Select Page

Tensions between the two countries have created uncertainty and worries of being permanently separated from loved ones

Sorena Amirkhani has spent half his life struggling to understand why his father must live in a country on the other side of the world. This week, the 11 year-olds questions about his dad took on new urgency: he wanted to know if he would lose him in a third world war.

Amirkhani lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his mother and sister, while his father lives in Tehran, Irans capital, and has been barred from the United States for years under Donald Trumps travel ban. While the renewed conflict between Iran and the US this week has spread anxiety among Iranian Americans across the United States, the international crisis has created particular uncertainty for families torn apart by Trumps immigration policies, with rising fears about a potential war permanently separating loved ones.

My kids cry so much, said Fatemeh Karimi Alamdari, Sorenas mother. She said she struggled to respond when her panicked son asked her: World War III has started. What will happen to daddy? Does he have to go to war?

I try to calm them down but they are stressed. Its a really hard time, she said.

It has been five years since Fatemeh Karimi Alamdari and her family, son Sorena Amirkhani (now 11), left, and daughter Sabrina (now 14), right, have lived with their father, Farshad Amirkhani. Photograph: The Guardian

The US assassination of the senior Iranian general Qassem Suleimani on the third day of the new year sparked rapidly intensifying tensions in the Middle East. Five days later, Iran retaliated, launching more than a dozen missiles at Iraqi bases hosting US troops.

After there were no reports of casualties, Trump announced he would back away from further strikes. A day later, Trump made Suleimanis death a theme at his first re-election rally of 2020.

Persian communities across America read the dizzying headlines with a sense of dread, some reliving painful memories of war, others growing afraid of a new wave of discrimination in the US, and many concerned about the safety of loved ones in Iran.

Families ripped apart: I cant take this anymore

Some Iranian American families have been caught in an agonizing waiting game for three years. In his first week in office, Trump implemented his signature anti-immigrant campaign promise, a travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries. The policy, upheld by the US supreme court, created harsh restrictions blocking travelers from the targeted countries that require people in the US to apply for waivers and argue it would cause undue hardship if they were denied and that its in the national interest of the US to let them in. That process has been marked by long delays, and Iranians are the largest group affected.

More than 30,000 Iranians seeking visitor and permanent visas to the US have been denied since 2017. Roughly 10,000 of them are now stuck in an indefinite administrative process, still hoping waivers will grant them visas. That means Iranians with spouses, children, parents, and other relatives in the US cannot live their lives in America as they had planned, many forced to live thousands of miles apart with no opportunity for a visit. The US is home to an estimated 1m Iranian Americans.

Protesters denounce the presidents travel ban outside of the Los Angeles International Airport in 2017. Photograph: Eugene Garcia/EPA

I cant take this anymore, said Kia Nasseri, a 61-year-old engineer who lives in Rancho Santa Margarita in southern California, a region home to the largest Iranian population outside of Iran.

Nasseri was born in Iran and has lived in the US for 40 years. He married his wife, an Iranian woman, in 2016, and she secured a green card to live here. But the couple has been unable to get approval for her teenage daughter to join them. They applied in June 2017, when she was 17 years old.

The daughter, now 19, has left Iran and is stuck traveling between Turkey, Armenia and Ecuador to not overstay visas. Her mother joins her when she can.

Im a US citizen. Why are you doing this to your own citizens? said Nasseri this week, noting that his wife and stepdaughter both suffer from depression and anxiety.

America is the home he has known most of his life, and he loves California, but with news of potential war in recent days, Nasseri said at times he felt like he wanted to give up: This is not the America I used to know I told my wife, If this is going to be war, should I put the house up for sale, stop everything, and we move to another country?

Roya Ghobadi, left, is stuck in Iran, blocked by the travel ban, while her fianc, Seyed Amin Sam Motaghedi, lives in California. Photograph: The Guardian

Seyed Amin Sam Motaghedi, a 33-year-old specialist at a biotech laboratory in Belmont, in northern California, said he often wakes up in the middle of the night plagued by anxiety about the safety of his fiancee, Roya Ghobadi. She is stuck in Malayer, a small city in western Iran, blocked by the travel ban.

This week was especially painful for the couple as they contemplated the potential hardships of war during their daily video calls, said Motaghedi, who fears the region would suffer severe consequences and his fiance would experience even more difficulties traveling: If war happens, they are not going to have food, not going to have water, they may not have electricity.

Ghobadi, who interviewed with the US embassy in August 2018, is eager to leave Iran, and when Iran-US conflicts boil over, she craves normalcy, he said: She says, Why am I not there to be with you and to have a regular life?

They dont know when they will see each other next.

No relief in sight, no sympathy from the US government

Curtis Morrison, a California attorney representing Nasseri, Motaghedi and other families in ongoing lawsuits against the US state department, said the threats of war could make the travel ban cases even harder. As conflicts erupt, courts are more likely to consider the US broad claims about national security, he said: I worry they are going to tighten restrictions at a time they should be loosening them.

When he argued in court this week that his clients cases should be expedited as the conflict threatened their loved ones, a US attorney for the state department responded that distress over what will happen to family members in Iran given recent US military action did not justify speeding up the process.

It just makes me angry, said Morrison, who has represented more than 80 people in travel ban cases. We cant tell people that are terrified for their families in a war zone we are getting ready to bomb, who they may not see again, that there is no urgency.

Masoud Abdi hasnt seen his wife, Shima Montakhabi, in three years. Photograph: The Guardian

A state department spokesperson declined to comment on the litigation and individual cases. In court filings, the government recently argued that the lawyers cases were far from stalled or inactive, noting that some of plaintiffs have had their visas approved since the suits were filed.

Thats of little comfort to Masoud Abdi, who hasnt seen his wife, Shima Montakhabi, in three years. Abdi, a 43-year-old Champaign, Illinois, resident, said he cant afford to go to Tehran to visit her, and his wife, a veterinarian, cant come to the US while her case is pending. They video chat as much as possible, and when Iran blocked the internet during protests last year, it was horrible to lose contact, he said.

We need each other, said Abdi. He said he gets so depressed sometimes that he has no energy to leave his home. New Years, birthdays, anniversaries we dont have these good times with each other.

Fatemeh Karimi Alamdari, the Kentucky mother, noted that her son was six and daughter was nine when they first moved to the US, believing her husband would not be far behind. Now, they have started middle school and high school, graduating without their father to cheer them on.

My husbands dream is to come here, she said. We came for a better life, a better future, but after five years we couldnt make that happen.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/10/does-daddy-have-to-go-to-war-iranian-americans-fear-for-family-left-behind-by-travel-ban