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  1. Florida

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

The cancer treatment her mom needed was in Florida.
Leyana Akbarpour shows her mother, Damineh Oveisi, and her father, Javad Akbarpour, her certificate after her National Elementary Honor Society induction. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]
Published Aug. 8
Updated Aug. 8

ODESSA — Damineh Oveisi’s eyes popped open at 2:30 a.m.

She hadn’t been sleeping well, especially at the beginning of the week. That was when she usually heard from the U.S. Embassy in Armenia, the faraway office that held her mother’s life in its hands.

They had been volleying emails across the Atlantic for months. Embassy officials would write with a complicated question. Oveisi would reply. With each exchange, she hoped for a resolution. But none came.

She was running out of time.

Earlier in the year, Oveisi’s 61-year-old mother had been diagnosed with advanced-stage leukemia in her home city of Tehran. Oveisi, a U.S. citizen, wanted to bring her to Florida for treatment that wasn’t available in Iran.

Oveisi knew the Trump administration banned most Iranians from entering the United States. But she also knew her mother’s condition might make her eligible for a waiver.

What she didn’t know: Few waivers had been granted.

Oveisi, 38, made her mother’s case to the U.S. Embassy in Armenia, one of three worldwide that caters to Iranians seeking U.S. visas. (The U.S. embassy in Iran never reopened after Americans were taken hostage there in 1979.) She tried to stay positive. But she could see her mother losing strength in their early-morning video chats.

Damineh Oveisi held daily video chats with her mother Maryam Rastkhiz to update her on the visa application process. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

In quiet moments, Oveisi struggled to make sense of it all. She loved her life in the United States. But now, for reasons she couldn’t understand, her adopted country was keeping her mother from a potentially life-saving treatment.

That morning in May, Oveisi sat up in bed and reached for her phone. The screen lit up. The message she was waiting for from the embassy had arrived.

She took a deep breath and clicked.

***

Oveisi’s own path to the United States had begun years earlier.

She came of age in Tehran in the 1980s surrounded by state and religious propaganda. As a young adult, she lived independently and worked at a medical clinic. But she still had to cover her head in public and follow strict rules.

If she ever had a daughter, she wanted her to live differently, educated at the best schools and free to study whatever she wanted.

Oveisi moved to Dubai on her own in 2002 and then married an Iranian-born U.S. citizen named Javad Akbarpour in 2007. The couple settled in Tampa. The Iranian community in the region is small — less than 6,000 people, by some estimates. When Oveisi needed reminders of home, she listened to Persian music and watched Gem-TV, a Farsi-language satellite channel.

Slowly, she found herself adopting the rhythms of her new country. She could dress as she wished, talk openly about politics.

She gave birth to a daughter, Leyana, on July 4, 2009 and watched her grow into a curious child who studied ballet, dabbled in ukulele and had an insatiable appetite for SpongeBob. She filled her bedroom with books.

A photo of Damineh Oveisi, pregnant with her daughter Leyana Akbarpour, and her husband Javad Akbarpour hangs on the wall in their Odessa home. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

In 2012, Oveisi took the oath of citizenship. Two years later, she was hired as a laboratory technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

But something was missing. Oveisi wanted Leyana to know her grandparents.

She had tried once before to get her mother a tourist visa. The application was rejected. Now that Oveisi was a U.S. citizen, she decided to try for immigrant visas for her mother, Maryam, and father, Lotfollah, that could lead to green cards and permanent residency. She submitted the paperwork to the embassy in Armenia in late 2016.

A few months later, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants and visitors from seven countries from entering the United States. Iran was one of them.

The policy was quickly struck down in federal court, and the petitions for Maryam and Lotfollah’s visas won preliminary approval. The couple travelled to the Armenian capital of Yerevan, some 500 miles from Tehran, to interview.

But two weeks later, from her home in Tampa, Oveisi learned something that stopped her: The travel ban had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oveisi felt a sense of sadness she couldn’t express in words. To her, the policy was clearly a ban against Iranians. How could the court not see that? She had no idea what it would mean for her parents — or how she would explain it to her daughter, then almost 8.

Damineh Oveisi wondered how she would explain the travel ban to her daughter. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

That night she slept in fits and starts, glancing at the clock every half hour. At work the next morning she felt disoriented. She tried to maintain her composure, but the news clawed at the back of her mind.

It wasn’t long before her daughter learned about the travel ban. Leyana watched the news everyday after school. That afternoon, Leyana called for her mother, who was in the kitchen. The third-grader had a question: Her friend’s grandparents had been able to visit from Croatia. Why couldn’t hers?

Oveisi didn’t have an answer. She turned back to the kitchen so Leyana wouldn’t see her tears.

***

As Oveisi feared, the process came to a halt.

One afternoon in March 2019, she noticed she had several missed calls from her sister in Iran. The news was grim. Their mother had fallen and separated her femur. At the hospital, doctors discovered leukemia.

Oveisi flew to Tehran as soon as she could.

Maryam cried when she saw her daughter; it had been two years since Oveisi had last visited.

Back in Tampa, a hematologist told Oveisi about a pill that her mother might respond to better than chemotherapy. But the pill was new to the U.S. market and unlikely to be available in Iran.

She called her mother’s doctors. They had never heard of it.

