On Oct 26, 2015, at 9:46 AM, Rob Orr <xxx@Princeton.EDU> wrote:
I hope you’re doing well. It’s hard to believe that this is year #37 for me here. Probably one of my fondness memories is you trying out for the team, way back when. Soon there after learning that I should be aware that some ‘bad guys’ may be coming on the deck some day to get you, as you weren’t really supposed to be here, or something like that- Actually I would like to hear the actual story so when I tell it to others it will be at least partially accurate.
Hi. I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. I’ve been buried.
Now to get to the next part where you entered the picture. In hindsight it was a scary and uncertain period; while I remember the stress, it was an exciting period of my life and the excitement must have gotten me through the worry and fear.
After making my way from Pakistan to Paris, it was unclear whether I would have to stay there or could continue on to the US. After three different visits and a little help from a friend in the US, I managed to get a student visa to enter the US. I left Paris on New Years Day 1983, and arrived at JFK late at night. I was so very excited to finally be at the end of my journey, with only an overnight stay and a bus ride separating me from my final destination – a high school in Williamstown, MA, that I had been pre-enrolled at for a few years in anticipation of my eventual arrival.
I proudly walked over to the immigration counter and handed over my passport. This was the same passport I had used to travel through and out of Pakistan where it was stamped upon exit, and later was stamped upon entry to France at the Paris airport. The same passport that I provided to the US embassy on those three visits, until it had finally earned a US visa imprint. And the same passport that was again stamped upon exit from Paris.
The immigration officer at JFK took one look at my passport cover, saw that it was an Iranian passport, and had me escorted over to a different area, to a uniformed and armed woman at a special counter. Even though I had a valid and legit US visa, sometime during my trip from Iran through Pakistan, my passport had expired. This was known to me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I had left Iran without permission – no way in hell was that government going to be renewing my passport. Yet, I had completely forgotten about it, given how much scrutiny the passport had gotten without anyone taking issue with it or its expiration.
This special officer wasn’t slacking off. She took that passport and gave it a figurative cavity search. She tried to peel the cover off, checked how well my photo was attached, examined the visa stamp, poked at it, and tried to rub a corner off with an eraser… As her inspection came to an end and I thought she was about to close the pages of the passport, she did what seemed to be a mental double-take: “December 1982. Huh? Wait a second, it’s 1983 now!” She pointed to the expiration and said, “This passport has expired.” Before I could open my mouth, she picked up her PA microphone and announced “Air France agent needed at … for a return fly back”. My heart sank. I was on the verge of tears.
She looked at me and asked me if I had anything to say. Fighting back the lump in my throat, I told her that as far as the US is concerned, I had a valid visa and I was there legally.
“You cannot enter the US on an invalid or expired passport.”
I tried to explain that there was no way that I could get my passport renewed and that by sending me back to France, I could also get rejected there and be sent back to Iran. And that was possibly deadly or at best would lead to imprisonment.
The Air France agent was now with us. The officer asked her if there was a plane returning to Paris, and the agent replied that the same plane I arrived on was leaving very soon. The officer then asked her to hold the plane.
“You have two choices. You can go with this woman and get on the flight back to Paris, or you can request political asylum.”
“Yes. I’d like asylum.”
“You need to request political asylum”.
“Yes. I request it.”
“Say it like I said.”
“I request political asylum.”
Addressing the Air France agent, “Thank you, you can release the plane now”.
She then explained to me that she would be interviewing me to establish credible fear and that if I lied or misrepresented the truth, I would be deported immediately. She placed me under oath and we spent the next hour or so with her asking questions, and writing both the questions and my responses down. At the end, she told me that I would have a hearing in NYC in a week, and that because I was enrolled in a school and had a US address, she would release me pending the outcome of that hearing. With that, I was reunited with my suitcase, and was allowed to proceed to the exit where I hailed a cab. I think it was around 10pm when I got to my hotel.
On Sunday I arrived in Williamstown, where my host family welcomed me. On Monday, January 3, 1983, I attended my first day of high school in the US, as an eleventh-grader.
