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After years apart, family reunited in Tampa

Damineh Oveisi had to fight for her parents’ travel visas. The last stretch was a race against the clock.
Damineh Oveisi greets her mother Maryam Rastkhiz at Tampa International Airport. Rastkhiz was initially prohibited from traveling to the United States under President Donald Trump's travel ban. But she received a medical waiver and arrived with her husband, Lotfollah, Oct. 5. Damineh's daughter, Leyana, also helped greet them at the airport. [LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 17

TAMPA — Javad Akbarpour wanted to remember the moment, so he took his cell phone out of his pocket and started filming.

“Damineh, how are you feeling?” he asked his wife.

“I can’t wait anymore,” 39-year-old Damineh Oveisi replied, beaming. “I can hear my heart beating.”

It was 5:45 p.m. on a Saturday in October, and they had just arrived at Tampa International Airport. They stood together outside of Terminal F with a bouquet of pink and red roses and two balloons. The couple’s 10-year-old daughter, Leyana, was there, too, with a sign she had made for the occasion.

“Welcome to the U.S.A., Mamani and Babi!” it said.

RELATED: Her mom was sick and stuck in Iran. Could she get her here in time?

In August, the Tampa Bay Times chronicled Oveisi’s months-long fight to get travel visas for her parents, Maryam Rastkhiz and Lotfollah Oveisi.

Oveisi, a U.S. citizen born in Iran, wanted her parents to see the life she had built for herself in Florida, where she worked as a lab technician, owned a home and was raising an Iranian-American daughter. But when the Trump administration banned immigrants from seven countries, including Iran, her hopes were crushed.

Oveisi was even more devastated when she learned her mother had leukemia and needed a treatment that wasn’t available in Iran.

Oveisi made a last-ditch effort to bring her parents to the United States in March, arguing that her mom’s medical emergency qualified for a waiver to the travel ban. She spent the next four months exchanging emails with embassy officials, worrying and waiting.

Approval finally came in August. It took several additional weeks to arrange the flights and for her mom to be strong enough to travel.

Damineh Oveisi and her mother, Maryam Rastkhiz, held daily video chats while Rastkhiz's visa application was pending. Oveisi could sometimes see her mother losing strength. [ALLIE GOULDING | Tampa Bay Times]

Outside of the terminal, Oveisi bounced on her heels so she could scan the face of each person who stepped off the shuttle from the terminal.

Her parents’ flight, had landed half an hour ago. Where were they?

∗∗∗

Just before 6:30 p.m., Leyana was getting antsy and hungry.

“Can I get Chick-fil-A?”

Oveisi had spent the last week preparing her house for her parents, setting up a room downstairs so her mom wouldn’t have to climb stairs and making it cleaner than she ever remembered it. She had forgotten her daughter would need to eat something.

“Can you wait a few minutes? They’ll be here anytime.”

Her parents must be held up at customs, Oveisi thought. She hoped the process would be smooth.

Twenty minutes later, Oveisi gave Leyana permission to get food with her father. Leyana clipped the two balloons to her poster and darted off.

The two returned. Oveisi’s parents had still not arrived.

The sun set and the sky grew dark. Travelers with pillows wrapped around their necks, some pushing luggage carts, stumbled out of the shuttle. One man quickly found the group that waited for him. They greeted him in Spanish and folded him into an embrace. One woman asked a man in Arabic for directions.

Oveisi had a moment of panic. Her mother didn’t speak any English. Her father knew a little more, but Oveisi had warned him not to say anything unless he truly understood what was being asked. She wondered if that was bad advice. What if he said nothing? What if the airport didn’t have Farsi translator?

Oveisi took a seat beside her daughter. Her phone pinged with messages from her sister in Tehran, anxious for updates.

At 7:15 p.m., Oveisi started to cry.

Her mother had already missed so much: Leyana’s birth. Persian New Years. Ballet recitals and school concerts.

She didn’t want her to miss another thing.

∗∗∗

At 7:50 p.m., Oveisi’s cell phone rang. She touched her chest and spoke slowly.

It was a customs official. The caller wanted to know if Oveisi was waiting for someone.

Yes, she replied. Her parents.

The caller asked for her address. Oveisi recited it quickly.

“Can you tell me, is my mother OK?” she asked.

She’s fine, the caller said. She was sitting in a wheelchair and would be on her way soon.

There had been no problems, just a minor backlog.

Leyana spotted them first. She leapt up from the seat and bolted toward the passengers exiting the trolley, forgetting her poster and balloons, and threw her arms around her grandmother. Oveisi scuttled behind, kissing her father then her mother.

Months ago, Leyana had it all planned out.

As soon as her grandmother arrived, she would take her to see her bedroom. Then, they would paint their nails and listen to Persian music, because her grandmother would translate the lyrics better than her parents could.

But now Leyana wasn’t sure what she wanted to do first. Make slime?

Oveisi had plans of her own. She would take her mother to be evaluated by a hematologist. The doctors in Iran said her mother had been improving, but Oveisi wanted to hear it from an American doctor. They would see about treatment next.

For now, Oveisi felt grateful to be able to hug and kiss her parents.

They could figure out the rest, together.

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