By Mahshid Hager
I am currently sitting at Los Angeles International Airport. I’m about to take an over-night flight to Sydney, Australia. This will be my second trip to Sydney in 7 months. I am assisting at another Somatic Experiencing training and I’m really looking forward to reuniting with the Sydney cohort and visiting with some old friends. I love my job and I love the fact that it allows me to ravel as well.
I was supposed to catch a flight from San Diego to LAX this evening. But earlier this afternoon I was notified that my San Diego flight was significantly delayed, meaning I would miss my connecting flight to Sydney. In a last minute, frenzied, problem solving effort, I decided to take the two hour and 30 minute drive to Los Angeles in rush hour traffic, but arrive nice and early and wait for my Sydney flight. Yes, this inconvenient, but it wasn’t the end of the world. My son (who loves to drive) offered to drive me to the airport and I knew I had plenty of time, so we wouldn’t feel rushed. Having traveled with an Iranian passport for most of my life, I am accustomed to arriving early, keeping calm and expecting some delays or surprises along the way.
Travel has become much more convenient since I became a US citizen and obtained a US passport. Nevertheless, I have been anticipating this trip with a certain amount of anxiety. There is something about being this far away from home. Last time I visited Australia, I was also acutely aware of the many miles I had put between myself and my friends and family.
As anticipated, I arrive in Los Angeles early and head to the Delta counter to check in my bag and retrieve my boarding pass. I approach the computerized counter and enter my information and put my passport face down on the scanner. The message on the screen reads: “A boarding card cannot be issued at this time. Please see agent.” I wasn’t concerned yet. I thought this has probably something to do with the fact that I’m too early or the fact that I was supposed to board the flight in San Diego. I proceed to the counter and wait in line.
The agent behind the counter smiles at me and asks for my travel documents. I hand her my passport and my confirmation number and tell her that I tried to print a boarding pass but was sent to the counter for further help.
She studies the computer screen in front of her and asks “Did you drive up from San Diego?”
“Yes, I did.” I explain the delay in my San Diego flight and tell her I didn’t want to miss my Sydney flight so I drove up.
She punches more letters and numbers on her keyboard, but still looks concerned. “Did you obtain a visa?”
“Yes, I did. I can pull it up on my phone.” I hand her my phone, displaying my granted visa letter. She studies it and looks back at her computer screen.
Then she says: “Your passport has been flagged. I have to call this in.” With this simple announcement, I feel my heart drop to my stomach. My head is spinning, trying to figure out what this could possibly mean. She talks to someone on the phone, shares with them what I have told her and goes over my visa letter one more time.
“We have to call the Australian government to figure out what’s going on.” I start feeling dizzy, shaky and my heart is pounding and at the same time realize that I’m having a much bigger reaction (physically speaking) than I should be in this situation. Being a trauma therapist has its perks, because I realize quickly that I am having a trauma response that has little to do with the current situation and everything to do with past travel trauma. You see, I traveled with an Iranian passport for most of my life and it often made travel difficult, to say the least.
There were all those times I almost missed my flight because I was “randomly selected” for a more thorough security search. These are not your typical “Hello Ma’am, is this bag yours?” kind of search. These are the kind where your big suit case that you painstakingly packed the night before, gets re-opened and every single item gets pulled out, shaken and put to the side, all lipsticks and other makeup and toiletries opened and smelled, all bra under-wires closely examined and all underwear laid out flat on the table for the whole world to see.
One time, at Frankfurt International Airport, as I was standing by, witnessing my own humiliation, I mustered up the courage to say: “This is my third thorough security search in as many trips. That can’t be random, right…?” The TSA agent conducting the search didn’t even look up at me as he said: “You have an Iranian passport. Iran is a terrorist country. No, this is not random.” I felt tears well up in my eyes and knew that I couldn’t say another word without making matters much worse and missing my flight.
There was the time I watched as a TSA agent patted down my 3-year old while he had to stand spread eagle. As his mom, what I wanted to do was be near him and at least hold his hand but I was instructed to “stay behind the yellow line.”
