His 14,000-Mile Ordeal

Caught in the federal government's executive order, a Tufts visiting scholar from Iran finally arrives at Logan to a "heartwarming" welcome
View a slideshow of photos of Mehdi Harandi’s arrival at Logan Airport on Feb. 3. Photos: Alonso Nichols
February 7, 2017

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When Mehdi Harandi finally arrived at Logan Airport late last Friday night, he had four words to describe his reception: “heartwarming; I saw kindness.” A visiting scholar in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts, he was caught last week in the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban that prohibited citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

After three stressful days that took him from Tehran to Kiev, and then to Paris and Basel, Switzerland, before he boarded a plane in Munich, Germany—an ordeal that covered 14,000 miles—on Feb. 3 he was finally able to rejoin his colleagues at Tufts, where he has worked since last summer on research about water systems and diplomacy.

He was welcomed at the airport by members of the Tufts community who had been working behind the scenes to get him back to the Medford/Somerville campus.

Harandi had spent the winter break at his home in Isfahan, Iran, with his family, including his wife, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental education at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands; his son, 14, and his daughter, 3. While there, he appeared on an Iranian national talk show and spoke at two universities about the need to negotiate solutions to the country’s dire water shortage.

Harandi had planned to return to Tufts on Jan. 29 on the most affordable ticket he could book: Tehran-Rome-New York-Boston. Then, on Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting travel to the United States by individuals from the predominantly Muslim countries of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.  

Harandi was stunned. He tried to fly out of Tehran as planned—but no luck. After talking with representatives from Tufts on Jan. 30, he learned that a federal judge in Boston had issued a restraining order against the ban, opening the way for some visa holders to enter the country via Logan Airport. Tufts sent him a letter to that effect, and he once again made the six-hour drive from his home to the Tehran airport.

“I asked myself, what else can I do?” he said. “I could work remotely, but here at Tufts I’m in a community, and that is why I am here.” Returning  to that community, he thought, was worth the effort it took. “I have seen values in the academic atmosphere in the United States that I have not seen anywhere else before,” he said. “For example, teamwork. The science is very collaborative. The other is diversity. Diversity brings sometimes friendships and sometimes progress, and this is what the new [U.S. administration] is overlooking” with the ban.

None of the airlines flying out of Tehran had been informed of the Boston federal judge’s ruling. “They just said, We don’t know Tufts; we don’t know that judge,” Harandi said. So he booked a flight to Kiev, thinking it might be easier to get a boarding pass in Ukraine. He met the same response. Still he pressed on.

Tapping his credit card for an amount he said was “twice my monthly salary at Tufts,” Harandi flew to Paris. “I was very near to convincing immigration [there] that my visa, the Tufts letter and a copy of the judge’s order were indeed real,” he said, “but in the end they told me, Unfortunately, you cannot travel.”

He spent the night in a hotel near the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, thinking maybe he could fly out via WOW Air of Iceland. That also turned into a dead end.

“So I sent an email to Tufts and said, OK, I’m done. I also prepared a draft to terminate my lease in Revere, but for some reason I didn’t send it to my landlord,” he said.

Instead, he decided to take a mini-holiday before going home to Iran, booking train passage from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Basel, Switzerland. Checking his laptop at the end of a long day, he said he saw “a flood of emails related to [the German airline] Lufthansa. I was still frustrated,” he said, “but I talked with my wife, and she said, Give it a chance, even though you are very tired. So the next morning I went to the Basel airport.” As he expected, they didn’t know anything about the Logan Airport rule, “but I showed them the Lufthansa website, and I managed to get a boarding pass to Munich, 20 minutes before the plane took off.”

After a short flight, around 10:45 a.m., he landed in Munich, but he was still holding his breath until he heard the words from the Lufthansa desk that he had longed to hear for the past four days: “You are cleared [to board]. ”He made it through customs at Logan at 7 p.m. last Friday. Members of the Tufts community were there to greet him.

Back to Work on Water Issues

Harandi said is glad to be back in his office in Anderson Hall, where he is immersed in his work about the water crisis in his hometown of Isfahan. There the Zayandehrud River, the largest in central Iran, has dried up because of drought and mismanagement, he said. He’s working with Shafiqul Islam, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and a professor of water diplomacy at the Fletcher School.

The work on Isfahan's water crisis is what led him to leave a successful career as a civil engineer (he co-founded a consulting firm) to pursue a Ph.D. in the philosophy of technology at Delft University of Technology. The depleted river, he said, is a case study of how governance of natural resources can go wrong.

The river reflects “a hydrological and social breakdown,” he said. “We have farmers with water rights and no water. They are struggling. Fortunately, people are coming together now to negotiate a solution, and this is what we’re trying to figure out here at Tufts. We are working on enabling conditions for this negotiation.”

He plans to rejoin his family in Isfahan this fall, with the goal of “reshuffling the water governance system of Iran to achieve equitable and inclusive governance of climate-related factors,” he said. “This is my main concern, and I know it will be a very time-consuming, difficult job.”

Asked if he had any advice for President Trump, he paused, and then responded: “Don’t be populist,” he said. “Be wise. Populism is the bane of politics. We experienced this kind of presidency in Iran 10 years ago. We are still dealing with the negative consequences. We all make bad decisions—it’s mentally normal. But you need to learn from them.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.