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“But I have a valid visa”: an Iranian researcher barred from flying to US for new job

Protestors Rally At JFK Airport Against Muslim Immigration Ban Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Samira Asgari had spent months planning her move from Switzerland to the United States. The 30-year-old Iranian had secured a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She’d won a prestigious award for her research in genomics that would even pay her salary at her new American lab. “I was really happy, and it felt like everything was going right,” she said.

But everything changed this morning, when Asgari flew from Geneva to Frankfurt. There, she attempted to board her second flight to Boston.

“A gentleman stopped me from boarding the plane,” she said. “He told me he was a consulate of the American government in Frankfurt and not allowing anybody with a number of nationalities to board planes to the United States. They had already unloaded my luggage and everything.”

Asgari was confused. “My first reaction was: But I have a valid visa.” But she was told she would not be allowed entry into the US under President Trump’s new executive order, which currently bars residents of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the country.

The man who identified himself as a consulate of the American government directed Asgari to book a plane back to Switzerland.

Asgari doesn’t know what will happen next. She and her boyfriend both quit their jobs at the end of the year in preparation for the move. They don’t have a place to live in Lausanne.

This whole experience has reshaped how Asgari thinks about the US. “America always seemed like a land of opportunity, that if you’re willing to be a part of this community, it reciprocate,” she said. “That has changed. The image of America as a country that is free and that has a history of fighting discrimination, of fighting biases — it’s like going a step back.”

We spoke Saturday night, after she’d returned to Lausanne. What follows is a transcript of our discussion, lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Kliff

Can you tell me a little bit about who you are, why you were traveling to the US, and what happened to you this morning?

Samira Asgari

For the past five and a half years I’ve been living in Switzerland and have been starting a research career. I applied for a postdoc in genomics in Boston, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I got interviews, and I got accepted. I got an award from Switzerland to pay my salary, so I was bringing my own salary with me.

I was going to do research on genomics of infectious disorders. I’m trying to understand how human genetics affect susceptibility to different infectious agents, and how we can help those people [with infections].

The first flight I had from Geneva to Frankfurt, there wasn’t a problem. I had a second flight from Frankfurt to Boston. Right at the gate, I had to show my boarding pass for the last time. They checked my passport, and there was a gentleman who stopped me from boarding the plane. He told me he is the consulate of the American government in Frankfurt and they are not allowing anybody with a number of nationalities to board planes to the US.

He said my visa is not valid, but it is still valid for two months. He told me this is an American government-issued visa, and they decided they are not valid, so I cannot board the plane. He suggested I go back and get a flight back to Switzerland.

They had already unloaded my luggage and everything. I was really shocked and frustrated because I’ve planned this for months, for this particular lab. I sat there for a little while, but then I came back.

Sarah Kliff

What was your first thought when it happened?

Samira Asgari

I was in the queue to enter the plane, and a gentleman came and took me out of the queue. He had me scan my passport, and it didn’t show a green light. He says, “You’re Iranian, can I talk to you in private?” He takes me two meters away, and he says I cannot go. I was really shocked. My first reaction was, I couldn’t believe this is really happening. My first reaction was: But I have a valid visa.

I asked whether this would change soon, and he said not for the next 120 days, and my visa will expire by then. He said I had to contact the embassy in Bern for help. He was there to execute the order. I was left to deal with it.

Sarah Kliff

Had you heard about the new immigration rules that President Trump had signed when this happened? Or was this a total surprise?

Samira Asgari

Of course I had heard about it when the news was released, but the actual executive order was Friday, and I had my flight tickets for the next morning. I was not sure what would happen. The order was talking about issuing immigrant visas, and I already had one. I had not expected to not be allowed to enter on a J-1 visa that is maximum a few years for research.

I’ve traveled to the US five times or more in the past six years, basically for conferences, and it’s never been a problem. It was so unbelievable that things are happening that are affecting my life so directly, especially in America.

This is the place everybody thinks that if you’re good enough, and work hard enough, you can reach anything you want. It’s a land of many generations of immigrants, many people who came on visas who have contributed to the community. My hope was I could bring my expertise and learn from the great research community in Boston. That didn’t happen.

Sarah Kliff

How do you feel right now?

Samira Asgari

I’m still a bit shocked. I’m very frustrated. I feel sad, of course. I’ve done interviews for postdoc positions since July, I’ve already been in the US for interviews, and then I started writing my grant proposal. I put a lot of research into that. It’s been a seven-month process. I feel something unfair has happened to me without [me] having any say to it.

Sarah Kliff

What are you planning to do next? I know you were planning to move to Boston. Do you have somewhere to live in Switzerland, or somewhere to work?

Samira Asgari

Both my boyfriend and I resigned from our contracts at the end of the year. Right now we have no jobs, no apartment. What happens tomorrow is a bit unsettling. We have decided we’ll try to do our best to control what happens.

First we’re trying to find a place to stay. Our old apartment said we can stay a night, and we have to leave tomorrow. My ex-colleagues and ex-supervisors, really all our friends, they have sent many messages saying we can stay with them, they have a guest room. Seeing all those messages has been very nice.

Sarah Kliff

How has this experience shaped how you think about the US?

Samira Asgari

I feel like I was believing in an image, all these stories of people who are second- and third-generation immigrants. They all help you build this image of a hospitable country. That image got unsettled.

All the Americans I’ve met, they’ve been extremely nice, very collaborative, very helpful. I believe most Americans are like that. I have no reason to believe otherwise. The lab I was supposed to join, my supervisor, I have no reason to believe otherwise about them. I had this image of America as a country that is free and that has a history of fighting discrimination and fighting biases. Now it’s like going a step back.


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