I attended the hearing, back in NYC, a week later, and the judge determined that I had a reasonable fear of persecution and possible imprisonment and death, and my application for political asylum officially commenced.
Fast-forward eighteen months. I had graduated from high school. It was sometime in August, 1984. I received a thin letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (Let me just add that in the Spring I had received a number of thick envelopes, one from Princeton.) The letter simply stated, “Your application for political asylum has been denied. Please depart the United States immediately. If you do not leave the country by September 30, we will begin deportation proceedings.”
I won’t get into the dismay and dejection that overcame me. I mentioned the situation to a friend or two, and the news spread like wildfire. The Williamstown community was in shock that “this kid who came all this way with such hardship, attended school and got good grades and awards, made friends with our kids, is slated to start engineering studies at Princeton – is now being kicked out?!?” People called their congressmen and representatives. Newspapers and TV stations scrambled to interview me. Senator Kennedy and Governor Dukakis both mentioned my name in the papers. Someone at Williams (where I took a couple of courses) called General Counsel Tom Wright at Princeton and gave him a heads up, and it was relayed to me that Princeton was still looking forward to my arrival.
It was the twenty-something of September when I arrived on the Princeton campus. Amidst all the Freshman week hustle, bustle and craziness, I was very unsure what was going to happen on Sept. 30th. It was easy to forget about it, until the end of the day. As I went to sleep each night, I worried that my time in paradise could come to an end at any moment. I still vividly recall numerous nightmares I experienced during those years, where I would find myself back in Iran, in a variety of scary situations, including being chased by the revolutionary guards.
Sept. 30 arrived and passed. I officially became an illegal alien.
My roommates came up with a plan. If there were immigration agents out to get me, they’d warn me so I could leave out the dormitory window (ground floor), or if the INS agents were waiting for me in the room, they devised ways to warn me so I would stay away from the room. Not sure how effective their efforts would have been, but I sure appreciated their support.
Sometime during that first week of school, I went to an upperclass party in Cuyler. The upperclassmen, whose names I have forgotten (’85 or ’86) were busy asking me all about Iran. It came up that in Iran I spent much of my summers in a swimming pool, and that I was the fastest swimmer among my friends there. Some of those upperclassmen were on the swim team and that I should come try out for the team. I didn’t really take it seriously. In fact, I forgot about it completely. Some days later though, a couple of these guys, along with, I believe, Bob Rivers, showed up at my dorm to take me to dry lands practice.
And sometime later, you became another ally who were to warn me if I needed to ditch the pool and run away.
The support I felt from the swim team, my roommates and much of the Princeton administration and community was instrumental in offsetting the fear and stress. In hindsight, I am surprised I didn’t have some sort of a breakdown. I’m sure the weekend partying helped keep me from thinking about the gravity of the situation. (Later my stress level got even more elevated when my dad – who had since, along with my mother and sister, moved from Iran to Walnut Creek CA – had a heart attack, with no insurance, and turned down the recommended treatment so that he could still afford to send his two kids to college. A successful businessman, influential in the social and economic development of Iran, he had left everything behind to ensure that his children would get a shot at a better future).
As for the swimming. Being the fastest swimmer among your friends and family in a city with no official swim team, isn’t saying much. I clearly recall my first day in Dillon pool, sometime after dry lands, wondering how everyone got across the pool so quickly, while I was still midway – and even worse, we were swimming the pool width-wise! Of course, when the only form of swimming you know has you breathing and looking ahead, and that’s your version of the freestyle, then you’re not really a swimmer. I learned the strokes pretty quickly though (maybe not the backstroke). And later that same season I even managed to complete the 500 free in the Yale pool, and despite coming in last, I can’t forget hearing my teammates’ loud cheering and applause at each turn.
I can only imagine how much more rewarding, educational and fun my time at Princeton would have been without the fear of deportation. But I am very thankful for people like you and Susan who took me in and provided the support that I needed to offset the dark cloud that was hanging over me.
It wasn’t until the summer before senior year when I got a notice that my political asylum was granted. A year or so later I received a “green card”. I am now a US citizen.