There was the time a customs agent at Los Angeles International Airport asked my 4-year old upon our arrival from Germany if we had visited “I-ran” during our holiday break. “No, we visited grandma in Germany.” My son replied. “Are you sure? Are you sure your Mom didn’t sneak off to I-ran??” My son just looked at me confused. “I have not set foot in Iran since my family escaped in 1981.” I said. “I grew up in Germany and now I live in San Diego. I just had a very long trip with two toddlers and would very much like to go home please.” He let us proceed without any further questions.
On another occasion, I flew home to Germany to visit my family for Christmas. Since I was in the US on a student visa, this meant that every time I went back home, I had to reapply for my visa. I called the consulate before my departure and they informed me that the process of confirming my student status and the re-issuing of my visa would take no more than a week. I had a two week break from school and was really looking forward to being with my parents and my sisters during the Holidays. Once I arrived in Germany, I went straight to the US Embassy in Frankfurt and submitted my passport and my application. The agent behind the counter smiled and said: “Great! All your papers are complete. We’ll notify you in 4 to 6 weeks.” My heart jumped to my throat! I began pleading: “But school starts again in two weeks. I can’t miss classes, they will drop me!” I began crying: “I called ahead, they assured me I had plenty of time. Please! Is there anything that can be done?” She noted that the agent who told me it would only take a few days, probably didn’t know that I had an Iranian passport. There was nothing I could do. She suggested I call my school and notify them of the issue and see if they would make an exception. I cried all the way home.
All of these traumatic travel events are of course nothing compared to the journey that my family took leaving Iran, the story of which I will share with you at some other time. What I can share with you now though, is the fact that the trauma of that journey, can still very quickly make me feel like a trapped animal. The options that my brain and body will start navigating are either run as fast as you can and get to safety or fight like hell to get out of this situation. Both of those options are ill advised at an airport terminal.
A few months ago, shortly after taking office, President Trump issued an Executive Order, banning Muslims from 7 countries, including Iran, from entering the United States. People from all over the world poured out into the streets and at different airports around the country, protesting this ban. I joined one of those demonstration at the airport in San Diego. To some, it may have seemed like an overreaction. After all “the ban is temporary” they would say. “It’s a safety measure, until we can have stronger vetting in place for refugees coming into our country.” But my reaction and the reaction of those holding up signs at airports and shouting “No Ban, No Wall”, was that of a caged animal. It’s a reaction you can only understand if you have been in a situation where your basic freedom to move about is under threat. And that freedom is under threat, not based on your past actions, but rather on who you are, what your religion is and where you were born.
Within a few days of that executive order, a federal judge in New York ordered a stay to the travel ban. There are currently several law suits against it underway in other federal courts as well. But during the days and weeks that followed the initial order I watched my Iranian community in turmoil. It seemed like the entire community was navigating a trauma response similar to mine. At one time or another we all have had challenges getting from point A to point B. Whenever we are at an airport, unexpected things can happen that interfere with our original plans: flight delays or cancellations, over sold seats, gate changes at the last minute, lost luggage…. But ask yourself how you would react if you were singled out in security lines over and over again based on how you look. Imagine what it’s like for a hijab wearing Muslim woman to go through security at the airport today. What would you do in the face of repeated humiliation? What if your loved ones were banned from visiting you? How would you react? Would you raise your voice? Would you shrug it off? Would you protest?
The complication today, was nothing compared to my journey out of Iran. It also was nothing like my past experiences mentioned above. It had nothing to do with me being an Iranian American (at least I don’t think it did). After a brief conversation with the Australian government, I was informed that the visa I applied for in February was the wrong one and that it had expired already. They advised me to go on to the website right away and apply for a new Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). I had to calm my shaking hands and quiet my racing negative thoughts and gather all of my strength in order to complete the task at hand. And I did. And everything turned out fine. Travel has become a lot easier with my American passport and I’m grateful for that. But my experience today confirmed that my body still very much remembers all of my past trauma. There’s still work to be done.