Sanctions, visas, and the pandemic: One Iranian student’s bumpy path to SF State

Changing immigration rules and travel restrictions leave some overseas students in limbo

Visa interviews at consulates surrounding Iran — which has no United States embassy of its own — are hard to come by during the pandemic, but Hasti Jafari Jozani managed to nab one in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in October, in a process that required her to quarantine there for two weeks.

So when her visa was granted to study at San Francisco State University this spring, after she had already deferred fall admission and a prestigious scholarship, she jumped with joy.

The 25-year-old playwright got to Istanbul, Turkey, two weeks ahead of her flight to San Francisco, as required under U.S. travel restrictions barring non U.S. citizens from direct flights departing from Iran. But then she belatedly discovered that federal guidelines now required incoming students to have proof of an in-person study component to be allowed into the U.S. upon arrival. San Francisco State’s classes are all online this semester, meaning she didn’t qualify.

“The uncertainty, it really was something,” said Hasti Jafari Jozani. “It would have been devastating to come so far, [have] so many expenses, so much hope, but be stopped and having to go back to Iran. It would be really brutal.”

Life as an international student attempting to study at an American college has been a turbulent and disorienting ride over the past year for many due to the pandemic and uncertainty over immigration rules.

Federal rules last semester sought to expel all international students from the country altogether, but were later rolled back after a barrage of lawsuits and hybrid learning accommodations.

Travel restrictions were lifted this past week for Europe and Brazil, but may be reinstated under President Joe Biden’s administration due to coronavirus. They are still in place for noncitizens coming from China and Iran.

Many new international students have either deferred admission or studied online from their home countries because they were unable to enter the country or concerned about coronavirus in the United States.

But paralyzing economic sanctions barring an exchange of goods and services also prohibit students in Iran from studying online in the U.S. Without an embassy, and with decades of tense diplomatic relations with the U.S., visas have been tough to obtain for Iranians, students included.

“Essentially, you’ve got sanctions in place that prevent Iranian students from studying in their home countries,” said Ryan Costello, policy director for the National Iranian American Council. “Hundreds of Iranian students have been admitted to universities but they can’t get their visas, so they’re stuck. It’s a Kafka-esque situation.”

Hasti’s brother, Siavash Jafari Jozani, is a San Francisco resident. He and several university faculty and administrative staff members lobbied on her behalf with constant strategizing, paperwork, and worry over the course of a month to emphasize that his sister would likely not be granted another visa later on and might have to give up admission altogether if denied. Creative writing chair Nona Caspers and professor Michelle Carter, who were highly impressed with Hasti Jafari Jozani’s talent and application, had selected her for the George and Judy Marcus Family Foundation scholarship and found her well worth the time.

“It increases the sense of our own confidence, that someone wants to come here and we fight for her together, and the university fought for her to get here,” Caspers said. “We’ve not had a student from Iran, certainly not in playwriting.”

Eventually, they came up with a one-on-one outdoor component to a course that explored the impacts of coronavirus, and felt they made a compelling case. Days before Hasti Jafari Jozani’s rescheduled flight and about month after she arrived in Istanbul, they received approval and wrote a letter affirming such.

But her case is a special one in many ways.

“The circumstances are exceptional,” said Persis Karim, chair and director of SF State’s Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies, who also advocated for Hasti. “For me, it’s a huge victory that the bureaucratic obstacles that were put before were actually overcome by the efforts of individuals and educators who, I think, get it — that education means a lot for other people in many countries, but especially in Iran, where things are really difficult economically, really difficult politically, where a young person with ambitions as an artist isn’t free to practice her trade.”

Two other prospective students in Iran, who preferred to remain unnamed out of fear of retaliation, told The Examiner they are anxiously awaiting visa approval after deferring multiple times. Efforts from friends who have sought a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control have gone nowhere thus far.

Similar to Hasti Jafari Jozani, they had to travel out of Iran, at great expense. With Iranian currency severely inflated due to sanctions, one spent three years’ worth of savings for a visa that might not come through. Both have fully-funded scholarships for graduate programs.

“We cannot study online, we cannot get our visas, so we are just stuck,” said one prospective student admitted to a college in Illinois. “Only the Iranian students who have applied for a position in the United States are having this problem. It makes me feel a bit alone. We are not aware of even the near future.”

Siavash Jafari Jozani felt they were stuck in a “spider web,” and is grateful to be out of it after intense stress. But as he advocated for his sister, he was struck by how little known is the practical effect of U.S. policies on the circumstances of regular Iranians.

“For us Iranians, it’s like we’re living it, but for Americans, it’s just a title,” said Siavash Jafari Jozani. “You can’t give back those four years to those people who had medical issues and needed to come here to get an operation or medicine, to those people who missed once-in-a-lifetime family opportunities. The fact is that before the Muslim ban, for many, many years it’s been like this.”

In a big change to those policies, President Biden repealed what is known as the Muslim ban instituted under the previous administration.

Hasti Jafari Jozani hopes other students can find success in getting here, and get the necessary support to see a case through. She also hopes her parents will be able to visit after the pandemic.

“I hope more people get to experience this, the hope and understanding,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the way they stood up for me, it meant more than I can say. Now the other journey begins.”

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