Days later, Oveisi stayed up late researching options for treatment. She stumbled upon a website that made her heart race. An emergency medical situation, it said, could qualify someone for a waiver to the travel ban.

The Trump administration had in fact promised exceptions, but only in certain circumstances. Applicants would have to show they would suffer “undue hardship” outside of the United States — and that their entry would be “in the national interest.”

The conditions are intangible and difficult to prove, said Persis Karim, who directs the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University.

The odds weren’t in Oveisi’s favor. More than 38,000 people from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen have applied for waivers to the travel ban, according to published reports. Fewer than 10 percent have been approved, state department figures show.

Mana Kharrazi, executive director of the nonprofit Iranian Alliances Across Borders, said she hadn’t heard of any Iranians being approved without media coverage or the help of lawmakers.

“The reality is, people aren’t getting them unless there’s a huge outcry from the community,” she said. “There are so many people who don’t have those resources or who don’t know to push at that level.”

Three dozen applicants have filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California, alleging their visa applications have been wrongfully denied or stalled. A hearing has been scheduled for September.

The state department declined to comment on the suit.

Oveisi wasted no time. In March, not long after learning about her mother’s diagnosis, Oveisi sent an email to the embassy inquiring about a waiver. She had to try.

***

The first thing the embassy wanted was documentation of the medical emergency. Oveisi enlisted the help of the hematologist, who wrote a note on her mother’s behalf.

“This is a serious diagnosis and she requires treatment for her leukemia due to low blood counts,” she wrote. “There are additional testing and treatment options available for her in the United States and I recommend she travels to the United States.”

A few days went by without a reply. Oveisi sent a follow-up email.

“This is a critical situation,” she wrote.

Next the embassy asked for proof of insurance.

Oveisi called all of the insurance companies she knew, but they each wanted her mother’s social security number. Her mother didn’t have one. Oveisi tried calling lesser-known companies. One representative said Iran was not on the dropdown menu of options.

“Would it be OK to put Iraq?” the representative asked.

Oveisi finally bought through a small insurer. But the embassy had more questions. Had she already scheduled her mother’s treatment? How much would it cost? Would the insurance cover all of it? Was the diagnosis terminal?

It dragged on into May.

“We understand these questions can be difficult,” embassy officials wrote. “Providing the information requested will help Washington D.C. make a decision.”

She juggled the research with early-morning shifts at the hospital and her other responsibilities: helping Leyana with her homework, driving her back and forth from dance lessons, meal preparation, bedtime.

Even still, Oveisi had never felt so useless, unable to provide her mother with the best treatment or share the responsibility of caring for her. She felt resentment, too, that the country she loved so much was making her jump through hoops because she was Iranian.

It wasn’t just that. Citing “clear indications” that Iran was preparing to strike American forces in the Middle East, the U.S. government deployed an aircraft carrier to the region. The two countries appeared to be on a collision course.

One afternoon, Oveisi mentioned the travel ban and the escalating tensions to a colleague in the hospital’s breakroom. Another coworker made a comment about the “security of our country.”

“We can’t open the door and let everyone come here,” she said.

“I’m a citizen,” Oveisi replied. “I live here and I work here and I pay taxes.”

But she didn’t want to cause a scene. It wouldn’t bring her mother any faster. She stepped outside, took out her phone and called her husband. Then she went back to work.

***

The email she had been waiting for finally arrived, early on May 13.

Her parents had been approved for waivers.

The news came with a catch: They would need to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Armenia one last time for a medical exam. Oveisi wondered if her mother had the strength.

The next evening, Oveisi and her husband joined dozens of other parents and family members in the school cafeteria for the annual induction to the National Elementary Honor Society. They dressed up for the occasion and came ready to capture the event on cameras and iPhones.

Damineh Oveisi and her husband Javad Akbarpour proudly attended their daughter's induction into the National Elementary Honor Society. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

A teacher called each of the inductees onto the stage. She paused at the second name on the list.

“Leyana Arkarbour?” she said, reading a misspelling of the girl’s name. “Well, I tried,” she said under her breath.

Leyana didn’t seem to notice. She took the stage and proudly accepted her certificate and plastic candle and took the honor society pledge with her classmates.

Oveisi beamed.

In June, Oveisi booked a family trip to Tehran. She wanted to check on her mother and her younger sister was getting married. A few days before the flight, Oveisi realized she no longer had a fashionable scarf to use as a hijab. She ordered one on Amazon.

They stayed nearly a month. They celebrated the wedding with relatives they hadn’t seen in years and swapped stories on how life was changing in their respective countries. Oveisi spent time with her mother. Leyana bonded with her twin cousins over Baab Esfanji, the Iranian SpongeBob.

Leyana Akbarpour couldn't wait to see her grandmother Maryam Rastkhiz during a recent visit to Tehran. They took photographs together at a family wedding. As the trip was winding down, Leyana asked to stay in Iran. [Courtesy of Damineh Oveisi]

When it was time to return to Florida, Leyana resisted. They had no family in the United States, she told her mother.

“But your future is there,” Oveisi replied.

At the end of July, Oveisi’s parents travelled to the U.S. Embassy in Armenia. A few days later, Oveisi gathered the final few documents needed to secure their visas and put them in the mail.

That night, she finally got some sleep.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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