New York Times
By Jennifer Medina
March 19, 2017
LOS ANGELES — As customers swarmed her small grocery store on Westwood Boulevard, Minoo Yousefi hurriedly set out more bunches of hyacinths and tulips. This was one of the busiest times of year, with Nowruz, the Persian New Year and celebration of the first day of spring, just days away.
And as she had done for decades, Ms. Yousefi had already begun preparing the special dishes of herbed rice and lamb to serve her family.
But this year something would be missing. Her mother and brother would not join the celebration. They are stuck in Iran, their visas — meant to bring them here in time for Nowruz festivities, which begin on Monday — canceled two days after the Trump administration’s initial travel ban went into effect at the end of January. They briefly considered trying again when the ban was lifted, but decided against it when they heard a new ban would come soon.
For hundreds of Iranian-Americans in Southern California, who traditionally travel back and forth to be with family for Nowruz, long-held plans and family gatherings have been disrupted because of uncertainty over the ban. Weddings that were scheduled around the holiday have been postponed, and elderly relatives are fearful they will never see their grandchildren again.
For many members of the diaspora, this is the first time since arriving in the United States after the Iranian revolution of 1979 that they feel that they cannot risk leaving the country for fear they will not be allowed to return.
“This is so sad, it’s just crazy,” Ms. Yousefi said. She has been here for 35 years and became a citizen decades ago. She has helped her mother, who is in her 90s, travel to Los Angeles almost a dozen times.
“We don’t know what we will do,” she added. “My mother is old. She is going to pass away soon. My daughter may not be able to see her again, and that would kill her. This is supposed to be a time of celebration, but I am so anxious.”
The Los Angeles region has the largest Iranian diaspora in the world, with a population in the tens of thousands. With signs in Farsi on almost every storefront, a strip of Westwood Boulevard is officially deemed Persian Square, and residents sometimes refer to the city as Tehrangeles.
The families here are close knit and represent a powerful sector politically and economically. They are part of one of the most educated immigrant groups, with many working in academia, medicine, real estate and technology. The population is diverse and complex; though most are Democrat, there is a significant Jewish segment that supported Donald J. Trump, believing he would take a more hard-line approach with the Iranian government.
Farhad Besharati, owner of the ATT Vacation travel agency in Los Angeles, said of his customers, “They all worry they will never be able to see family members again, their homes again.” Angie Smith for The New York Times
As Iranian-Americans prepare to commemorate Nowruz, a widely celebrated ancient secular holiday that marks the spring equinox with elaborate symbolic spreads, or haft-sin, the chatter has focused less on recipes and more on exchanging stories about thwarted travel plans and relatives stuck in limbo.
Many fled Iran after the revolution, which ushered in the Islamic Republic, or during the eight-year war with Iraq that followed. And for them, the travel ban is a frightening reminder of religious rule by the authoritarian government they left behind.
“This is America, where we came for freedom,” Ms. Yousefi said. “We have mullahs in Iran. We do not need that here.”
A running joke among Iranians here is that when they arrived in the United States, they did not unpack their suitcases, because they planned to go back, believing that the religious government would grow moderate. But many are now raising a third generation of American-born children, and the ban feels like a stinging rebuke.
While traveling back to Iran is costly, many Iranians in the United States consider themselves obligated to do so, not only to visit relatives but also to keep their children connected to Persian culture.
Reluctant to give up on plans to someday return, some older residents have kept property in Iran. Mohebat Azimpour, 70, said he still maintained a life in Isfahan, in central Iran.
He is a green card holder and had planned to go back this week to try to sell his house and to celebrate the holiday with his sisters. But he canceled his trip, worried that he would not be allowed back into the United States. He traveled from his home in Austin, Tex., to Los Angeles to visit his daughter and her family instead.
“All my friends and family there were waiting for me to be there this New Year, but everyone agrees it’s best for me to wait,” Mr. Azimpour said. “I’m concerned that my retirement is in jeopardy if I don’t go back soon. I have so much at stake in Iran, I don’t have a choice. I have to go even if it’s hard.”
For the past two months, customers have come in distraught to see Farhad Besharati, who has owned the ATT Vacation travel agency in Persian Square for 25 years. Most of his clients are elderly green card holders who were horrified to see people like themselves detained in airports for days, he said.
Roughly 70 percent of the flights he had booked for this month were canceled, he said. Fearful of losing repeat customers and feeling guilty that the flights were nonrefundable, Mr. Besharati returned their money anyway, losing more than $100,000, he said.
“They are all scared,” Mr. Besharati said. “They don’t want to get stuck. They don’t want their parents stuck here.”
He has been trying to reassure customers that it is safe to travel. But his advice has done little to quell their fears.
“Even if you are following the news, you cannot understand what is happening,” he said. “They all worry they will never be able to see family members again, their homes again.”
Perhaps, Mr. Besharati said, it will calm down by the summer, another peak travel season to Iran.
Not everyone is as optimistic.
Typically, at least half of the nearly 250 Iranian graduate students at the University of California, Irvine, return home for Nowruz, but this year none of them are daring to leave campus, said Touraj Daryaee, a professor who runs the Center for Persian Studies there.
He is organizing an international conference at the college scheduled for next year. But many of the scholars, including Iranians living in other countries, have said they are not willing to risk traveling to the United States. He is now considering moving the event to Canada.
“People are all horrified with dismay, we thought that relationships were improving,” Professor Daryaee said. “Instead, we are all paranoid and scared. The student visas do not come with any promise of getting in again.”
Even American-born citizens are on edge. Farideh Farrohi, 69, had planned to go to Tehran with her son this month. But she and her son, who was born in Los Angeles and is a medical student, canceled their plans because he was worried about the current climate. Ms. Farrohi said she would go with or without him this summer.
“What’s the worst that can happen to me — they insult me?” she said over lunch at a Persian cafe. “They have already insulted all of us with these absurd rules.”
The change in immigration and visa laws has altered the Nowruz celebrations in more subtle ways, too. Sahinaz Safari has been attending the Persian Alumni Association’s holiday events at Stanford University for years, which usually feature talks from successful entrepreneurs or cultural experts. This year, participants heard from the executive director of the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and information booths with immigration lawyers were set up.
“It’s not just about culture,” Ms. Safari, an Iranian-Canadian graduate student, said. “It’s now also asking what we can do as a community, what we should be doing to take a risk and fight back.”
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on March 20, 2017, on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Horrified With Dismay’: Travel Ban Dampens a Holiday.
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