Amid heavy snow and transit chaos, a weary University of Washington student landed at Vancouver airport on Monday night, locked in a race against time.
Behind him, he leaves a loving family, worried they might never see him again, and nervous about his future in North America.
Why? Because this student happens to have been born in Iran.
Here we tell the exclusive story of Arash, as he races from Iran to the US, through Vancouver, trying to outrun Donald Trump’s travel ban.
For Arash – who did not want to reveal his last name – the story should have started in Seattle, where he’s lived for four years, studying for a PhD, on a student visa. But, when Trump signed his executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from the US two weeks ago, Arash was in Iran visiting his family.
Arash, 31, told Daily Hive this was the first time he had seen his family in four years, because Iranian students in the US lose their visa every time they leave the country.
“I went there to make them happy…My parents were so happy in the beginning,” said Arash. “But they were super nervous about the executive order and my future. They even felt a little bit guilty, even though I said it is out of our control.”
Arash had left for his trip to Iran in December, not expecting Trump to take such swift action, and had applied for a new student visa at the US Consulate in Vancouver.
“My concern was getting my visa again – not getting my visa then not being able to enter the US,” said Arash. “The executive order was surprising for me, and I think it was surprising for American people as well.”
But with the travel ban in place, Arash was now trapped in Iran, unable to return to the US border even if his new visa was approved, for fear of being turned away and deported.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s the worst thing,” said Arash.
Soon, Arash got help from the union for student workers at the University of Washington, UAW Local 4121, which jumped into action to try to get him back to the US. Their best chance came when the travel ban was suddenly blocked by a federal judge last week, after Washington state and Minnesota won a temporary restraining order against it.
If Arash could make it back to the US before that temporary order was lifted, he could continue his studies, instead of seeing four years of of his life and work wasted.
“I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to all my family members,” said Arash, who travelled for around 40 hours to get from his family home in northern Iran to Vancouver. “But when I got here last night, I was not thinking of how tired I am, I was thinking, ‘OK, I’m getting closer to my friends in Seattle,’ so that was a good feeling.”
Arash was met at the airport by one of the union’s Executive Board Members, Sam Sumpter, and another union colleague who did not wish to be named. A volunteer in Vancouver put them up for the night.
First thing on Tuesday, Arash was at the US Consulate to get over the final hurdle of a difficult visa application process already imposed on Iranian students travelling to the US.
“First, there’s no US embassy in my country, so you have to go to another country to do a visa interview,” said Arash, who made his application in Vancouver before he left for Iran. “Then, if they say your visa is ready to be issued, you have to go to that country again to have a second interview.”
The whole process can take months, says Arash, and even then, you can be rejected. And while some students are granted multiple-entry visas, Iranians only get single-entry visas.
“So you can stay in the US on a student visa, but you cannot leave. If you leave, you have to apply for a visa again and do all of the steps from the beginning.”
This was why Arash had not visited his family until now, despite their repeated requests for him to come to Iran.
Arash told us those were the hardest questions he had to answer in the last four years.
“I just said, ‘Hopefully, very soon, very soon, very soon. I repeated that answer many times,” he said.
“My parents are old, so every time I leave my family, I’m thinking maybe there won’t be a chance to see one of them later, that this will be the last time.”
It is on Tuesday, after Arash’s second interview at the US Consulate that I meet with him, as well as Sumpter and their union colleague, while they await the result of his visa application.
Our meeting is just hours before a US court is due to start hearing oral arguments for and against the travel ban, as Trump tries to get the restraining order overturned.
“[The Consulate] promised to do their best to get me my visa, but there is no guarantee,” said Arash. “I have to wait and see what happens.”
Sumpter, who uses the pronoun “they”, explained the potential consequences of the court hearing that was about to begin.
“The main thing we’re worried about right now, is that at 4 pm the restraining order might be lifted,” they said. “In that case, Arash’s visa could be challenged at the border. It’s a race against time to get across the border.”
Sumpter said this is an unprecedented situation for the union, which is mobilizing lawyers, politicians and campaigners to help all its members as well as Arash.
