After years of being prevented from joining her husband in America, Roosevelt student Mary Nikpouri should by all rights be skeptical of the American Dream.
Among countless immigrants subjected to long waits and a seemingly endless bureaucracy in the quest to join loved ones legally in the U.S., Nikpouri spent nearly the first half of her 12-year marriage living apart from her husband Amir.
And yet, the 35-year-old health sciences student is still hopeful about her future in America.
“I just want to be an educated mom so my son can learn from me,” said Nikpouri, who today lives with Amir and her 3-year-old son, Ryan, in a southwest Chicago suburb.
A Roosevelt Presidential Scholarship recipient, Nikpouri has reason for optimism, as she will soon complete an allied health degree in histotechnology, the only bachelor’s-level program of its kind in Illinois.
Starting pay is good — about $26 an hour — and chances of finding a job are nearly 100 percent for Roosevelt students who learn to handle, store and prepare human tissue samples for analysis at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
“Mary expressed interest in my class in empowering women in Iran through educational and career opportunities. She frequently reflected on her life in Iran, and I know that all of us in that class came to value what she had to say immensely.”E. Mairin Barney, Former Roosevelt Professor
Both Mary, who will graduate in summer 2018, and Amir, a manager and partner in a Chicago auto-auction business, today are naturalized U.S. citizens. That was not the case, however, when their love story — and all of its ensuing struggles — began to unfold in 2005.
“It was difficult all those years being apart from one another, but it made us closer, and as a result, we are determined to make the most of our life together in the U.S.,” Nikpouri said.
Mary Meets Amir
The couple met at a shared relative’s house in Tehran on Feb. 25, 2005. Mary, then 21, a native of Iran’s capital city, was a lab technician whose job was to test the city’s water for contamination levels. She went to her relative’s home with her mother to pay respect to family and friends, a tradition followed by Iranians all over the world during the holiday season that precedes the Iranian New Year, which falls on the first day of spring, typically in March.
A native of Shiraz, Amir, then 26, had come to do the same. He left the southerly garden city, Iran’s sixth largest metropolis, in 1989, joining family members who had moved to America to start a business. A bargain airfare to Tehran, a city he hadn’t seen since he was 12 years old, made his homeland visit possible.
“My mother would always tell me, ‘You should marry a Persian girl,’” Amir said. “I would shake my head and tell her, ‘I don’t think I have anything in common with one,’ and she would tell me, ‘Mom knows best.’”
Mary grew up during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, believed to have taken an estimated half a million lives. Her mother, a human resources director at a Tehran hospital, and her father, a high-ranking official of Iran’s Department of Education, promised their daughter she would be educated.
The war, however, forced the family to flee to the countryside where as a first-grader, Mary witnessed a missile attack, killing people near where she lay hidden in a canal on orders of her father, whose quick thinking likely saved her life.
There were no options for education in the countryside at that time, except a strict religious school for refugees, which Mary attended for four months. Later returning to Tehran, she finished grade school, high school and some college, obtaining an associate’s degree in environmental health; she was then admitted to an engineering program.
“What I remember about Mary was her discussion and reflection on why she wanted to come to the U.S.,” said E. Mairin Barney, a former Roosevelt English instructor who first introduced the student to the idea of social justice in an online Writing Social Justice class.
An unfamiliar concept, social justice for Mary became a starting point for analyzing her personal journey in Iran, a process that led her to tell her story.
“Mary expressed interest in my class in empowering women in Iran through educational and career opportunities,” Barney said. “She frequently reflected on her life in Iran, and I know that all of us in that class came to value what she had to say immensely.”
A Quick Courtship and Prolonged Separation
Mary was supposed to stay at her relative’s house on that first day she met Amir for 90 minutes, but he begged her to stay longer. “I told her, ‘I’ve been looking for you in the skies,’” he said. “I also asked her to show me around Tehran.”
They explored the city streets, visited shopping malls and talked late at night on the phone. He gave her flowers. She found a bench in a famous Tehran park where they sat talking for 12 hours straight about life, children and the importance of education.
“I promised her, ‘You will be successful in America as long as you’ve got the education,’” said Amir, who remembers advising Mary, while she waited in Iran, to master English so that she could hit the ground running in the U.S.
