SALT LAKE CITY — It was standing room only, as Yasaman Keshavarz stood with her husband and 26 other immigrants, repeating the words of an oath that pledged them to defend the constitution, the nation and renounce their citizenship in their home countries to become U.S. citizens.
She fled Iran six years ago, taking with her only what she could fit in her suitcases. Her husband, Zhubeen, left a few hours before, both worried it would be the last time they saw each other.
“For hours, I had no idea if he was safe,” Yasaman Keshavarz said. “The hardest part was not knowing what happened.”
They found each other in Turkey and knew Iran could never be their home again.
“I cannot go back to my country, I cannot be a citizen,” Zhubeen Keshavarz said.
Iran does not allow dual-citizenship. The nation’s constitution provides all Iranian born with citizenship, but warns it can be taken away if that person becomes citizen of another country. In fact, the U.S. Department of State warns against any travel to Iran, especially for Iranian-American nationals, after the government repeatedly arrested visitors and accused them of espionage. If they were to return to their home country, Yasaman Keshavarz said she and her husband would be considered criminals.
The decision to leave sounds like a difficult one, but the couple said they had to do it. The Keshavarzs practice the Bahai faith in a country that is primarily Muslim. The Keshavarzs said their religion attracted abuse from the community and their government, so they left, choosing to risk everything to find freedom in a new country.
“Religion was something I suffered. Because of my belief I, and many people like me, had to go through so many issues,” Yasaman Keshavarz said.
At one point she said her mother, while six months pregnant, was arrested and held for several days. No one in the family knew what happened until Yasaman Keshavarz was finally released.
Her crime: practicing the wrong faith.
“We couldn’t go to (the) university. We didn’t have any rights, actually,” Zhubeen Keshavarz said, “We come here to go to (the) university and be free.”
Yasaman Keshavarz added, ”The biggest thing here is the freedom.”
While in Turkey, Yasaman and Zhubeen went through a series of interviews and background checks with the FBI, United Nations and other groups to officially become refugees.
“The security system there is so intense,” said Yasaman Keshavarz. “I don’t know what else they could do. They get every single information they can get from you. If they think you made the tiniest mistake of not remembering a certain time, like when you had this specific job, they start questioning more and more to make sure you aren’t lying.”
The Keshavarzs were able to escape Iran with all of their documents, so the process only took them a few months, but other families weren’t so lucky.
“A two year old was stopped because he had the same name as a terrorist,” Yasaman Keshavarz said. Her own cousin, a single male, has been waiting more than two years to move past the first interview. He’s stuck in security limbo and as a refugee in Turkey, he has very few options.
“He pretty much has no idea what’s going to happen. He’s out of money, he doesn’t have a job,” Yasaman Keshavarz said.
It made the couple even more grateful for their chance at freedom.
“Just such a great feeling to belong to a country that refuged us,” Yasaman Keshavarz said, adding that she wished she could share that relief with more of her loved ones.
In our last meeting together, she told me she’s pregnant. It will be the first grandchild on both sides of the family.
“I was hoping my mom can come for the delivery and for being with me. This is my first child. She’s not able to come,” Yasaman Keshavarz said, adding that travel to the U.S. is too difficult while President Donald Trump’s travel ban remains a possibility.
The ban restricts travel from six Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. It fully bans immigration and temporarily bans refugees from those countries.
“It’s frustrating. It’s very emotional,” Yasaman Keshavarz said. “It’s really hard for them not to see the child. The good part is that we can video chat every day, we just can’t touch each other or be around each other. I am just really really really hoping something changes.”
Currently, the order is stuck in federal court as judges weigh arguments on one side that the ban is unconstitutional, while the other side argues it is a necessary protection for the country.
Behind the scenes, the Keshavarzs are just two of many hoping for a change. When the travel ban was first announced, Adan Batar, spokesperson for Christian Community Services, said refugees came to them immediately terrified their families were stuck.
“So far what we have been hearing is, ‘Is my spouse going to get the visa? (Are) my children going to be allowed to come in?’” Batar said.
Those questions are waiting to be answered in court. Meanwhile, Yasaman Keshavarz’s baby is due in November. She’s still holding out that somehow her parents will get their chance for freedom and won’t have to wait years to meet their first grandchild.
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