- Samar, a 19-year-old from Iran, travels from country to country to avoid being deported back to her abusive father in Iran.
- For the past two years, she has shuttled between Turkey, Armenia, and Ecuador, three of the few countries Iranians can visit without a visa.
- Samar says her mother and stepfather have tried to bring her to them in California, but President Donald Trump’s travel ban bars Iranian nationals from coming to the US.
- Life with her father in Iran was so unbearable, Samar said, that she attempted suicide. “I cut my wrists and he just stood there laughing,” she said.
- The pandemic and border closings have made it even harder for Samar to get to the US. “Even if there was a way for her to come before, everything has become much more difficult now,” an Amnesty International representative said.
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Samar longs to be like other girls. But her life has been turned upside down by politics and a pandemic.
For the past two years, she has bounced from country to country alone to avoid deportation back to her homeland of Iran.
She searches for rooms in places where she doesn’t speak the language. She lugs bags of groceries for blocks because she cannot drive.
She only travels with what fits inside her small suitcase.
Samar has done all of this at a time when most girls are enjoying their last days of high school.
She’s 19, bright, and articulate. But she’s never had a boyfriend or even a close group of friends.
For as long as Samar can remember, her parents fought constantly.
When she was little, she’d write “peace contracts” for them to sign, pledging not to fight again. They’d always sign them, but a few hours later the arguing would start again.
She knew her father kept a pistol in the house, but she’d never seen him take it down from its place on the bookshelf. One day, during one of her parents’ many arguments, he grabbed the gun and threatened both Samar and her mother.
“What I remember most was the sound,” Samar said. “My mom kept covering my eyes and my head was in her chest.”
When her mother said she was going to call Samar’s grandfather, Samar recalled, her father threatened “to shoot him through the window.'”
Samar describes her father as a cruel man. He would hit her dog, Nikki, almost every day, she said.
In 2014, Samar’s mother had enough and fled Iran — and her abusive husband — for the United States.
She took a flight to Chicago, ostensibly to referee a karate tournament. But as soon as she touched down she applied for asylum.
Then she filed for divorce.
Samar’s father got a court order preventing Samar from leaving the country and joining her mother. He effectively kept her hostage in their home, she says, and if she’s forced to return to Iran, he’ll lock her up again.
“I just want to run far away, where he can’t hurt me anymore,” she told Insider. “But I can’t. And I don’t want to know what he has planned next.”
After Samar’s mother was granted asylum, she moved to California and met Kia Nasseri, an engineer who came to the US from Iran in the 1970s.
The two got married in 2016.
They now share a modest two-story house with Kia’s 26-year-old son from a previous relationship. There are palm trees outside, a fountain in the front yard, and a lake nearby.
Samar’s stepbrother has a TV in his room and his friends come over to watch.
Her mother declined to be interviewed, but Samar says she understands why she left Iran without her.
“She needs to be safe and happy,” she said.
Without her mother’s presence, though, Samar says life with her father became so unbearable she attempted suicide.
“He put so much mental pressure on me, telling me that my mom hates me and that no one wants me,” Samar told Insider. “I cut my wrists and he just stood there laughing.”
Shiraz, where Samar’s family is from, is a fairly metropolitan city with almost 2 million people. It’s historically known for its poets, its gardens, and its wine.
But Samar remembers it as a place of great unhappiness.
“It’s toxic,” she said. “People are sad and they’re trying to make themselves happier with things — money, cars, houses — to ignore the fact that so much is wrong in the country.”
In Iran, Samar needed her father’s permission for everything, including going to school. She soon fell behind in her studies.
“Everyone was like, ‘Your dad needs to sign this,’ and I didn’t even want to hear his name,” she said.
Samar’s mother and stepfather have been trying to bring her to the US. Nasseri paid lawyers in Iran to fight for Samar to visit them in California.
“Finally we got a judge to allow one exit from the country,” he told Insider.
Samar’s exit visa was granted in 2018, just months after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran.
“Once that happened, we just had to keep her out of Iran by moving her around from country to country,” Nasseri said.
Unable to reunite with her mother, Samar applied for visas in Australia, Canada, and Mexico. But her applications were either rejected or unanswered.
Since then, she’s been traveling between Armenia, Turkey, and Ecuador, three of the few nations that allow Iranians entry without a visa.
She can stay in each country for 90 days. When her time runs out, she decamps to the next country to avoid deportation back to Iran.
Nasseri has been supporting her financially, borrowing against his home equity to help with housing and food.
She’s now in Istanbul — for the second time — following stays in Quito and Yerevan.
She’s been able to make short visits to Georgia, which allows Iranians entrance for a few weeks at a time.
Despite not having finished high school, Samar is fairly fluent in English. She’s interested in studying Spanish, too. (She watches sitcoms in Spanish, like “Money Heist,” to help pick up the language.)
Even on the run, she tries to be fashionable, favoring shorts and brightly colored sneakers. With her petite build and round, olive cheeks, Samar looks much younger than her 19 years.
She loves reading novels in English, including James Patterson’s “Kill Alex Cross,” and Lauren Oliver’s “Panic.”
She tore through E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades Darker,” which would be forbidden in her native Iran.
