Where do you go when you cannot go home?
For the better part of four hours on Saturday night, Javad Fotouhi and his wife, Gilda—both natives of Iran who are lawful permanent residents of the U.S.—sat in the room at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., and pondered that question.
They were scared, he said. Confused. Powerless. At times hopeless.
They waited, apprehensive, wondering whether they would be allowed to return to their lives in Baltimore.
"We built a life here for the past few years," said Javad, a Johns Hopkins University doctoral student studying computer science. "We have a home here, we have friends, we have family. We are emotionally attached to this place. We live here—we chose to live here.
"You work very hard to get this position and you see suddenly it's going to nothing—that really breaks your heart. That really makes you feel devastated. I never expected this. Imagine you travel for two weeks, and they tell you, 'OK, you can't go back home again. Go somewhere else.'"
Javad and Gilda were among hundreds of travelers whose lives were thrust into uncertainty this past weekend by a presidential executive order blocking entry to the United States by individuals from seven nations, including Iran.
Both are green card holders, meaning they can live and work in the U.S. permanently. Javad arrived in 2013 and has been pursuing his doctorate at Johns Hopkins for two and a half years. Gilda, a relationship manager at a Baltimore bank, has been here longer. Her parents live in Pittsburgh.
Earlier this month, the couple traveled to Iran for two weeks to visit Javad's parents and Gilda's grandmother. They had been planning the trip for five months.
A few days before they were scheduled to return to the U.S., Javad read something online about the possibility of an executive order focused on immigration, but the report was "quite vague."
"It wasn't clear if it was going to affect us or not," he said.
Hours after the order was signed by President Donald Trump on Friday, the couple flew from Tehran to Istanbul, where they boarded a Turkish Airlines flight back to the U.S. As they waited for the flight to take off, security officers came onto the plane and removed several passengers—"about half of us," Javad said. "We were very worried during that time. We were expecting that at any moment they would come to us and ask us to leave."
After a delay of about an hour, the plane departed for Dulles.
"In the plane, I told my wife, 'Let's not check the Internet. Lets keep the positive energy that we have, let's have hope,'" Javad said. "But one of the passengers sitting near us told us that someone from the White House had said that Iranian green card holders would not be allowed in. … That was the moment when we panicked. We felt kind of hopeless, powerless."
It was another eight hours before their plane touched down at around 6 p.m. They were not sure what to expect upon arriving in the U.S.
"We were just thinking about what we should do," Javad said. "What if they deport us? We didn't know. … We couldn't even imagine something like this."
At Dulles, Customs and Border Protection officers asked Javad and Gilda questions—Where did they live? What were their jobs? What was the nature of Javad's research? What was the nature of their visit to Iran? Where did they stay in Iran?—then told them to wait in a room.
There were 20 to 30 others there, maybe more, Javad said—a 5-year-old boy, an autistic man. The room was very quiet, except for a TV tuned to the news. The people in the room did not speak—they had been instructed not to.
Javad had more than 100 text messages from friends and family, asking if he was OK, offering him support, telling him that there were lawyers in the airport, advising him not to sign anything—specifically the I-407 form, which states that the signee has voluntarily surrendered his or her green card.
While he waited, he exchanges text messages with friends who were in the airport terminal.
"We really didn't know what are our rights there," Javad said. "No one was giving us any information. We couldn't exchange any information with the people sitting there—no one was talking. But it was giving me hope that there were people outside, that they know I am here."
After about three hours, dual citizens were allowed to leave the room. Soon after, at about 10:30 p.m., Javad and Gilda were cleared. They walked from the room and into a cheering mass of protesters and supporters—including some from Hopkins—in the baggage claim area.
"She couldn't handle the stress and her emotions any more," Javad said of his wife. "She tried to be strong for many hours, but that was the moment she started collapsing."
Among those who had come to the airport were some of Javad and Gilda's friends—"Jews and Christians," he says. "These are my friends. … We saw many people welcoming us. That was very heartwarming."
Three days later, as Javad reflected on the experience, he expressed relief, and yet he knows many others will not be as fortunate. He spoke of friends at "good schools, top 10 U.S. universities," who have job offers waiting in Silicon Valley but who will not be able to stay because they are from one of the affected countries.
"We live quiet lives," he said. "And we are also concerned about safety. We also want this place to be safe."
He paused for a moment.
"It's not all about religion," he added. "It's about humanity."