Morteza Bakhtiari, 62, was finally able to crack open a cold beer and his wife, Nazi, 60, was able to crash on her daughter’s couch. But only after a panic-filled 46 hours that took them from their home in Tehran to Dubai and finally to San Francisco International Airport, where they emerged on Sunday about 5:30 p.m. to the cheers of hundreds, perhaps 1,000 protesters, waiting for their release.
“We were so amazed at how many American were at the airport,” Bahareh Bakhtiari, 35, a dentist in San Jose told NBC Bay Area in her first extensive interview about her parents’ detention and overseas saga. “All these white people weren’t even affected” by President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven countries from entering the United States, “and they came out for us. It’s a big deal.”
109 Denied Across U.S. in First Day, Five Detainees Released at SFO
In the first 23 hours of the presidential ban, which has now been softened and no longer includes green card holders, 109 were denied entry upon arrival and 173 people were kept from boarding flights to the United States, according to a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security. Five were detained and released at SFO over the weekend, including the Bakhtiaris, another Iranian couple held for 30 hours and eventually helped by the Asian Law Caucus and a man en route to meet his fiance.
The Bakhtari Daughters Work To Fly Their Parents to California
Morteza Bakhtiari is a retired real estate agent, Nazi is a retired teacher. Both of whom have daughters who were trying furiously to bring their parents to America before the ban got worse. The parents are green card holders who travel back-and-forth between Iran and the United States regularly.
The 46-Hour Timeline From Iran to SFO
6:30 p.m. Friday: Bahareh Bakhtiari’s friend called her. Had she heard about Trump’s executive order?
7 p.m. Bakhtiari flicked on CNN. Then she called her sister, Behnoosh, 31, a dental student in Michigan. Her sister sent her a link to the executive order. “I glanced at it,” she said. “But it was so vague.”
"That's a Bunch of Hoo-Hah": Son-in-Law on Trump's Order
She spoke to her husband, Pejmun Zargar, an attorney and international tax consultant. His response? “No, that’s impossible,” she recalled him telling her. “It’s unconstitutional. That’s a bunch of hoo-hah.”
7:30 p.m. She and her sister decided the risk wasn’t worth it.
8 p.m. They called their parents in Iran. They woke them up as it was about 7:30 a.m. Saturday there. “Hey, mom and dad, we’re scared. Let’s buy you a ticket,” Bakhtiari recalled. Her parents already had a scheduled flight to SFO on Feb. 18. But she and her sister worried by then, things could be worse. And re-issuing paperwork for travel is “excruciating,” Bakhtiari said. Since there is no U.S. Embassy in Iran, her parents had to get their documents in Turkey. They didn’t want to have to go through that again. The sisters Face-timed their parents in their hometown of Hamadan, one of the oldest cities in the world. They told their parents to pack their belongings, find someone to watch the cat and drive five hours to the airport in Tehran. As they were talking, Bakhtiari was watching all the airline tickets getting snapped up.
"Let's Do It": The Daughters Buy $3,500 Plane Tickets
8:30 p.m. “Let’s do it,” she said, and she bought two tickets for her parents costing about $3,500 on Emirates Airline. “The administration is so crazy, we didn’t want to wait another 20 days.” It wasn’t an easy decision to make but Bakhtiari said, “We were all so panicky.”
9 p.m. Her parents made a round of phone calls. They found a friend to watch the cat indefinitely. “I’ve never seen my father cry so much over his cat,” Bakhtiari said. In their haste, her parents left some medication behind. Her parents headed to the airport. They were flying from Tehran to Dubai, where they had a 10-hour layover. They were expected to touch down at SFO on Sunday at 12:45 p.m. Bakhtiari went to bed.
Protesters Against Trump's Immigration Policies Take Over SFO
7:30 a.m. Saturday: Bakhtiari woke up and flicked on TV and began monitoring the situation.
10 a.m. She saw protesters at John F. Kennedy Airport. She went online. She saw the American Civil Liberties Union was dispatching lawyers to airports around the country. She called in sick to her dental office. “I cannot focus and go to work,” she told them. “I saw all the protests and the mixed messages from the White House and I knew that there was the possibility that something could change.”
Noon: She hopped in her car to drive to SFO. “I was getting more hopeful,” she said.
2 p.m. She arrived at the airport, where it would have been 2 a.m. in Dubai. Her parents had gotten on the 14-hour flight, despite some fellow passengers being told by the airline not even to bother. She talked to the ACLU lawyers staffing a cubicle at the international terminal. They told her to tell her parents not to sign any papers without talking to a lawyer first. They hooked her up with Berkeley immigration lawyer Nancy Hormachea, who speaks Farsi. She also talked to attorney, Margaret Moody, at attorney who is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who also happens to be married to an Iranian. They both advised her to have her parents call her as soon as they landed. Bakhtiari protested all day with the others who came out holding signs that read “Jews for Muslims” and “Muslims Welcome.” A group of musicians banged out “No hate, no fear, refugees are wanted here.” Amanda Fried came with her two children. Her grandparents lived through the Holocaust “and I promised them I would never let it happen again.”
"My Feet Were Exploding": Daughter Protests With Americans
1:30 a.m. Sunday: She drove home for a few hours sleep. “I had wanted to go home earlier, my feet were exploding,” she said. But she stayed. If the Americans were there for her and her parents, she couldn’t leave.
Noon p.m. Bakhtiari returned to SFO.
12:45 p.m. Her father used a fellow passenger’s phone to call her. He and her mother had landed. Then nothing for three hours. Bakhtiari waited in the terminal. Lawyers scurried about. Protesters kept each other updated: An Iranian couple had been detained, one of five people at SFO who had been questioned and finally released by the end of the weekend.
3:30 p.m. A custom agent called Bakhtiari. Your parents are here. They are fine. They’re just going through inspection. “Do they need lawyers?” she asked them. No, the agent said. “Do you have a translator? They don’t speak English.” Yes, the agent said. Then there was silence. And more silence. For about two hours, she heard nothing.
Since her parents didn’t have an American phone line, they had no ability to communicate with her. She couldn’t find them anywhere. Airport police, airline officials. No one knew where they were.
Tearful, Joyous Reunion: "Don't Worry, We'll Let You Go"
5:30 p.m. Her father borrowed a stranger's phone. We’re outside the arrival gate, he said. Finally. They met for a tearful and joyous reunion. Cameras rolled. Chanters cheered. They told their daughter they weren’t scared, just exhausted. The agents had offered them water, and treated them respectfully. “Don’t worry, we’ll let you go,” the agents told them.
“We were very, very happy,” Bakhtiari said.
For now though, her parents are just getting over their jet lag, and have done some initial grocery shopping.
As for how long they plan to stay? “I don’t know if or when they’re going back,” Bakhtiari said.