The two married in Tehran, with the blessing of their families, on April 14, 2005 — just 49 days after their courtship began.
Amir vowed to bring his new wife to the U.S. quickly. He did not, however, anticipate being among approximately 1.5 million similar petitioners whom well-known U.S. immigration policy consultant Paul Donnelly has estimated may have been waiting — some as long as seven years — for permission to bring loved ones to America.
“Immigrants like the Nikpouris are what make our country great. They come here with hopes and dreams of making a difference, they raise their kids to become real Americans, and then we treat them like they are a pain in the neck instead of an opportunity. It doesn’t make sense.”– Paul Donnelly, U.S. Immigration Policy Consultant
“How long would you want to have to sleep in a different country than your husband or wife?” asked Donnelly, who first met Amir in 2007 after the legal U.S. resident contacted a number of federal offices, including his senators, for help in bringing Mary to the U.S.
“Immigrants like the Nikpouris are what make our country great,” said Donnelly, who set the stage for Amir to tell his story to The New York Times and senators in Washington, D.C. in May 2007.
“They come here with hopes and dreams of making a difference, they raise their kids to become real Americans, and then we treat them like they are a pain in the neck instead of an opportunity,” Donnelly said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
When Amir first returned to the U.S. to file Mary’s paperwork, he had never been in a courtroom, was not versed in immigration law and did not know any immigration lawyers.
“I thought I could just pay someone and it would happen, but I found out that things don’t work that way,” said Amir, who discovered his green card was not enough to put his wife on a fast track to America.
The first year apart passed, and then the second. The two talked on the phone together every night, but by day, their state of affairs was growing tense.
“I was hearing from people I knew that he (Amir) was lying. They said he already had a wife and family in America,” Mary said. “It wasn’t true, but at the time I was heartbroken and growing more and more frustrated every day.”
Amir’s Fight For His Wife
Committed to his promise to bring Mary to America, Amir called then-Senator Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. Obama’s office put him in touch with American Families United (AFU), a not-for-profit organization that advocates for U.S. citizens trying to bring spouses and children to America. An AFU consultant at the time, Donnelly saw an opportunity in Amir and his story.
“We wanted to address delays that those seeking legal immigration were experiencing, and here was Amir — young, handsome, articulate, and a poster child for what’s wrong with the immigration system,” Donnelly said.
Amir had been to the U.S. Senate once as a high school student, but this was a different occasion: a press conference with then-Senator Hillary Clinton and dozens of media cameras.
“[Senator Clinton] told me she was sorry that we have a broken system and that our laws are breaking families apart,” said Amir, whose story was featured on CNN, in The New York Times and more than 100 other newspapers around the country. “She joked with me, told me I was a good-looking guy and that Mary would certainly wait for me.”
Clinton’s proposed amendment was to be part of a sweeping immigration reform bill. She called for increases to the number of green cards issued annually to spouses and children of legal residents, thereby reducing the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s case backlog. Opponents argued there was no backlog, and in the end, neither the amendment nor the bill itself became reality.
Meanwhile, the couple’s time apart grew, eventually to six years. “Every day I would check online to see if a visa was available, and every day the answer was no,” Amir said.
In 2009, after his own five-year wait as a green-card holder, Amir became a U.S citizen, entitling him to file a new case for his wife’s entry to the U.S. There were a few more months of delays during processing of Mary’s paperwork, but her entry to the U.S. finally came on July 4, 2010 — a true Independence Day following the couple’s earnest pursuit of the American Dream.
A Future Together, At Last
“Mary is a straight-A student and well-suited to become a histotechnologist,” said Roosevelt biology professor Kelly Wentz-Hunter, who accepted Mary into the program based on her grades, work experience and determination. “Mary has many talents that she began developing in Iran, and I’m sure she will have opportunities to further develop and use those talents here in America.”
“It’s been a long time and a lot of studying, but finally our American Dream is on track.”— Mary Nikpouri
In fact, Mary plans to enter Roosevelt’s biomedical science master’s program after graduating in 2018.
“All we ever wanted to do was be together,” Mary said. “It’s been a long time and a lot of studying, but finally our American Dream is on track.”