Shahin Shakooea, Niloofar Ebrahim, Masood Ebrahim and Navaz Ebrahim at their family home in Tehran in 2012. (Courtesy of Navaz Ebrahim)
By Jason Rezaian
The Washington Post: On Feb. 7, Iranian citizens Masood Ebrahim and his wife, Shahin Shakooea, went to the U.S. Embassy in London to request non-immigrant visitor visas to the United States. Like most applicants from Iran, they were denied.
Ebrahim’s and Shakooea’s daughter Niloufar and her husband, Saeed Tahmasebi Khademasadi, were newlyweds who were killed when Iranian forces shot down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752. The couple lived in London but had returned to Iran to have a wedding party with relatives and friends.
Niloufar’s younger sister, Navaz, couldn’t attend the wedding party in Iran or the couple’s civil ceremony in London. She’s an asylum-seeker living in Texas. Until her petition is approved, she is essentially stateless, which makes international travel difficult and very risky. So even though her parents are still in Britain for now, she can’t go there to visit them.
Navaz, it should be mentioned, is not a public charge. She received a master’s degree in architecture from Iowa State University and works at a firm in Dallas. Her husband, Nima, also originally from Iran, is a legal permanent U.S. resident and works as an electrical engineer.
Navaz was thrilled about her sister’s wedding and looking forward to a moment in the not-so-distant future when the whole family could gather together somewhere in the world.
The reunion she envisioned is impossible now. But at the very minimum, she should be allowed to be with her parents as they grieve the unfathomable loss of the family’s only other child.
The tragic and extraordinary nature of Ebrahim and Shakooea’s circumstances deserves deeper consideration. The embassy staff could easily have extended this courtesy to them, but didn’t.
Iran is one of the countries on President Trump’s travel ban list, and although Iranians have undergone the most extreme vetting at embassies worldwide for years, the number of visas issued to them has plummeted since Presidential Proclamation 9645 took effect in 2017.
There is, however, a waiver process that gives consular officers the ability to issue visas to people who fit certain criteria.
Families separated by the ban hope a legislative solution proposed by Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Judy Chu could prevent other American families from suffering. (Video: Joshua Carroll, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz, Breanna Muir/Photo: C-SPAN/The Washington Post)
Ebrahim and Shakooea had gone to the embassy with a file of documents that they thought provided a compelling reason to grant them visas to travel to the United States. Having viewed those documents, I wholeheartedly agree with them.
After what they say was a two-minute interview with a consular officer, who told them it wouldn’t be necessary to look at their documents, their applications were rejected.
They were handed a standard letter explaining the decision: “You have not demonstrated that you have the ties that will compel you to return to your home country after your travel to the United States.”
This is not an unusual reason for Iranians or citizens of other countries to be denied U.S. visas, but Ebrahim and Shakooea meet all the criteria of people who will return home. They own property in Iran, earn incomes there and have visited many countries (including the United States) without ever overstaying a visa. They have always returned home to Iran. The documentation they had prepared made all of this clear.
The package of documents included news reports about the devastating loss their family has just suffered.
And if that wasn’t compelling enough evidence, there was also a strong and highly detailed letter of support from Democratic Rep. Colin Allred, the member of Congress who represents the Texas district where Navaz Ebrahim lives.
None of it mattered, though, because the consular officer declined to take the material into consideration.
“My parents were very frustrated. They were hopeful. We were not at all expecting a denial,” Navaz Ebrahim said.
The couple, already grieving, now face an additional nightmare. They had traveled to London to bury their daughter and son in-law. The funeral was set for last Saturday, but now it’s been put on hold. The Iranian government had allowed the remains of Niloufar and Saeed to be transported to Britain, but the British government doesn’t allow burial unless the identities of the deceased are confirmed with DNA evidence. The Iranians only included passports with the remains.
Ebrahim and Shakooea hope to get permission to hold a funeral in the coming days and will stay in Britain until they are able to do so. This gives the U.S. Embassy in London an opportunity to reconsider their decision. I hope they take it.
“It’s very important for us to be together. Part of our grieving is missing. We can’t be with each other. We can’t hug each other,” Navaz told me. “I don’t feel like it’s been a month. It feels like it’s still the same night it happened. I can’t move forward. I get anxiety attacks, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Not being able to see my parents is so difficult.”