How One Refugee Family Finally Got To LA After Years Stuck In Austria

Lilia Tarverdi, left, cooks at home in Tujunga while her brother Argisht, right, holds one of her young children. Argisht, his older brother and their parents recently arrived as refugees from Iran after waiting nearly three years in Vienna. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/LAist)

A family of four Iranian refugees has made it to Los Angeles, ending an odyssey that saw them stranded in Vienna for nearly three years. Their story is another illustration of the personal cost of U.S. government immigration decisions.

It all started in April 2016, when Argisht, his older brother Menooa and their parents, Hrach and Levon, left their home city of Isfahan and traveled to Vienna under the Lautenberg refugee program, which Congress established in 1990 to benefit persecuted religious minorities. The family is Armenian and Christian, a group that endures discrimination in their home country.

Iranian refugees accepted into the program are funneled through Vienna to complete their paperwork there, because there is no U.S. embassy in Iran.

Once in Vienna, the family rented an apartment, expecting to be there a matter of months while Washington finished processing their applications.

But the process began slowing down in the final weeks of the Obama administration. Then in Jan. 2017, President Trump issued his first travel ban, which barred the entry of travelers and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries.

The family was stuck.

"It was disappointing," said Argisht, 28, who along with his other family members asked that his last name not be used, even though they are in the country legally as refugees.

Meanwhile, the federal government started tightening rules regarding how many refugees could be admitted each year.

The wait kept stretching out, with no end in sight. Because they were on temporary transit visas, Argisht and his relatives could not get jobs in Vienna.

He started worrying about how long their modest life savings would last. They had sold everything they owned in Iran.

By the summer of 2017, they were out of money.

Then in Feb. 2018, another blow: the Trump administration denied their refugee applications — and gave no reason why.

By the time this happened, not only were Argisht and his family broke, but they were in Austria illegally — their Austrian visas had expired.

Back in the U.S., Argisht's older sister Lilia Tarverdi and her husband, who live in Tujunga, were scraping together whatever they could to send to her family. But they struggled. Tarverdi, a former refugee herself, is a stay-at-home mom with two young children.

"It was just the one income, and we tried to do our best to help them," she said. "I tried to cut some of my expenses to help them."

Staying in touch via FaceTime on their phones, Tarverdi would tell her parents and brothers to not give up.

"You're going to come here. We'll finally see each other," she would tell them.

Luckily for the family, a Catholic church in Vienna took them in. All four crammed into one bedroom of a small three-bedroom house owned by the church. They shared the kitchen and one bathroom with 13 other Iranian refugees, including a family with children.

"It was small, so small, but it was better than nothing," Argisht said.

Had the church not stepped in, he said, they would have been on the street. Church volunteers donated food and other items to keep them going.

He remembers people in the house despairing and crying, not knowing what would happen to them.

For his father Levon and his mother Hrach, who are in their 60s, the experience was especially hard. Hrach says she tried to stay busy.

"I tried to walk, to clean my room," said Hrach, speaking in Armenian. "I cooked, and I went to church during the day."

The family began making contingency plans, studying German and checking with Austrian officials for ways they might be able to stay there legally.

Last spring, the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 87 Iranians stuck in Vienna. Last July, a judge ruled that the U.S. government did not provide sufficient reason for denying their applications. As a result of that ruling, their cases were reopened.

But only about a dozen of the refugees, including Lilia Tarverdi's family, were allowed to travel to the U.S. last month. The rest are still waiting.

"We are mindful that many members of our class remain in Vienna," said Kate Meyer, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project. "They are desperate to reunite with their family in the U.S., and incredibly fearful of being forced to return to Iran."

U.S. immigration officials would not say if or when that might happen.

"WE'RE NOT GETTING REFUGEES FROM IRAN ANYMORE"

Refugee admissions to the U.S. have slowed to a trickle since President Trump took office. The proposed ceiling for refugee admissions for fiscal year 2017 set by President Obama was 110,000; the Trump administration cut that in half.

The administration has continued to slash the cap on refugee admissions, most recently to 30,000 for fiscal year 2019, the lowest number since the refugee program was created in 1980.

Between the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1 and the end of February, only about 9,300 refugees have been admitted.

At the Glendale office of International Rescue Committee, one of the larger refugee resettlement organizations, local Executive Director Martin Zogg keeps a chart on the wall tracking how many refugees the group resettles locally.

It shows how five years ago, the agency was resettling over 800 refugees locally a year. Their numbers peaked in 2016 as the Obama administration responded to the Syrian war crisis, Zogg said. Then starting in 2017, after Trump took office, came a sharp drop-off.

"We resettled 120 refugees here last year," he said. "And right now we're at 43."

The International Rescue Committee's Glendale office used to work primarily with Lautenberg refugees, typically Armenian Christians from Iran.

"The Lautenberg program is effectively suspended at this point," Zogg said. "So we're not getting refugees, with few exceptions. We're not getting refugees from Iran anymore."

Some other local agencies that also worked with Lautenberg refugees have suspended their resettlement efforts, because so few are arriving.

Zogg said the Iranian refugees in Vienna covered in the International Refugee Assistance Project lawsuit represent just a few of the Lautenberg refugees shut out in recent years — they, at least, had made it to Vienna.

But others accepted into the program were still in Iran, awaiting a transit visa to Austria. Their visas were canceled by the Austrian government following the Jan. 2017 travel ban, leaving some who'd already left jobs, sold their possessions and were preparing to leave Iran stuck there.

"I'M HAPPY AND I'M SAD"

In her small Tujunga apartment last month, Lilia Tarverdi prepared a traditional Persian stew in the kitchen as Argisht played with her two young children nearby. In the living room, their parents watched a local Armenian music show on TV.

The apartment was neat but crowded — a few suitcases here and there, air mattresses propped against the wall. It's been this way since Valentine's Day, when Tarverdi's parents, Argisht and Menooa landed at LAX.

Tarverdi, 37, hadn't seen them in a decade. Brother and sister talked over one another as they described the moment the family was reunited.

"At the airport I tried to control myself, to not cry," said Argisht.

"Me too!" Tarverdi interjected.

"Yeah, it was a great feeling," her brother said, adding, "the good feelings in this house, I would say, it's helped us forget the bad things."

The family recognizes just how lucky they are to have been among the handful of refugees admitted recently.

In the weeks since they arrived, they've been settling in: They stay up late, talking and catching up. Tarverdi and her mom take turns cooking. Hrach and Levon are getting to know their two young grandchildren. Argisht and Menooa, who in Iran worked as a barber and a welder, respectively, are looking forward to getting driver's licenses and finding jobs.

They're slowly getting over the uncertain years they spent in Vienna. But they haven't forgotten about those they left behind there. Argisht describes a kind of survivor's guilt.

"I'm happy and I'm sad, because I want luck for everyone — not [just] for me," he said.

Argisht hopes the U.S. government will approve the refugee applications of the others who are stuck in Vienna, "because they really need to be here, they really need to be next to the rest of their families ... I want them to have the same feeling that I had in the airport."

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC.