Sara Yarjani loves yoga and meditation. She boasts a 3.89 GPA at the California Institute for Human Science in Encinitas, where she is known for her empathy and passion and is learning how to heal holistically.
"She's the kindest person you'll ever meet," said Ji Hyang Padma, director of the institute's comparative religion and philosophy program, who taught Yarjani in a 2015 class on mind-body health.
But none of that mattered last week, when federal agents detained Yarjani at Los Angeles International Airport after President Trump issued his executive order imposing a 90-day ban on entry for nationals of Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries. Trump signed the order about seven hours before Yarjani landed at LAX on Friday night on a Norwegian Airlines flight from Oslo.
She was detained for 23 hours before officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection told her she was no longer allowed to enter the country and sent her back to Vienna, where she had been visiting her family during winter break.
The agency did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump said Sunday the ban was about terrorism and keeping "our country safe."
In a phone interview from Vienna this week, Yarjani, 35, tearfully recounted what she called one of the worst ordeals of her life.
She said she landed at LAX with a valid two-year, multiple-entry student visa and expected processing at the airport to go as smoothly as it has since she arrived for the master's program in September 2015. But this time, she was taken out of line for questioning about her schooling and family and trips to Iran.
Yarjani informed the customs officer who was questioning her that she is a permanent resident of Austria. She has lived outside Iran for most of the last 20 years.
She said she was denied access to her phone, taken to a detention room, told to put her hands on the wall and searched by two female agents. Then she was brought to another room, interviewed in greater detail and told she could not enter the United States because her student visa was no longer valid.
The officer, she said, then told her that she had two choices: sign an agreement to leave voluntarily or be subject to forcible departure, which would ban her from reentering the country, possibly for longer than five years.
Yarjani said she was shocked and terrified and agreed to leave.
Even after she made the decision, she still had to wait hours in detention with others. She said one elderly man told her he was so frightened he thought his heart would stop. A woman asked to sit with her and poured out her fears.
Yarjani drew on her training and did her best to calm them with breathing exercises.
She was allowed to make one call to her sister; another sister contacted the ACLU of Southern California on Saturday evening. ACLU attorneys, who filed a federal court motion late Wednesday to overturn the agreements they say Yarjani and other detainees signed under duress, referred the case to volunteer lawyers at the airport. Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based pro bono public interest law firm, took it up.
Kristen Jackson, a Public Counsel attorney, said the Customs and Border Protection window at LAX was closed by the time her office got the case about 7 p.m. Saturday, less than an hour before Yarjani would fly out. Calls and emails to officers got nowhere, even after a federal judge in New York issued a stay on deportations of those detained under the new order.
"It was absolutely shameful," Jackson said. "No one took responsibility. They were hiding behind a shuttered window."
Yarjani said the officers she encountered appeared confused about what to do. She said one apparently frustrated officer asked a colleague, "What I am supposed to do with this student who has a 3.8 GPA with eight months to graduate?" The colleague had no answer.
Minutes before her flight departed, Yarjani was allowed to use her phone and saw messages about the judge's stay from her family. She said she told an officer that it was now illegal to deport her, but the officer said "yowza" and did nothing.
She was escorted to the plane by armed customs agents. Once seated, she burst into tears.
"For the first time I felt safe," she said. "I suddenly realized how scared I was."
She said she has been overwhelmed by the support of friends, colleagues, even strangers as she tries to figure out how to return to California to finish her program.
"It's so precious and valuable to me," she said, "and I'm forced away from it for reasons I don't understand."
11:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.