There was a bookstore near her flat in Quito and during the month she lived there, Samar finished seven novels.
Reading distracts her from her bleak predicament, Samar says, and helps with the loneliness.
Her mother visits whenever she can, splitting her time between California and wherever her daughter is holed up. But usually, Samar is on her own.
“I was 17 years old the day I got out of Iran,” she said. “I was alone all of the time and doing everything on my own. I am getting used to it, but it never gets easy.”
Without residency papers, Samar can’t work or attend school.
Border guards look at her with suspicion and people are often rude when they see her Iranian passport.
“People don’t understand your situation so they think you’ve done something criminal and they treat you badly,” she said. “It’s one thing that my family isn’t with me but I have to move around every few months, and it’s really hard to make friends.”
Just when she starts to know someone, she said, it’s time to leave again.
“I am really depressed a lot of the time, there is no one I can talk to,” she said. “I am away from my mom, my dog. It is really sad.”
Quito was beautiful but Samar was frightened by the high crime rate.
Violent assaults, robberies and petty thefts are common, according to the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council, with tourists and other foreigners frequent targets.
“I couldn’t even carry my phone outside with me,” Samar said.
The owner of the house where she stayed warned her not to leave the house after 5 pm. So she would wake up early and go for long walks.
“I used to walk for five hours straight,” Samar said. “There was a park near the house and I would walk around it. It was very relaxing. People brought their dogs to the park. It was a great environment.”
But even in the mornings, she wouldn’t carry cash or her phone.
Most of the time Samar just stays inside whatever room she’s rented, watching Netflix and ASAPScience videos or studying for her GED.
She perks up talking about her education and her future. You can hear a glimmer of the bright and ambitious young woman inside.
“I know that I’m going to pass the GED, 100%,” she says cheerfully. “So I also try to study the pre-med topics, anatomy, physiology, the courses that I want to pick for my future.”
“When I finally get into a good university,” she said, “I will already know everything.”
She’s also exploring her faith. On her travels, Samar has visited churches in Ecuador and Armenia.
She’s moved away from Islam and has begun to embrace Christianity, though she’s hesitant to call herself a Christian.
“When people ask me what my religion is, I don’t say I’m Christian because I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that,” she said. “I haven’t been baptized and I don’t know that much about it. I’ve done my basic research, but I think there’s so much to know before you can actually call yourself Christian.”
But in terms of her basic beliefs, Samar cherishes love, acceptance, and equality, values she says Christianity embraces.
“I believe in Jesus. I believe in Christianity,” she said. “It’s what I pray to.”
Throughout her hardships, Samar has tried to find beauty in small moments. But it’s hard.
She thinks of herself like a small fish fighting to stay alive after its tank has broken.
“I’m just lying on the floor breathless, struggling to survive,” she said. “Occasionally there’s a drop of water around me from the broken tank. Like, a video call with my dog, Nikki, or the laughter of others in the street.”
“But I’m dying slowly,” she added.
It makes her unhappy to think how her mother has to shuttle back and forth between her daughter and her new husband.
“Kia, he needs someone to stay by his side,” Samar said. “They just got married a couple of years ago. They want to be together. They haven’t even passed the whole honeymoon phase. People think, like, just because they’re a little bit older that they don’t need time together, but that’s just not true.”
Last year her family’s attorney, Curtis Morrison, petitioned the State Department for a waiver to Trump’s travel ban to enable her to come to California.
A consular official in Turkey directed the visa office to give her the waiver but, after more than a year of administrative processing, there was still no resolution.
And then the pandemic hit.
On April 22, President Trump signed an executive order suspending all immigration into the United States for at least the next 60 days. It’s unknown what the long-term effects of the order — or the pandemic itself — will have on Samar’s plight.
“The goal of this administration is to cut off all immigration,” says Charanya Krishnaswami, Amnesty International’s Director of Advocacy for the Americas. “Even if there was a way for her to come before, everything has become much more difficult now.”
Samar’s tourist visa in Turkey has already expired, and the country has restricted travel out of Istanbul.
She’s been able to obtain a tourist waiver but it’s unclear how long it will be valid.
Samar says she’s now at the mercy of the Turkish government and “they could kick me out at any time.”
Armenia has already suspended all visas for Iranian citizens. Ecuador hasn’t shut its borders, but there are no direct flights from Turkey.
“I have an Iranian passport,” Samar said, “and a lot of countries won’t allow layovers for Iranians.”
With much international travel still locked down, Samar and her family worry she’ll be sent back to her father.
If she has to return to Shiraz, Nasseri said, “he might have someone there harm her.”
For now, Samar is waiting for a response to her case from the U.S. embassy in Ankara. But, she says, it feels like the United States has abandoned her.
“The State Department implemented the waiver process in a way that it just doesn’t work on purpose,” Morrison said. “It’s so frustrating.”
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on Samar’s case, saying visa records are confidential under U.S. law.
Eight months ago, Samar and Nasseri joined other separated Iranian families in a mandamus lawsuit, a request to compel the US government to follow its legal obligation.
Most of the other claimants have been reunited, but Samar and her family continue to wait.
“People like us have no voice,” she said. “It feels like no one cares.”
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