My sister died in the Iran plane shootdown

Saeed and Niloufar at their civil wedding ceremony in London in 2019. Niloufar's parents, Shahin Shakooea and Masood Ebrahim, are standing behind them as Navaz joins in on FaceTime.
Saeed and Niloufar at their civil wedding ceremony in London in 2019. Niloufar's parents, Shahin Shakooea and Masood Ebrahim, are standing behind them as Navaz joins in on FaceTime.

Living in Dallas for the past six years, I have ached to see my only sibling, Niloufar. There were days we missed each other so much that I almost wanted to give up my life in Dallas just to go and see her, but I knew if I left, I might not be able to come back to be here with my husband. I had to wait for my immigration case to process before I could visit them, and Niloufar couldn't come see me because of the recent US travel restrictions for Iranians.

I remember the day when I realized I couldn't go to Niloufar's civil marriage ceremony to my brother-in-law Saeed in London, where they lived; I cried.
Before my sister got married and before the travel ban, she tried getting a travel visa to come and see me in 2014 to attend my graduation ceremony. At the time, because she was single and in between jobs, she couldn't convince the consulate officer that she had much of an emotional tie to return to Iran, which is what she intended to do. The visa was not granted.

Because of this long separation, I cherished the moments we spent together on the phone. Every morning when I was going to work, I FaceTimed Niloufar just to hear her voice and see her pretty face and to ask her how her day was going. That was my positive energy and what kept me going. She kept asking how many more months I thought we would have to wait before we could see each other. I knew it would take a few more years, but I hid what I feared was the truth -- that it would be a very long time -- from her for a while because I couldn't break her heart.

But I had hope for better days to come. I knew one day I could go when all the travel complications were resolved. I kept telling myself that it was OK that I missed this moment or that moment with her because I was motivated with the hope of celebrating her future beautiful moments with her, like cuddling their future children and sharing that joy with her instead.

Now, that hope is gone, replaced with despair and an inescapable longing. On January 7, I received word that Niloufar and Saaed had perished in the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crash.

They were on their way back from having their traditional wedding ceremony in Iran, celebrating with friends and family who live there.

They called me and my husband while they sat on the plane waiting to depart. When they were about to pull off, they told us that they loved us and that they would let us know when they got back to London.

We told them "safe trip!" My sister expressed her concern about Iran launching missiles at American facilities in Iraq earlier that night. She said, "I know you haven't checked the news yet, but I wanted to tell you first hoping you don't get too stressed hearing it on TV news channels." She said she didn't know many details but she was hoping no one got hurt.

Niloufar was very selfless. All she wanted was for us not to get worried if we heard the latest stressful details. We were up late that night checking the latest news on Iran-US relations

Suddenly, my life was about to change forever.

I was scrolling through the news on my Facebook feed and the TV when I happened to see the beginning of a report about a Ukrainian airplane that had crashed near Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport. I got worried, but I guess I didn't want to take it seriously at first.

A few minutes later, it was reported that everyone died on the plane. The level of stress hit me and I started googling the flight's departure time and the flight number. All I knew was that Niloufar and Saeed were flying around the same time of the crash, but I had no idea with which airline.

I called my mom. It was early morning in Iran and I woke her up. I asked her if she could tell me which airline my sister and brother-in-law were flying. She was confused and concerned as I repeated my question. She answered nervously. It was Ukrainian. She wanted to know what happened. I was shaking as the words "one Ukrainian plane has crashed, can you check the flight number for me" came out of my mouth.

By this time, my mom and my dad were screaming over the phone. My mom found the ticket and she read "PS752" to me. She asked if my sister and her husband were hurt. My husband grabbed the phone from me and told my mom, "Don't worry please, we don't know yet." I whispered in his ear: "Everyone died. EVERYONE DIED, it is on the news." And my husband whispered back to me, "My gosh, don't tell them yet." Shortly after that, my parents heard it on the news for themselves -- that no one survived. All our friends and relatives in Tehran rushed to my parents' home to be with them.

When I heard that Iran accidentally shot down the plane, I felt really frustrated and upset at first. But I knew nothing was going to change the devastating reality of losing our loved ones. I felt that at least we had some closure, we knew what happened, and someone took responsibility. Now we can at least start to think about how to accept it and grieve our loved ones.

But we can't even grieve together. I haven't seen my parents since 2016, when they came to the US. At that time, tourist visas were easier to get for Iranian parents who have a child living in the US. This has changed with the recent travel restrictions for Iranians.

My parents tried again in 2017, but their tourist visas were not granted. The restrictions continue to this day. My whole family missed my wedding day in Dallas last year because of the same travel restrictions. Although there was sadness, my heart felt warm because Niloufar and Saeed could go to Iran and be with our parents for me.

As a family, we'd somehow gotten accustomed to missing celebrations, but there is something different about being kept apart during this time. The pain of being divided is added on top of the unimaginable devastating pain of losing our loved ones. This is the reality of the US travel ban.

Navaz Ebrahim is from Iran and now lives in Texas. Her sister and brother-in-law died in the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 crash. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

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