Last week, engineering graduate student Moones Alamooti was counting down the days until she would see her parents. It’s been months since she’s felt her mother’s embrace or seen her father’s smile peeking out from behind his white mustache.
Just six days before her parents could board their plane, they realized their trip wouldn’t happen… at least not within the next 90 days.
On Jan. 27, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for at least 90 days. On that list was Iran, Alamooti’s native country.
When asked about the travel ban, Alamooti pauses. Her brown eyes look toward the ceiling as if she is trying to remember where she was in the moment or possibly holding back tears. She sighs heavily.
“That was…,” she trails off. “That was a bad experience for me.”
In Iran, obtaining a travel visa for the United States takes effort and time. There is no American embassy in the country, so Iranians have to travel elsewhere, like Turkey, to apply for a visa, go through an interview and background check and wait until they are approved.
Alamooti’s parents’ visas expire in a month, but the plane they booked tickets for has come and gone.
Her father and mother, Abbas and Zar, and her brother, Mohsen, all still live in Iran. Alamooti is very close to her family.
“Based on our culture, we live together and we don’t separate when we get, like, 18 years old,” Alamooti said. “All the time I was with my family. We did everything together.”
Alamooti first arrived on the Ole Miss campus August 2013. She laughs thinking of how long it has been since she first made a home in Oxford.
She had studied at Iran’s most prestigious university, the University of Tehran, which is large. Alamooti said she wasn’t intimidated by Ole Miss’ size or the number of people on campus. The culture shock and homesickness hit her hardest.
“The first days were all so awful because I was so far from the family, and there’s also a time difference. Here it was night, and there it was morning,” Alamooti said. “My gosh, I was like, ‘How can I pass the days?’”
The first few days were the worst, but when Alamooti started teaching and getting to interact with other people and students, she found her place.
Alamooti’s American story is mostly happy. She said she fortunately hasn’t felt discriminated against for her nationality or religion.
“My colleagues are so kind to me, and most of them are American,” Alamooti said. “They were so welcoming. Even though this kind of thing has even happened, they support me and they sent the message, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re not alone,’ and if any problem happens, just to come to them.”
She feels like the university has always supported her, especially now more than ever.
Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter released two statements responding to Trump’s executive order, the first on Jan. 29 and the second last Wednesday. Alamooti received a letter from the Office of International Programs once the ban was in place, offering support and advice.
In the same way Alamooti’s parents cannot travel into the United States, despite holding valid visas, Alamooti has been advised not to return home right now.
“My family was also worried about what would be the feedback of our people,” Alamooti said. “Do they change their mind about me? I’m under so much pressure, and I’m a sensitive person, so they were worried about me.”
Alamooti hopes in the near future her family won’t have to worry as much about her and she won’t have worry as much about what tomorrow will bring.
“I guess in this century, people just don’t believe in this kind of boundary that they can go on calm and interact with each other,” Alamooti said. “Especially for me as a foreigner here, I really hope when I sleep at night as a foreigner, when I want to sleep, I don’t feel this much kind of anxiety. I just think, ‘What is going to happen for me tomorrow?”
What will happen tomorrow is a valid question since Trump’s executive order has faced backlash in the form of citizen protests, was temporarily lifted and has already been reinstated in the span of a week.
She is not giving up, though.
“I’m here,” she said. “I could have gone back, but I kept thinking that I came here because I wanted to continue my studies, so I should fight for my goal. I should keep working and working and don’t give up and don’t feel disappointed.”
If nothing else, she wants people to understand one person does not represent an entire group.
“Even if people see someone as a bad person or from any nationality or from any kind of religion, they should not generalize that person as a whole group,” Alamooti said. “If one person is bad, if one Muslim did something wrong, the other people are not the same as that person.”
As of Monday night, the 90-day travel ban for immigrant and nonimmigrant visa holders into the U.S. from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, 120-day suspension of the refugee admission program and indefinite suspension for refugee processing of Syrian nationals was halted.
Three federal judges will hear oral arguments challenging the executive order on immigration in an hour-long hearing Tuesday. This will determine the immediate fate of tens of thousands of visas that had been revoked earlier in the week.
Trenton Scaife contributed reporting to this story.