Waskar Ari's career with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln appeared to have ended before it began when he went to his native Bolivia to visit family.

Two years later, he was still there, his visa stuck between approval and rejection by Homeland Security.

Then, finally, his paperwork was approved without comment.

As he begins his fourth year here, Ari reflects on the experience.

Tangling with Homeland Security can change a person.

For history Professor Waskar Ari, when the tangling was over, it was like waking up from a bad dream, one he couldn't seem to shake. He continued to carry around that small feeling of dread.

Before, he was a dreamer of sorts. That's what people would say about him. But that was a few years back, before the bout with Homeland Security.

"Now I'm much more realistic," he said, sitting at his desk in a small office on Oldfather Hall's sixth floor.

He knows that just about anything can happen -- and will.

"I shouldn't take anything for granted."

* * *

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln hired the Bolivian, fresh out of a Georgetown University doctoral program, in the spring of 2005. He was to be an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies, and the history department viewed him as a prize catch.

Ari is a member of a Bolivian indigenous community and an expert on the indigenous history of Latin America. His experience and expertise fit nicely with UNL's emphasis on the history of Natives of the Great Plains.

But when the new hire went home to La Paz, Bolivia, to visit his family, he found his student visa had been cancelled and he couldn't get back into the United States. There was no real explanation why.

The university got to work and filled out what should have been a routine application for a visa for Ari. But immigration officials didn't accept the H-1B form. At the same time, they didn't reject it, either.

Weeks passed, then months, while Ari sat cooling his heels. In limbo.

Letters were sent on his behalf, explaining that Ari was a political moderate, not in any way a threat to national security. Pleas were made. No one from Lincoln or Georgetown or the American Historical Association which took up his cause could figure why Ari had been singled out.

The year faded into 2006, and that year came and went.

Barbara Weinstein, then president-elect of the American Historical Association, called it absurd.

Peter Levitov, UNL's special counsel on immigration, said it didn't make sense.

"I cannot suspect that because you write about indigenous people that you are a terrorist," Levitov said at the time.

Then finally, after two years of waiting, Ari received a passport and work visa from the U.S. Consulate in La Paz -- four months after UNL sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asking that it either act on the visa application or explain why not.

Ari arrived in Lincoln just days before the 2007 fall semester, prepared to teach courses on Latin American colonial history and colonial Mexico.

Michael Maggio, a Washington-based lawyer who represented UNL in its lawsuit against Homeland Security, said the U.S. agency never did explain. But he speculated Ari had been somehow linked to Bolivian President Evo Morales, a critic of the Bush administration. That link, he said, was totally baseless.

"The vetting of what Dr. Ari has endured is just short of what someone goes through to become a saint," he said at the time.

* * *

It's been three years now, four fall semesters of teaching at UNL.

He has tried to forget the two-year ordeal by concentrating on his work.

He's even had the courage to travel twice a year back to Bolivia to visit family and do research. Fifty percent of his job at UNL is research.

He's working on a book called "Earth Politics," a 50-year history of indigenous activist intellectuals in Bolivia. The manuscript, he said, is under consideration for publication by Duke University Press.

Ari is the only history or ethnic studies professor at UNL teaching about the South American area. This semester he's teaching a 100-level class called Power and Culture in Latin America and a 400/800-level course, Gender and Sexuality in Latin America. Other semesters he's taught such topics as Latin American international relations and the history of Brazil.

"I have the whole content of South America to talk about," he said.

Students here have been a bit challenging, he said. Some of them come to class, sit down and expect the professor to entertain them, he said. But he expects them to do the work so he knows they are making the connections, knows they are learning.

He pushes them to do that work.

Another faculty member once told him students liked him, but thought his classes were hard.

"Hard? I think I am so mild," he said.

* * *

Ari is settling into life in Nebraska.

Out of his office window in Oldfather is a close-up view of Memorial Stadium.

He bought a condo last year on U Street, near campus.

And his personal life?

"To tell you the truth, I don't really have a personal life," he said.

Not in Lincoln anyway, although he does get together on some Friday nights for dinner with three people -- his former landlord, a UNL staffer and someone who works at the Capitol -- from his old 18th and G streets neighborhood.

Mostly, his social life happens twice a year in Bolivia, he says.

"That could change over time," he offers.

Ari is divorced and has a 16-year-old daughter who spent last fall with him, attending Lincoln High School for a semester. She had also lived with him for a time at Georgetown.

For now, his life in Lincoln is in academia.

"I'm always learning. I get paid to learn. I feel privileged," he said.

Will he stay a long time in Lincoln?

He hesitates, trying to formulate the answer to that. After long seconds he answers: "I don't know if I will stay a long time. It's hard to say.

"I am a person who usually enjoys the present."

* * *

There is another thing that has contributed to Ari's belief that he must be more realistic about his life.

He got very sick last fall, and doctors finally discovered his appendix had gone bad, had eventually burst. It's a painful condition that can lead to serious complications, even death. In his case, it led to a liver infection. He thought for a while he might die.

It reinforced for Ari that life is unpredictable. It takes you one place, then, out of the blue, to another.

For now, he is working on getting permanent resident status, a "green card."

It will be good to no longer be on temporary visa status, he said. Every time he travels to Bolivia, he must stand in airport lines two to three hours. At first he was missing connecting flights. Now he pays more and stays overnight between flights.

"We don't live in a perfect world," he said.

But maybe a green card will make it a little less imperfect.

So was coming to Lincoln worth the lessons he has learned, the changes to his being?

"I would say yes," Ari said. "I can have this teaching, this work on my research. I can do something I like.

"It's important in life to do what you like."

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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