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My parents' JFK landing
"So, sir, you are here for what purpose?"

Sara Sefeed
October 28, 2004

I am sure we have all been interrogated once or twice in our travels, and asked the usual questions about the purpose of our visit and so on. On a recent trip to the United States, my parents, both Iranian passport-holders, recounted their experiences to me after being detained for 5 hours post-landing. This incident occured at JFK airport in New York, where I had gone to pick them up.

After patiently waiting for them for several hours, I began to be concerned when they were so delayed that their landing information was removed from the board. I proceeded to the Lufthansa desk to ask whether they had even come on the flight as intended. Maybe they had missed their flight. The woman said she could not give me any personal passenger information.

I asked if she could make an exception as my parents were Iranian and probably detained by US Immigration; I simply wanted to know if they were on the flight and that my wait was not in vain. I showed her my ID and explained to her that my parents were on a long long journey and both in their late 60's. I was simply concerned for their whereabouts.

After much hesitation, and checking my ID, she agreed to look up the plane records and gave me a simple nod with her head that indicated they were on the flight. I then asked her what she thought would happen to them. She said I would have to just wait for them since the interrogation could take as long as it could take.

Several planes landed from obscure locations, and finally after 5 hours, my tired, old parents came limping through the gates of arrivals. My mother had the usual look of exhaustion (from the flight), disappointment (at the mullahs) and anger (at the US officials) on her face. My father on the other hand, smiled proud and walked like he had just placed first in the marathon. Eager to find out what they had done to them, I asked all about it.

My dad informed me that they had made them wait. They took fingerprints. They made them wait some more. They took photos of them. They made them wait and then they asked them a series of questions. Here, just some highlights:

US Official: "So, sir, you are here for what purpose?"

My dad: "To visit my daughter."

USO: "I see. And what is it your daughter does...?"


... [questions follow about my occupation, addresses, personal relationships...]

USO: "How long do you plan to stay." [Their visa is only valid for 4 weeks. Their ticket back is scheduled in 3 weeks.]

My dad: "We are staying 3 weeks."

USO attempts to write this down but he, too, is very old. He does not seem to be able to read or write. He calls a subordinate Hispanic colleague over. She takes over and starts questioning from the beginning. She takes notes on everything he says. She has a Puerto Rican accent and my father can't understand what she is saying half the time.

USO: "Cin yo gimme yo addriss in ... Eye - ran?"

My dad:" Sorry?"

USO:"Yo addriss. Add-RESS. It's Eye - ran, ain't it?"

My dad: "Oh, my address in Eeran. Eeran. Yes of course. Tehran - Jordan - Koocheh Shemiraney. Number 29." [she pretends to scribble something while she looks behind him and nods.]

USO: "So you're here witcho wife to visit yo dawteh. Yo staying tree weeks at heh house, at [address]. I have yo work and home addrisses and yo flight informations, as well as yo date of biath, bank account info-mation, fingahprints, pho-tos, info-mation on yo odeh dawteh and info-mation about yo occu-pation in Eye-ran wheh yor residin'. Now sieh, can you tell me yoh faather's date of biath?"

My dad: "Sorry?"

USO: "YOH FAATHER'S DATE OF BIARTH" [raises voice and looks annoyed]

My dad: "My father's date of birth?" [he chuckles as he doesn't believe what he is being asked. He looks over at my mom, who confused yells "Chee Meekhan digeh baba!" (what do they want now?") He makes an execute decision to make the date up.]


USO: "Cin you gimme me yo faader's full name in Eye-ran?"

My dad: "Abu Ghassem Talaei. A - B - U G - H - A - S - S - E - M T - A - L- A - E - I"

USO: "Cin you gimme me yo mudder's full name in Eye-ran?"

My dad: "Molook Faranghi. M- O - L - O - O - K F - A - R - A - N - G - H - I"

USO: "Cin you gimme me yo grandfaader's full name in Eye-ran?"

My dad: "My grand-father's name? Hossein. H - O - S - S - E - I - N."

USO: "His last name?"

My dad: "He didn't have a last name."

USO: " Sir - I need a last name."

My dad: "Do you realize I am 67 years old. My grandfather was born in the 18th century. They didn't have last names back then. Last names were only instituted in Iran under Reza Shah a half a century later. My grandfather would have been known as Hossein, son of Abu-Torab, who was his father. My great-grandfather."


USO: "Cin you gimme me yo faader's addriss in Eye-ran?"

My dad: "His address? Ghabrestoon."

USO: "Come agin"

My dad: "GHAB- R - E - ES- TOOON"

USO: "Is dat in Eye-ran?"

My dad: "Oh, yes. It is."

USO: "Is dat his home address? Whad about his place of occu-pation?"

My dad: "Yes. Behesht ZAH - RAH"

USO: "Where is dat? Like is theah moah to dis addris?"

My dad:"If you come to Tehran and you say Behesht Zahra, they will know where to take you. That's the address."

USO: "And what is your fadder's phone number?"

My dad: "His phone number? His phone number? Madam. My father is deceased."

USO: " I need a phone number for dis heah addriss."


USO: "And your muddeh? Where is her place of occu-pation?"

My dad: "Jahan-nam. J - A - H - A..."


The USO proceeded to ask the same questions of my mother, all of which had to be translated through my dad. I only hope that next year they don't check up on them by asking them the same questions again.

Sara Sefeed is a Senior Editor for She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois and is interested in issues relating to Immigration and the problems Iranians encounter when they travel. If you have any stories you would like to share with her, feel free to email her.

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