Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 11, 2023

Detained at Dulles: an Iranian student’s story

By ROLLIN HU | February 2, 2017


COURTESY OF JAVAD FOTOUHI Javad Fotouhi and his wife were detained at the Dulles airport for four hours on Saturday.

Javad Fotouhi, a third-year PhD student studying computer science at Hopkins, was traveling back to the United States after visiting family in Iran when he and his wife were detained at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.

Fotouhi was born in Iran, but has held a green card for the past three and a half years. On Jan. 11, Fotouhi and his wife, who has held a green card for 27 years, left the United States for Iran. Last Saturday, he and his wife landed at Dulles and were detained for four hours by customs officials. This came following the executive order that President Donald Trump signed last Friday, which barred individuals from coming to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran.

The following is an edited and condensed retelling of his story in his own words:

“I think it was on Wednesday when the news came out that the first draft of the executive order was out, and the actual executive order would be signed soon. All the news channels and agencies were writing that it was only going to affect the visa holders.

I was partially worried but I also had hopes. I still thought that most likely it’s not going to affect us, because we had green cards for many years. We both have full time jobs here. We were only out for 17 days, and we thought most likely they are going to let us in, and it’s not going to affect us.

That Friday, I started to get more and more worried. I read the news that the President was going to sign the order today, on Friday, and I was flying in Tehran’s time at Saturday at 7:40 a.m.

At 1:30 a.m Tehran time, I read the news that the President had just signed, but no details were out. No one really knew what the details were or the extent of it, or when it would become effective.

Saturday morning, Tehran time, we got on the plane. There were no problems to get from Tehran to Istanbul. That was my first flight. That was pretty smooth.

By the time I got to Istanbul, I checked on the news and I started reading that the green card holders were having issues now. There was a spreadsheet on the Internet going around and the people who were affected by this were writing their experiences, and some of the green card holders were writing that they were banned from entry or that they didn’t let them board the plane. But it was very vague what was going to happen.

After a four-hour layover, the boarding of our flight started. They let us on board, we got on the plane, but they didn’t let the plane depart. They held the plane there and the security officers came in and took out half passengers who were Iranian, like five or six or more. There were families with children. They took them out of the plane.

That was when we were really scared, because any second they might ask us also to leave the plane.

The plane departed; It was a 12-hour-long flight. We were worried still, but we were happy that we boarded the plane. We read on the news right before we boarded that only Turkish Airlines that was allowing Iranians to board.

When I left the U.S., the president was still President Obama. Seeing what President Trump had said before about the Muslim ban, I never thought it would happen this quick.

He signed the executive order Friday, exactly seven days after he got into office, and I flew a few hours after that.

We weren’t just scared. We started really being disappointed, sad, and hopeless. My wife and I started to panic a little.

When you are waiting, time passes very slowly. We didn’t know anything, we didn’t know our rights, what would happen to us. We felt powerless. Those ten hours were the worst ten hours of my life.

It was very sad because we thought during the past few years of our life we had worked for it.

I’m a full-time student, I am halfway through my Ph.D. My wife worked very hard to get her position and she is very happy with her job. We have a home; We have friends; We have family; We are emotionally attached to here. Here is home for us.

The background check we go through, it’s the most intense, thorough background check that anyone can go through. For me it took seven months just to do my background check. They took every kind of information from me, and it felt okay. We got the green card, we can move to this country and be happy.

Because as Iranians, for us getting visas is difficult. Whichever country we want to go, it’s difficult. We thought that we were coming to the U.S. My wife has had a green card for 27 years. Her family lives here. I can start school here. We can start our life here. We never thought that we had to worry about this ever again, which was wrong.

Earlier, I mentioned the spreadsheet, and on that spreadsheet, people who were green card holders were writing their experiences. On Saturday  the  28th, after the press conference where they said green card holders would be banned, not a single green card holder was allowed to enter the U.S.

One hour before we arrived at Dulles, I checked the internet and saw the news that said green card holders were being checked, case by case. We were not a bad case, so we had some hope.

When the flight landed, we started panicking because now we were going to see the officers. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And I could see it in every other Iranian’s face that was on that flight.

When we saw the customs officer, his first sentence was, “Have you heard of the new executive order that President Trump has signed?”

We said, “Yes.”

Then he said, “You should know that you will spend time with us tonight.”

He wrote a big capital “R” on each of our green card tickets. We didn’t know what that meant. Reject? Retain? We didn’t know. So we said, “What should we do now?”

He said, “Go take your luggage.”

I said, “What should we do after that?”

He said, “Sir, I told you: Go. Take. Your. Luggage.

My wife asked a question; I don’t remember what she asked. The officer said, “Ma’am, you are Iranian, okay?”

We went to the baggage claim and got our luggage. Then you normally go through another checkpoint to show them the customs form. The officer saw our Iranian passport.

