Iranian art historian Samira Mohammadkani arrived in Seattle to join her husband, a tech worker here, bringing only a purse and carry-on luggage.
It had taken her more than four years to be allowed into the United States, partly because of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which restricted visas for nationals of seven countries including Iran. A waiver to the ban is often required — even for spouses, children and parents of legal immigrants in the United States.
But in the end, as the Trump administration said it was speeding up processing of thousands of applications left in limbo, Mohammadkani’s visa came suddenly. She moved quickly.
On Sept. 19, she got the visa from the U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, the closest American embassy. The next day, she was on a plane to Seattle.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” said Mohammadkani, 37, sitting with husband Rad Cyrus in the Shoreline condo that he used to return to every night, alone. As recounted to The Seattle Times last spring, they would then video chat for hours, sometimes watching the same movie or TV show on their respective screens. It was evening in Shoreline, morning in Tehran.
They would talk again during Cyrus’s lunch hour. A green-card holder from Iran, the 35-year-old would also travel to Tehran frequently so that they could be together for a few weeks, taking time off from his data-analyst job at Best Buy.
The separation ate at them. He got depressed. She wondered if they would be reunited before she was too old to have kids.
Like many affected by the travel ban, a disparate group encompassing poor refugees and well-paid employees of Amazon, Microsoft and other tech juggernauts, hailing mostly from majority Muslim countries considered a national-security threat by the Trump administration, the couple couldn’t get much information about the status of Mohammadkani’s application. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s office inquired on their behalf and was repeatedly told the case was in “administrative processing.”
In July, according to a State Department spokesman, the administration started using an automated system that results in much faster decisions. In recent months, more than half of applicants from countries listed in the travel ban got visas, according to the spokesman. That’s up from 6% as of June 30, according to a report to Congress.
The administration is also working through a backlog of cases submitted before the automated system came online, and it should get through the majority of them by the end of this year or soon after, the State Department spokesman wrote in an email.
Babak Yousefzadeh, president emeritus of the Iranian American Bar Association, involved in one of two class action suits over allegedly haphazard, parsimonious and opaque implementation of travel-ban waivers, said he’s yet to see corroboration of those figures. “We have started to see additional waivers granted, but I don’t think it’s some sea change,” he said. Some who have benefited, he added, were featured in the media, supported by Congress members, or named as lawsuit plaintiffs.
Mohammadkani knew something had changed for her when she got a cryptic email asking her to bring her passport to the embassy in Abu Dhabi. Others had gotten similar emails before receiving visas.
As it happened, Cyrus was visiting Tehran at the time. The couple had just decided they would move to Australia if an American visa didn’t arrive this winter.
Reading the email, Cyrus recalled, “We were both crying and laughing.” Mohammadkani had to get out of the house. She was too excited to sit still.
Mohammadkani told the institute where she taught that she would be leaving. A flurry of packing began. The plan, originally, was for Mohammadkani to get the visa in Abu Dhabi, then fly back to Iran to collect her things before going to Seattle.
They changed their minds. You never know what might happen, they reasoned. After marrying in 2015, they endured the long wait for an embassy interview that was normal even before Trump came to office, and when it was finally scheduled in 2017, the travel ban hit.
“The political situation goes up and down,” Cyrus said, noting increasing tensions between the United States and Iran in the wake of attacks on Saudi Arabian oil fields last month.
So Mohammadkani flew straight from Abu Dhabi to Seattle. Her family could send what she didn’t have with her.
Cyrus, back in Seattle by then, met her at the airport with a bouquet of white lilies and red roses. “I’m over the moon,” he said, his voice giddy as he conveyed the news by phone.
A week later, the condo already spruced up by plants and dishes bought since Mohammadkani arrived, she said she hopes to find a teaching job here, along with selling online sneakers and accessories she decorates.
So far, she said, she was liking everything she was finding here: friendly people, greenery and a suburban quiet hard to convey by video chat.
After so long apart, she said, “We appreciate being together every moment.”