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‘I started crying in the airplane’: Notre Dame student denied entry to U.S. amid tensions with Iran

| Friday, January 31, 2020

When Hamid Mohabbat’s plane touched down in Chicago on Jan. 10, he could hardly contain his excitement.

It was his first time in America and he was one step closer to Notre Dame, where’d he accepted a fully-funded offer to study civil engineering through a combined master’s and Ph.D. program. A 22-year-old from Iran, Mohabbat dreamed of earning a doctorate at Notre Dame and becoming a professor in his home country.

But upon exiting the plane in the U.S., Mohabbat’s plans changed dramatically.

“I was shocked,” Mohabbat said.

Courtesy of Hamid Mohabbat
Hamid Mohabbat prepares to leave for America and begin his studies at Notre Dame on Jan. 10. Mohabbat was denied entry to the U.S. at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

On Jan. 10, Mohabbat was detained at Chicago O’Hare International Airport and placed in a detention cell for 19 hours. He was interviewed — interrogated, as he put it — about America’s relationship with Iran and the downing of a Ukrainian flight, which the Iranian military had taken responsibility for earlier that day.

Despite being placed in an isolated room, Mohabbat didn’t think anything was wrong. He offered the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer his CV and research plan. He says he was honest and direct. Some time later, the officer came back.

Mohabbat was given a foam mattress and thin blanket on which to sleep and was instructed not to communicate with anyone.

The next morning, he was sent back to Iran.

“I was asked to get out and make ready to leave,” Mohabbat said. “I was given no reason.”

A national occurrence

Mohabbat’s experience is representative of a national trend occurring amid America’s heightened tensions with Iran. The New York Times reported at least 16 Iranian students have been turned away at U.S. airports since August. Mohabbat is one of such cases.

Mohabbat waited eight months for his F-1 visa, which required his participation in an extensive vetting process. The State Department had already approved Mohabbat’s entry before he was turned away.

Notre Dame has been in contact with Mohabbat since he was denied entry to the United States, said Paul Browne, the University’s vice president for public affairs and communications.

“The University has also been in discussions with the State Department and is engaging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to determine whether anything can be done to remedy the situation,” Browne said in an email.

Notre Dame has also been in contact with Jackie Walorski, a Republican who represents Indiana’s 2nd district in Congress.

Jack Morrissey, Walorski’s communications director, confirmed the office is aware of the situation.

When asked for comment, CBP public affairs officer Steve Bansbach said the DHS and CBP cannot discuss individual cases. But Bansbach did say that Mohabbat was not deported — deportations are performed by a different office, not the CBP.

“He was found inadmissible and he was put on a return flight,” Bansbach said. “It’s not a deportation.”

Notre Dame professor Diogo Bolster was planning to act as Mohabbat’s Ph.D. advisor. Bolster had arranged for one of his students to drive Mohabbat from the bus stop upon his arrival.

When both that student and Mohabbat’s mother reached out saying they hadn’t heard from him, Bolster realized something was wrong.

He called O’Hare and talked to a CBP officer. The officer confirmed Mohabbat was being sent home, which Bolster communicated to Mohabbat’s parents.

“I am really blessed to have him,” Mohabbat said about Bolster.

Despite the uncertainty of the situation, Bolster continues to communicate with Mohabbat. He said he is looking for as many solutions as he can find, and plans to continue mentoring Mohabbat while looking into Ph.D. opportunities in other countries.

“When I accepted him to become a Ph.D. student in my program, I consider that a certain commitment on my behalf and I believe I still owe him something,” Bolster said.

Mohabbat was incredibly excited about attending Notre Dame, Bolster added. He described him as smart, bright and motivated.

“In an absolutely ideal world, I would love to welcome him here,” Bolster said. “I don’t know if or how that’s going to happen.”

‘I keep doing the best I can’

On Jan. 11, after being held in a CBP cell for 19 hours, Mohabbat boarded a flight home. He worried about his parents, who hadn’t heard from him in 42 hours. 

“I was afraid not about myself, but the main worry was them,” Mohabbat said.

The moment his plane reached Istanbul he texted his family. His mom’s response was instantaneous.

“I received this message from my mom that ‘We were worried sick, it is going to be alright, you did a great job and [don’t] be sorry about your efforts, we love you,’” Mohabbat said. “I started crying in the airplane.”

Mohabbat was confident his chances of becoming a professor would have increased exponentially had he completed an esteemed civil engineering program in America. He wanted to challenge himself for a better future, which is what led him to Notre Dame in the first place.

“The fact is that home was [w]hat gave me the courage to apply for foreign universities,” Mohabbat said.

Before accepting Notre Dame’s offer, Mohabbat was studying for his bachelor’s degree at the University of Tehran, a top-ranked institution in Iran and one of the most prestigious in the Middle East. He had a 3.84 GPA and was hoping to research a range of topics in America.

Mohabbat couldn’t comprehend why he was denied entry to the U.S. when the incident first occurred. Now, he says he understands the political force behind the denial.

“This is not what a student from any country with any nationality deserves,” Mohabbat said. “It is against everything the U.S. has always stood for: a beacon of hope in the time of darkness.”

Though Mohabbat is aware of attempts being made to remedy the situation, he is now enrolled in a master’s program in Iran. It was an offer he had previously denied in hopes of attending Notre Dame.

“For now, I am just trying to come up with plans and ideas about my future,” Mohabbat said. “I have confidence in my efforts and I keep doing the best I can, as I always have.”

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About Kelli Smith

Kelli Smith is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she served as Editor-in-Chief at The Observer for the 2019-20 term. She is pursuing majors in political science and television with a minor in journalism. // Twitter: @KelliSmithNews

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