He said, “Okay, come to that room.”

There was a big room, a big area, on the right side of that final security check. There they said, “Put your luggage here. Give me your documents. And sit here.”

There were 20 or 30 officers there. One of them called my wife’s name. My wife told him, “I’m with my husband, can we come together?”

He said, “Okay, come together.”

And then he started questioning and interviewing us. Questions like, “Who are you?” and “What do you do?”

Then he started asking, “How many days were you in Iran?” “What was the purpose of your trip?” “Who did you visit?” He got the address of my parents house and said, “Who else did you visit?”

My wife said, “We visited my grandma.”

He said “Okay, give me your grandma’s home address.”

It was funny, I don’t know how my 80-year-old grandma’s home address could help them. For every answer I gave them, they asked a new question based on my answer.

Then we asked him what’s next. He said, “I will take this information back, and I will let you know. We will call your name. You should go sit.”

In that area, there were maybe 30 or 40 mostly Iranians. There were a few from other countries. Some Iraq, some India, maybe Syria. But Moroccans and Indians, I saw them.

We sat there. They didn’t let us talk to each other even though we were sitting close to each other. Two of the people tried to talk to each other, and officers shouted at them, “You are not allowed to talk. Don’t talk to each other.”

We were very scared at that time. The only good thing was that my friends were communicating with me.

Even though it was a no-phone area, I was still texting my friends who were outside. They were telling me what was going on outside the airport and how many people were there.

We heard that some people were given a form called I-407, where you voluntarily give back all your rights as a green card holder. My friends warned me to never sign such a thing. They said, if they gave you anything to sign call us immediately and that lawyers were waiting outside here to accept your case for free.

I mean when you hear such a story, you can’t sleep. You can’t eat in the plane. You don’t really want to do anything. You just want time to pass. You want to get to the end of it.

So after three hours or so, they started calling the dual citizens who also had Iranian citizenship.

After that, they handcuffed an Iranian visa holder who didn’t speak English. I heard the officers shouting at him. Maybe he refused to sign the form. There were four officers who took that guy. That’s what I saw with my own eyes. I saw that my wife was shaking.

You could see no emotions in the officer’s’ faces. The ones who were asking questions, I couldn’t see any emotion in their face, not happy, nor sad. It’s like it was something ordinary for them, and to my surprise, they looked like immigrants, too.

After four hours, at around 10:30 p.m., they started calling the names of the people that were sitting there.

They called our names. Then immediately my wife got her green card and passport from them. She started collapsing, so I had to hold her.

Suddenly we saw all the people who were waiting for us. To my surprise, most of them were even Americans — not even the ones who were affected by this, but the ones who felt the responsibility to come.

It was very emotional and heartwarming for us to see, the rows shouting, “Welcome home.” I could see people we didn’t even know who were crying.

I want to say that the first two people I hugged, who are both my friends, one of them is Christian, the other is Jewish. They were the ones who welcomed me, me, as the Iranian.

That was very touching for me, that it was not about religion, it was about us as humans.

We are concerned about the safety of this country as much as Americans are concerned about the safety of this country. We are emotionally attached to this place because this is our home, and they weren’t going to let us in.

Working hard for so many years and seeing that everything is disappearing, going to zero, becoming nothing, that broke our heart.

I’ve realized how many good friends I have here. When I landed, when my phone started working again, I got more than a hundred messages from friends. My friends were helping me everywhere, in every way.

I can’t say how much my family was concerned. My brothers were worried, my sister, my dad, my mom, all my cousins. They couldn’t sleep until they heard the news that I was back safe. And I realize how thankful I am for what I have, for the people around me, for my situation here now, for being safe at home.

One person in power making an ill-considered decision can affect many people. There are over one million Iranians living in the U.S., many of whom are talented people, students, who have good jobs. Most of them are successful here.

What I went through cannot be compared to what my friends will go through. The ones who are on student visas, who are on single-entry U.S. visas — these are talented people, they come from the best universities in Iran. They are banned from going outside of the country because they can’t come back in. They are leaving  at the cost of not seeing their family.

I’ve heard that all the prospective Iranian students applying for schools in the U.S. might be rejected blindly, without reviewing their applications. If the University believes that these are good students, they should consider reviewing their applications. The University should stand behind their backs and support those students.

The decision that can affect all of us, change our lives, traumatizes us. How can I be happy? It disappoints us.

About my future, I feel insecure because I feel this is the beginning.

I cannot live as a person who is not allowed to see his parents. My parents are 60-something years old. If, God forbid, something happens to them, I want to be able to go back and see them. And I’d like for them to see me. And I’d like to see my brothers who live in Europe. I’d like to go see my sister and her children. I don’t want to be imprisoned here. I want to have the freedom.”

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