As well, its International Solidarity workgroup led members to protests at SeaTac airport and filed as part of the Washington state lawsuit that resulted in the ban being blocked.
Whatever happens today, Sumpter says, the union will continue to fight for Arash and for its members targeted by the US government.
“The ways the Trump administration has been targeting marginalized people and are openly so hostile to those communities, is not something we’re going to just take as accepted,” they said. “We’re absolutely going to push back and we’re not going to stop.”
As Sumpter’s colleague put it: “The Resistance has always and will continue to be alive.”
This may all have bought Arash – and others affected by the travel ban – some time, but it was not yet clear whether that would be enough to see him over the border safely.
“That is the kind of uncertainty we have now,” said Arash. “Everything seemed fine until now… I was able to get here… but who knows about a couple of hours later?”
Even if Arash does make it over the border, he might not be able to leave again for a long time – something he finds very difficult.
“I love my family, I would like to visit them once a year, twice a year, but I cannot,” said Arash.
Nevertheless, he remains committed to his studies in the US, which will take him three more years to complete. Once he has his PhD, he says, he always planned to return to Iran.
“If I can get my PhD, it will be easier for me to get a faculty position in my country, much easier,” said Arash, who came to the US in 2013.
While Canada was his second option back then, Arash says, he wanted to travel to the US partly because of the conflict between the US and Iranian governments.
“I chose the US because I think you should go somewhere where you think it might be difficult for you to live, because in that case you will learn a lot,” he said.
“It was good for me to come here, to know people very well… I learned a lot about different cultures, I made American friends… That changed my life for the better.”
Trump’s executive order bans anyone with citizenship of Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, and Iraq from entering the US for 90 days.
It also bans Syrian refugees indefinitely and halts the admission of any refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days.
The president has said that for any Syrians applying for refugee status in the future, the priority would be given to Christians over Muslims.
Arash acknowledges the travel ban has left many others in worse situations around the world, with refugees already granted visas being turned away.
“My case is not comparable to them, for example people in Syria, in Iraq,” he said. “I’m in this situation, but there is no war in my country, Iran is stable… But what about those people?
“They had planned to enter the US to have a better life, to be far from war… I’ve been thinking about those people.”
Meanwhile, Trump has also ordered more “extreme vetting” of Muslims travelling to America and argues the ban will make the US safer, and protect people from terrorism.
But as a Muslim Arash says the travel ban is unfair. he also says that it does not reflect the statistics, which show that no Americans have died on US soil due to a terror attack committed by anyone from the banned countries.
“It’s good to have a secure country, but it’s not good to be unfair. That’s a problem. I don’t mind if they want to assess my case, ask a lot of questions – but be fair. Be fair.”
Arash and I part ways, and the legal appeal hearing in the US begins.
Washington state argues the travel ban seeks to discriminate against Muslims, the US government rejects this claim, saying the ban is simply a matter of national security.
Meanwhile, waiting at the US Consulate in Vancouver, Arash is finally granted the visa he needs and heads for the airport hoping to be allowed to board the next flight to Seattle.
Back in the courtroom, after an hour of arguments, the US judges say they will deliver a ruling as soon as possible on whether to reinstate the ban or not.
But on Tuesday night, that ruling had still not been delivered. And less than 24 hours after landing in Vancouver, Arash finally made it safely back to Seattle.
For anyone reading this, wanting to help, Arash has a message.
“Talk to each other. Don’t be afraid of learning something, of talking to other people from other cultures,” he said.
“Just make a simple friendship with them and see what are their pains, what are their concerns… Know them better before having any judgement on them.”
Instead, Arash says, we are insulating ourselves and distancing ourselves from other cultures – and that’s a problem.
“That’s why we cannot understand each other in a good way,” he said. “I do believe we can take some positive parts of other cultures and add them to your culture.
“Then we will have a much better world and we can work together in a good way to solve other problems.”
Editor’s Note: This article was written before the US appeals court delivered their decision, refusing to reinstate the travel ban, on Thursday.
Have you been affected by the US travel ban? We want to tell your story. Contact us at [email protected].