An Iranian student's struggle to reunite with his girlfriend and continue his education at HSU


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When Mohammad Maleki finally arrived at the small Turkish hotel room down the road from the airport, he put down his luggage — which held a bag of Iranian pistachios he'd bought for a professor — and crashed onto the bed to sleep.

He didn't know it yet, but that small brown room down the street from the Istanbul airport would become his temporary home as he waited out the executive order President Donald Trump had signed the day before, banning people from seven majority Muslim countries — including Maleki's native Iran — from entering the United States.

All together, HSU has 108 international students who are studying in California using F1 or J1 visas, which are for visitors and students. Twenty-eight of those hail from areas considered part of the Middle East and three are from the countries originally banned in Trump's order: Maleki, his girlfriend and a student from Yemen.

Maleki was HSU's only international student who had trouble traveling back to Arcata for the spring semester, according to the school's international department. According to the Washington Post, the 23-year-old was one of more than 42,500 Iranians affected by the travel ban, which was signed with little coordination or warning, leading to chaotic scenes in airports around the world as some 90,000 travelers were temporarily denied entry into the United States.

On Jan. 28, the day after Trump signed the executive orders, Maleki found himself facing the toughest decision of his life. With a student visa and a strong desire to reunite with his girlfriend in Arcata and finish his studies, Maleki was stranded in that small hotel room in Turkey. Ultimately, Maleki would see all his plans hang in limbo as the country he'd called home for almost two years denied him, twice.

"It's a right for a country to regulate and protect their borders," Maleki said. "But the way he [President Trump] did it was unacceptable."

Maleki sat in the back of his class in Founders Hall at the top of a hill overlooking Arcata. When his professor walked into the classroom with a pen behind each ear, Maleki's back straightened and he prepared to take notes. Professor Jared Larson began his PowerPoint lecture: "Understanding People in Politics."

Maleki was customarily well dressed in a black sweater, dark blue jeans and leather loafers without socks. He took brief notes with his left hand. Every few minutes, he would nudge his glasses up his nose and offer Larson an understanding nod.

The political science major is hoping to become an international civil rights lawyer and follow in his mother's footsteps. Maleki grew up in a family that valued the American education system. He and his younger brother Amir were born and raised in Tehran, Iran, but moved as kids to study in Dubai, where they attended American schools. They kept a resident visa in the United Emirates but returned to Iran to see family.

Both Maleki's parents studied in the United States and he chose HSU because it's located in a small town, which his parents thought would help him stay focused on his studies.

The Maleki brothers first arrived in Humboldt County back in July of 2015, and remember deplaning at about 6 p.m. after some 20 hours of travel. They were among the only people in the airport, and recalled walking outside to find the streets empty. They surveyed their surroundings and couldn't believe all the trees.

"We came from Dubai where there were no trees, and it was so beautiful and so quiet," Maleki said.

Flying from Dubai, one of the newest cities in the world and home to some of the world's tallest buildings, Arcata seemed small. There were very few people in sight as they checked into a Motel 6 for the night. "I thought we had flown into the wrong place," Amir Maleki said.

About two years later, stuck in Istanbul, Maleki awoke with a start. He'd just had a now recurring nightmare of being arrested and detained on his way back to HSU. He flipped on the TV and cycled through his phone's news feed. He looked for any clue as to the future of the travel bans that were now intertwined with his own.

Halfway across the world, Maleki's girlfriend muffled back her sobs and wiped away tears when she spoke to him on the phone. Jasmine Moeinitabar, a music major, followed Maleki to HSU after the pair spent his first year in Arcata apart. When Moeinitabar arrived on campus, she was studying biology, following her father's hopes of seeing her become a doctor. But she wasn't happy and couldn't imagine practicing medicine for the rest of her life. With a little nudge from Maleki, she followed her passion, switching her major to music so she could spend her days singing, composing and playing the violin.

"Every day, I woke up and there were some changes in the news," Moeinitabar said of that period in late January. "I don't really follow the news. But for Mohammad, I did."

Illustrating the political and arbitrary nature of the travel ban is the fact that it only ensnared Maleki because of a hiccup he encountered while getting his student visa several weeks earlier — one that delayed him just long enough to be banned.

After a routine interview in the American Consulate of Dubai about three weeks before attempting to travel, Maleki went to his local post office to get his renewed visa and passport. He said he expected to find his visa tucked inside the passport, as he had in the past. But this time, something was wrong and he found only a small yellow slip of paper that read, "under administrative process."

Worried, Maleki called his international lawyer to ask what administrative processing could mean. The lawyer told Maleki his visa had been flagged and it could take two to three weeks for it to be cleared.

As the beginning of HSU's spring semester approached just days away, Maleki grew even more nervous. He watched his girlfriend and brother leave on Jan. 17. Finally, after about two weeks of waiting, Maleki received his visa and booked the first flight he could, which was scheduled to depart Jan. 28. On the first school day of HSU's semester, Maleki checked into the International Airport of Dubai, watched as agents stamped his one-time visa and walked to the desk to check his luggage and get a boarding pass.

Right away, Maleki could tell something was wrong. Officials told him he could not fly to the United States and brought him to a side area, where he saw a handful of Iranian families. "Some of them were waiting and some were crying," Maleki said.

Maleki nervously waited and watched as the time passed when he should have boarded the plane to take him to school. For hours, Maleki waited. He called his family and his international lawyer. There was no telling when the travel ban would lift. Maleki faced one of the most difficult decisions of his life. Because he had a one-time visa that had already been stamped, he couldn't leave the airport or the visa would be void. He also couldn't enter the United States.

