the visa allows before applying again.

She had two master’s degrees and was working toward a doctorate when she was diagnosed with diabetes in 2011. She had to stay in the hospital and made frequent visits to her doctor to get her situation under control, and could not return to Tunisia.

Around the same time, her home country of Tunisia was in turmoil. In December 2010, then-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown during the Arab Spring uprising. Since then, the country has faced deadly protests and economic pitfalls, including a lack of medication and healthcare for its citizens.

“It’s such a mess,” said Arfaoui. “[We] no longer have the hospitals that we used to have, no longer have the doctors that we used to have, and the educated people there, everyone left the country.”

The New York Times reported this week that half of newly registered doctors in Tunisia had left the country in 2018 to work elsewhere. According to several reports, as much as 60% of medications are not available in Tunisia.

If Arfaoui returns to Tunisia, there is no guarantee she will have the medication she needs, especially at an affordable price.

“My number one [priority] is really my medication,” Arfaoui said. “This is my only home, so that’s why I want a chance for a visa.” A visa would allow her to keep working at the university with medical benefits.

She says she’s working with her doctor on ways to stabilize her blood sugar and has tried other medications to control her levels, but she needs insulin to survive. Without it, her blood sugar levels will spike and drop dangerously, which could lead to death.

“She’s one of the very best,” said Rick Colby, associate professor of religious studies and a friend of Arfaoui. “It’d be a real tragedy if, because of a visa technicality, she weren’t able to come back to the University of Oregon, much less come back to the United States.”

The university is applying for an O1 visa on Arfaoui’s behalf. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website, an O1 visa is “for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics [. . .] and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.”

“That’s the case we’re making,” said David Hollenberg, department head and associate professor of Arabic & Islamic studies. “She has made a huge impact on a lot of students over the years she’s been teaching. There’s a flood of support that demonstrates that she is extraordinary.”

Arfaoui considers her students and colleagues to be like family, since she is so far away from hers. Michelle Sanders, a junior psychology and religious studies major, said Arfaoui became like a mother figure for her when her mom got sick her freshman year.

When her mom passed away, Arfaoui was accommodating and supportive, she said.

“She’s been a very influential person in my life,” Sanders said. “She really shows the culture that she represents very well.”

In addition to her school family, she’d like to have a baby with her husband, who teaches hotel management at SUNY in New York. Every summer, she travels to visit him and receives fertility treatments while there. Her husband is Turkish and has a green card.

Along with the O1 visa, Arfaoui has applied for a medical asylum visa, which would allow her to stay in the States for medical reasons with her husband. The first time she applied, she was rejected within a few hours.

Last October, she applied and was told she has to wait 15-18 months for a response. She still hasn’t heard back, and she needs to know by September whether or not she can stay in the states to work for the school. She’s running out of time and is uncertain about the future.

For Arfaoui, teaching her students is the reason she leaves the apartment in the morning and never brings stress or negativity into the classroom. In the meantime, she’s beginning to pack her things in anticipation of bad news.

“So what if there is nothing that I can do or the school can do? I have no idea. Just to look at my apartment right now, it is a mess. I am a mess,” Arfaoui said. “I used to see this in the movies, but now it’s me. It’s a horrible feeling.”

Emily is a senior news reporter for the Emerald. She covers student organizations on campus and is interested in covering small community news through solutions journalism. She is a journalism and Spanish double major.