75-year-old grandmother from Iran tells the story of her detention at LAX

Marzieh Moosavizadeh and her grandson follow a routine when she visits almost every year from Iran.

The 75-year-old, who travels in a wheelchair and speaks little English, struggles to find direct flights to Phoenix, where he and his family live. So they meet in Los Angeles and he escorts her on the last leg of her trip.

This time was different.

Moosavizadeh landed at Los Angeles International Airport a day after President Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, from entering the United States.

Moosavizadeh’s plans to catch her last flight were upended when she said she was held at LAX for nine hours with dozens of other passengers who, like her, had no idea whether they would be released or sent back to their native country.

“Sitting there for eight hours, for somebody who has arthritis, is very, very hard,” Moosavizadeh said while recounting her detention in an interview with The Times in Persian while her son translated by phone. “Please, tell Mr. Trump when they make these kind of decisions, think it all the way through.”

For Moosavizadeh, who her grandson said has held a green card since 1997, the anxiety set in when she landed shortly after 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Customs officers scanned her passport, held it up next to her head and told her to wait. Then, they ushered her to a room where she said a couple dozen passengers — Iranians, Africans and Asians — were being held.

She sat there for two hours before officers led her, along with a handful of others passengers from her flight, to another room filled with travelers from Iran. She spent the next several hours there.

At about 6 p.m., Moosavizadeh’s wheelchair attendant offered her a cellphone to call her grandson.  

She told him to go eat and rest — she heard she’d be held for a few more hours. He told her to stay calm, he wasn’t going anywhere.

Every hour or so, Moosavizadeh said, officers would come by to escort passengers to the bathroom or drop off 8-ounce water bottles. The English-speakers implored them for answers.

It’s out of our hands, the officers said. Their fate was up to their superiors.

Passengers were afraid to talk to one another, Moosavizadeh said. No one knew whether they’d be released or sent back to Iran.

“Most of them, they thought they were going to get deported,” she said, through her son.

At one point, she was taken elsewhere for questioning. Customs officers asked her when she last visited the U.S., who she lives with in Iran and where she gets her income.

When she returned, she snacked on almonds she’d packed in her purse.

“Thank God I put them in my purse, otherwise I didn’t have anything on me,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, her sons frantically refreshed news articles and peppered her grandson, Siavosh Naji-Talakar, with questions he couldn’t answer. Huddled among throngs of boisterous protesters demanding the detainees be released, Naji-Talakar could do little but wait. 

Over and over, they chanted, “Let them in!” They said they wouldn’t leave otherwise. 

Some offered Naji-Talakar food and a couch for the night, others money for a hotel room.

Nearby, the detainees heard the cries, faintly. They had no idea, though, if those who had gathered were there to support or decry them. A customs officer, Moosavizadeh said, told the group that it wasn’t safe for them to let them go.

Eventually, officers began calling passengers one by one. Detainees were taken away, alone or in pairs, while those left behind wondered if they were being released or deported.  

“We all thought they were going to give us hard time first and then send us back,” Moosavizadeh said.

She added that she wants Trump to know that Muslims condemn Islamic State.

“They might be Muslim, but they’re not a part of us,” she said. “We are all brothers and sisters and we don’t believe in their values — at all.”

Moosavizadeh’s name was among the last ones called, at about 1 a.m. 

Finally, she said, she was “released from prison.”

When she spotted her grandson in the crowd, she felt like she was flying. 

He saw her too, and bolted.

“I pushed people out of the way, I was like, ‘Get out of my way,’” Naji-Talakar said. “I ran up to her and gave a big old hug.”

That’s when the cheering and chanting started again.

Over and over, “We got grandma!” 

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Twitter: @alenetchek

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