With some quick thinking, Maleki found one of the only neighboring countries that would accept him without a visa. He booked a 5 a.m. flight to Istanbul. Tired and worried, he curled up in the corner of the airport's mosque. Using his backpack as a pillow, he tried to sleep but was awoken throughout the night as people came in to pray.

After being jolted awake by that nightmare in his Turkish hotel room, Maleki sent emails to HSU's international department and his professors letting them know about his current situation. Larson — the HSU political science professor and designated recipient of those Iranian pistachios — said he was on the phone with someone when he got the message. He put the phone down to respond immediately.

"I am so sorry to hear this news and for what has happened to you," Larson wrote, saying the news left him ashamed, embarrassed and angry. "I don't know how to express to you how your absence in class, because of this policy, upsets me. There are no words to properly describe how I feel now. You will be missed and I hope that this situation changes sooner rather than later and you can return — if you want to."

Maleki spoke to Moeinitabar every day, which was difficult due to the time difference. She had already been in class for three weeks when Maleki tried to fly into the United States for a second time on Feb. 2, booking a flight that took him from Istanbul to Boston with a layover in Frankfurt, Germany.

Maleki had been following every bit of news he could about the Boston judge who temporarily suspended the executive orders. He had been getting texts from Iranian friends also studying in the United States, who told him of their success entering the country through Boston.

He boarded the plane to Frankfurt without any problems. He then tried to hold back his hopes as he got into the boarding line for a flight to Boston. He said he waited in a long line, right behind an Iranian woman who was attempting to see her son for the first time in a couple of years.

As Maleki approached the gate, he noticed an airline official ushering handfuls of people to the side. A feeling of dread swept over him as he and the woman in front of him were told the airline could not allow them to travel. Again, Maleki found himself in limbo, minus the $1,000 nonrefundable cost of his plane ticket.

"To be honest, they treated me like a criminal," Maleki said. "But I am only a student."

Short on money and tired of the saga he found himself in, Maleki booked the first flight he could back to Istanbul and would check back into the same small, brownish hotel room he'd stayed in before. There Maleki confronted the options before him: He could return to Iran, which would mean suspending his studies for two years of mandatory military service or he could keep trying to fight through the travel ban in order to continue his education and reunite with his girlfriend.

He was exhausted from days of travel and stress — and found himself hungrily eyeing the pistachios in his suitcase, which represented a tantilizing taste of home. But he refrained and decided to keep trying, returning to the routine of sifting through news feeds for any sort of information that could dictate his future. On Feb. 3, he got it — a federal judge in Seattle had put a national halt on President Trump's executive orders.

Unlike the temporary Boston repeal, which only lasted for seven days and was limited to Massachusetts, this halt was national. On Feb. 4, at about 3 p.m., Malaki's father texted him saying he needed to buy a ticket. Now.

Still uncertain, Maleki called the Istanbul airport, which told him that — as of that moment — he would be able to fly to the United States. They made no guarantees about if or when that might change. He booked a flight to San Francisco for the next day.

On Feb. 5, Maleki arrived at the airport four hours before his plane was scheduled to depart. He checked his luggage and got his boarding pass.

When he got in line at the gate, he was even more anxious than during his previous attempts. He was low on money and wouldn't be able to try again. This was his last chance. He approached the gate, straight faced but nervous, and handed over his boarding pass.

Something was wrong again. An airline official pulled him to the side and told him he needed to wait for a supervisor who handles immigration. For a long 45 minutes, Maleki waited to speak with the Turkish airline official, who was confirming his travel with United States Customs and Immigration Enforcement. Finally, a supervisor approached Maleki — it was good news, he was cleared to travel but needed to board immediately.

Maleki stepped onto the plane, a reunion with his girlfriend and his HSU studies — along with the future he'd envisioned for himself — were all once again within reach. As he searched for his seat, relief washed over him.

He sat down and typed one last message into his phone: "I made it." He hit send. To everyone.

"And that was it." he said.

Two days after Maleki arrived in Arcata, he met with Larson to go over the first exam and several assignments he'd missed. Maleki handed Larson the bag of pistachios which had made the journey with him from Dubai to Istanbul to Frankfurt, then back to Istanbul and to the United States. Larson was surprised and told Maleki he should have just looked after himself.

"It was no problem for me," Maleki told him.

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday you can find Maleki washing dishes in the Jolly Green Giant, the cafeteria for HSU students living in the dorms. "I like washing the dishes there because you get to listen to music," he said.

Maleki and his brother share a two-bedroom apartment in Bayside, with Moenitibar nearby in the same complex. When not studying, Maleki passes his time watching documentaries or playing around with his camera.

Moenitibar said she loves her life on the North Coast, and has welcomed its culture — and especially the prominence of art in the community. Moenitibar said Iranian universities don't have music programs and generally undervalue the arts, so she's especially grateful for the opportunity Humboldt has brought her. She dreams of becoming a composer.

But she and Maleki are still somewhat in limbo, unsure of when they'll be able to return home to see their families and whether she'll be able to finish her education here.

The second iteration of Trump's travel ban has also been hung up by the courts, and it seems likely the issue is ultimately destined to be decided by the United States Supreme Court months from now.

While Maleki's visa lasts until he graduates in 2019 — meaning that even if the ban is upheld Maleki can stay here until completing his studies — Moeinitaba's will expire next year, well before her graduation in 2020. Her future uncertain, Moeinitabar is trying to remain optimistic.

"I want to keep studying here as long as [President Trump] doesn't stop me," she said.


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