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Mihalopoulos: Iranian scholars here balk at Trump travel ban

Dr. Gholam Peyman receives the National Medal of Innovation and Technology from President Barack Obama at the White House in February 2013. | White House photo

Follow @dmihalopoulosIf you once had to wear glasses but are reading this without them, you owe it largely to an immigrant doctor from Iran — one of the seven countries targeted by President Donald Trump’s executive order.

Dr. Gholam Peyman’s 1989 patent for laser eye surgery stemmed from his work at the Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary on Taylor Street, when he was a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In 2013, Peyman was invited to the White House to receive the National Medal of Innovation and Technology, the highest honor the government awards to scientists, engineers and innovators.

“When Gholam Peyman first accepted a position at the University of Illinois, his office was a converted restroom,” then-President Barack Obama said in presenting the award. “But he carved out enough space for himself, his secretary and his lab equipment. And today, he’s known as the father of LASIK eye surgery.”

Peyman’s immigrant success story is another reminder that many foreigners who come here end up contributing much more than they receive.

OPINION

Follow @dmihalopoulosCrowds of protesters have jammed terminals at O’Hare and other international airports as Iranians, Syrians and many other would-be arrivals are detained at Trump’s command.

Many of the protesters say the new president’s effort goes against our ethos: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

But the U.S. has long accepted the energetic and highly gifted also. We benefit deeply from the brain drain of other countries, from the educated immigrants who feel this country presents the best opportunity to reach their full potential and help the greatest number of people.

Iranian professionals have made a disproportionately positive impact here, despite poor relations between Washington and their homeland’s government for the past 30-plus years.

Although Peyman left Chicago and continued his stellar career elsewhere, his compatriots are still accomplishing great things at UIC.

On the university’s website last summer, officials trumpeted the work of a team led by an Iranian engineering professor, Amin Salehi-Khojin. “Researchers in the College of Engineering have created a potentially game-changing solar cell that works like an artificial leaf, cheaply and efficiently converting carbon dioxide from the air directly into burnable hydrocarbon fuel, using only sunlight for energy,” UIC officials wrote of the breakthrough.

Trump threatens to alter the environment that allows such successes.

One Iran-born UIC professor said her plans to go to an academic conference in Italy in March are in jeopardy because of the executive order. Ironically — since she comes from an autocratic country — the professor asked not to be identified in this column. She fears that publicly criticizing the new U.S. president would guarantee she’s stopped by customs if she leaves and tries to re-enter the country.

Peyman, who’s now 79 and a naturalized American citizen, recently received approval of his 175th U.S. patent. He says he has always focused on his work, leaving little time to think about politics.

But he says he thinks the recent scenes at the nation’s border posts could discourage talented would-be immigrants from pursuing careers here.

“I’ve done a lot of things in this country that would not be possible in any other place in the world,” he said in a telephone interview from Arizona, where he continues to practice medicine. “I don’t understand what the whole issue is now with foreigners and immigrants. It’s been mutually beneficial, not one-sided.”

The best and brightest could go to other countries, where they feel more welcome than they do here.

“It’s unfortunate for the U.S. if it loses the brainpower that comes from other countries,” Peyman says. “People who come to this country and leave their country want to contribute. They work hard and appreciate it. We don’t take anything for granted. Not just Iranians. Immigrants from any country appreciate what they have here.”

The president says his approach will provide greater safety. But he should be mindful of the harm he could do to our status as a leader in humanity’s scientific progress.

Tweets by @dmihalopoulos