Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Iranian researcher's journey back to Fairbanks complicated by Trump travel ban

FAIRBANKS — Relief washed over Zeinab “Bahareh” Barati as she arrived at Fairbanks International Airport on Feb. 3. 

The Iranian-born biology researcher, who works at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, had been in her hometown of Tehran, along with her daughter, Shler Ahmadi, visiting her ill mother since October.

“I heard my mom was diagnosed with cancer and I decided to come and visit her,” Barati said. “I heard from my siblings she was so weak and they weren’t sure what would happen.”

A week before their scheduled return to Fairbanks, however, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. 

It left her wondering.

“At the beginning, they said green card holders were not allowed,” she said. “I saw the evening news and more and more people were being kept at the airports.”

Getting them home

At UAF, Barati, 36, is developing a drug to induce therapeutic hypothermia, which could be beneficial for people who suffer cardiac arrest. She said the drug could prevent brain and nervous system damage in those cardiac patients and the idea for the drug was inspired by hibernating ground squirrels. 

Barati originally came to the U.S. to earn her Ph.D. in biology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She moved to Fairbanks in 2012 to reunite with her husband, Mohabbat Ahmadi, and finished her doctoral dissertation. 

“I lived in Philadelphia for four years,” Barati said. “They are very kind here compared to Philadelphia. The thing I like most about Fairbanks is the people. I feel very supported. My neighbors are all so kind.”

After Trump’s executive order, Barati watched for clarifications and news concerning the travel restriction. Meanwhile, her husband waited and worried. Despite the reports of airport chaos and the uncertainty, Barati said her husband remained optimistic she would return soon.

Barati’s colleagues at the Institute of Arctic Biology were concerned. 

“We were immediately worried,” Katrina Dowell, who works on Barati’s research team, said. “Bahareh has a green card, but we heard they were being detained. There was so much confusion around green cards, it was such a nebulous order.”

Worried, members of the research team sent emails to Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and to Rep. Don Young. Dowell said Murkowski’s office responded quickly and started working Barati’s behalf. On Jan. 29, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement allowing green card holders to come back to the U.S. 

“A few days later, I heard green card holders would be able to come back on a case-by-case basis. For a week, I was uncertain,” Barati said. “I said, ‘Should I cancel my tickets and stay?’ Murkowski’s office contacted me by email. They contacted Homeland Security and made sure I was able to come back.”

In a Feb. 4 interview with the News-Miner, Murkowski said she realized she would be on the same flight as Barati from Seattle to Fairbanks. 

“The good news is that she made it through with relatively little questioning or delay,” Murkowski said. “But I was sitting at the gate. She wasn’t there yet. I had her paged. I said, ‘We can’t leave until she gets here.’ And there were probably about 20 more people that were getting on (the plane) and she comes rushing through with her daughter in a stroller.”

Murkowski said the two talked a lot, and Barati and her daughter were examples of the hardships people had been dealing with. 

“She’s got family in Iran she worries about,” Murkowski said. “And is fearful that, with this in place, will she be able ...  will she be free to travel back to see her family? And weighing considerations about whether or not she and her husband continue to stay.

“You think about individuals like her and her family, the conversation she’s having with her husband, and you magnify that by the thousands,” Murkowski said. 

Concern for the future

Barati said Trump’s executive order continues to be a burden for her and other Iranians in the United States. She said some Iranian students do not have green cards and are staying here on student visas.

“It’s so hard to get a U.S. visa anyways,” Barati said. “It’s concerning that they cannot go home. If they have a family emergency, they cannot go. Their family cannot come visit. It’s a huge burden. I’ve heard some are considering moving to other countries. It really impacts your life. It changes the whole game.”

Barati said the future is still uncertain for her, but she hopes to stay. 

“I am very ambitious about being in Alaska,” she said. “I was hoping I would have the first woman-owned biotech company in Alaska and be a source of inspiration for women.”

“After I came back, I received so many emails and phone calls from friends and colleagues and neighbors,” she said. “My neighbors are all so kind. I do feel like a part of this community. This is a place I feel welcome, always.”

By:  Kevin Baird
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner