After Trump’s travel ban, six days in limbo
For 4,615 days, Hamid Reza Jalili followed the rules and waited. He filled out forms, paid fees, endured medical exams, filled out forms again. His family flew twice to the US Embassy in Turkey for interviews.
It was the price he had to pay so his family could leave Iran and settle in New England, where he would be closer to relatives who’d left long ago, where his daughters wouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens in the male-dominated culture of their homeland.
Finally, on Oct. 27, he got what he’d spent more than a decade waiting for: The US government had granted visas to Jalili, an anesthesiologist; his wife, a pediatrician; and their two daughters.
They were coming to America.
They quit their jobs. Pulled the kids out of school. Sold their two Hyundais. Relatives in New Hampshire had a celebratory 12-pound prime rib trussed and ready in a roasting pan. They were scheduled to board a flight that left Tehran at 2:50 a.m. last Sunday.
But that was too late for them.
Jalili and his family remained trapped in Tehran last week, casualties of President’s Trump’s travel ban. During an interview Thursday, he trained his smartphone camera on his daughters, two ashen-faced girls who had been crying since Sunday. The younger daughter, a seventh-grader, wore her hair in a thick braid. The 19-year-old had just started veterinarian school.
“Do they look like terrorists to you?” Jalili asked.
. . .
Jalili was the last member of his extended clan left in Iran.
His family knew the United States well, their ties to the nation stretching half a century. His father, an officer in the Iranian army, trained for long periods in the United States during President Eisenhower’s administration, a time when relations were warm between the Iranian and American governments. A family picture showed Jalili’s father at Fort Sill, Okla., sitting on an overturned wooden artillery crate and eating buffalo meat with a US commander.
A major general, Jalili’s father was paid extra for the time he served in the United States. He used the money as a down payment for the family home in Tehran. He used to joke that he should fly an American flag from his house.
Jalili’s brother, Ali Reza Jalili, now 63, came in 1975 to study at the University of Virginia. The first time he entered the country, he recalled, a customs officer stamped his passport and said, “Another intelligent guy from Iran.”
He never planned to stay, but the world changed and love interceded. After the Iranian revolution, Ali Reza Jalili felt unwelcome amidst the fundamentalism and anti-intellectual fervor that gripped his homeland. While studying for a doctorate in Manchester, N.H., he met a Greek girl. He used miniature red roses to spell out, “Will you marry me?” on her bed.
He became a US citizen in the early 1990s. His mother followed in 2003. His father became a permanent resident. Other siblings are scattered: one in London, two in Stockholm.
. . .
As physicians, Hamid Reza Jalili and his wife, Baharehsadat Khamesi, had good jobs in Tehran, but they wanted to be close to his parents and give their children more. He filed his initial immigration petition on March 10, 2004. His family still has the canceled check for $130 made out to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration, a federal agency that hasn’t existed for a decade.
In the 13 years since he first petitioned to immigrate, Jalili and his wife had a second daughter. His father died and was buried in New Hampshire.
Their visa applications gained momentum. US immigration authorities traced Jalili’s schooling back to first grade, checked every address where he had lived since 1992. The State Department vetted. Homeland Security vetted. The FBI vetted.
When their visas were finally approved in October, Jalili started dissolving their lives in Iran. They bade farewell to friends and packed 13 suitcases for the flight to Boston.
They all had “permanent resident visa’’ plastered in their passports with the promise of green cards once they arrived.
. . .
It was election night in the United States, and Hamid Reza Jalili chatted via video with his brother in New Hampshire. They watched as states turned blue and red, and the map tilted to Trump. The older brother told him not to worry.
“I told him this is a country governed by rule of law,” Ali Reza Jalili said. “I said even God cannot take that away from you.”
Hamid Reza Jalili wanted to come before Trump’s inauguration, but his brother told him there was no hurry. They were having floors refinished to prepare for their arrival. Jalili’s brother, an economics and accounting professor at New England College, assured them “Trump didn’t have the power” to block their visas.
But presidents apparently do have that power. One week after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order barring most lawful immigrants from seven nations, including Iran.
“He is doing it as a show, a reality show,” Jalili’s older brother said. “He does things for shock value.”
Still, Hamid Reza Jalili remained so confident he and his family would soon arrive in the United States that he had begun studying a manual his brother mailed him for the driver’s license test in New Hampshire.
. . .
Last Sunday was rainy in Tehran. The Jalili family went to the airport, where they were stopped 90 minutes before takeoff. The Lufthansa Airlines crew told them they were barred from the flight by Trump’s immigration order.
“I never thought after 13 years they could do this to me,” Jalili said in Persian in a video interview last week from Tehran. “I never thought a country that has the Statue of Liberty as its symbol, that prides itself as a beacon of democracy, would do this. I would expect this in Iran, or Iraq, or some other country, but not in the United States.”
With the camera of his smartphone, Jalili panned across the chaos of his condominium, where furniture had been packed to be sold. Suitcases were strewn about.
His daughters waved meekly to the camera. “Hello,” said the seventh-grader in English. “Nice to meet you,” said the aspiring veterinarian with more confidence.
Like thousands of other banned immigrants and refugees, the Jalili family lived in a netherworld, trapped between the life they bid goodbye in Tehran and the future they could almost touch in New Hampshire.
Jalili was frustrated because he followed the immigration rules only to have the US government fail to honor their visas. If he had been rejected years ago, Jalili would have looked to another country or stayed put.
“Why are we, because of our national origin, being singled out?” Jalili asked. “What have we done that we are being punished for animosity between two governments?”
He said he would like to show Trump a picture of his family and to ask the president if he really thought that two physicians who have had relatives living in the United States for four decades wanted to harm the country.
But really, Jalili said he wanted to “talk to the American people.”
“I want to thank them for spending their time defending someone who is a few thousand miles away in a strange country,” Jalili said, referring to the lawyers who fought the ban and the thousands who protested against it. “I really want to shake their hands and thank them for their responsibility and their kindness.”
Last week from Tehran, Hamid Reza Jalili bid his brother goodbye. The screen went blank. Ali Reza Jalili stared at his phone.
. . .
Saturday marked 4,715 days since Hamid Reza Jalili had applied to immigrate. In Tehran, the family returned to the airport.
At the third and final passport checkpoint, there was a problem. The Lufthansa crew cleared Jalili, his wife, and their seventh-grader. But for an unknown reason, the crew would not allow their 19-year-old, Helia Jalili, on the plane.
The family, in tears, decided they would all turn back. But the teen refused.
“Mom and Dad, go,” the girl said, according to her uncle. “Go to the United States.”
On the first flight, Hamid Reza Jalili and his wife cried. They kept looking at the empty seat, thinking of their 19-year-old. They left her with a relative, and she has a ticket on the same Lufthansa flight Sunday.
When they landed in Frankfurt, the family learned of the federal court ruling in Seattle that blocked Trump’s travel ban, although it was unclear whether the decision facilitated their departure. They relaxed on the flight to Boston, confident about their older daughter’s chances.
At Logan International Airport, Ali Reza Jalili bounced excitedly on his toes, scanning faces in the arrival hall. Handwritten signs in Persian, Arabic, and English said “Welcome” and “It’s still America.”
At 2:25 p.m, there he was.
Ali Reza Jalili rushed to his brother. People applauded. The brothers clasped hands, hugging as they kissed eachother’s cheeks.
“I am happy, but my happiness is not complete,” Hamid Reza Jalili said, thinking about his older daughter. “If she can come here tomorrow, my happiness will be complete.”