Nazanin Zinouri left her home and job in South Carolina to visit family in Tehran. When she tried to board the plane home, she was stopped because of the Trump Administration’s executive order banning citizens of seven majority Muslim countries, including Iran. (Photo courtesy of Modjoul.)
Entrepreneurs know to expect the unexpected, but to have an employee be unable to return to the U.S. after a trip to visit family was not remotely on Eric Martinez’s radar when he founded Modjoul, which makes wearables to improve worker safety and productivity, last June. But as the Trump Administration’s executive order banning entry to immigrants from seven nations with majority Muslim populations went into effect without warning on Friday, Nazanin Zinouri, a data scientist at Modjoul, wasn’t able to get back to Clemson, S.C., after visiting her mother and sister in Tehran.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, Zinouri, 29, who has a PhD from Clemson University, wrote about how she had quickly booked a ticket back home after hearing rumors of the immigration rule change on Wednesday, but that by the time she arrived in Dubai to switch planes, the order had been signed and she was denied boarding on the flight to the U.S. “No one warned me when I was leaving, no one cared what will happen to my dog or my job or my life there. No one told me what I should do with my car that is still parked at the airport parking. Or what to do with my house and all my belongings,” she wrote. “They didn’t say it with words but with their actions, that my life doesn’t matter.”
Martinez, her boss at the 12-person startup, who had been scrambling to get her on the earlier flight, dropped everything to try and get her home. Because Zinouri’s current visa expires in March, the clock was already ticking. “If we don’t fight for her, nobody is going to fight for her. She has no family here. It’s us and her friends, and we’re the only ones with the business savvy to get this done,” says Martinez, 48, who had previously been AIG’s executive vice president of claims and operations, overseeing a global staff of more than 25,000.
While Zinouri took a flight back to Tehran to stay with her mother and try to figure out what to do, Martinez started calling the offices of politicians he thought could help and tweeting at Clemson University. Then, he posted on LinkedIn asking for advice, a post that has gotten more than 125,000 views. It was part publicity stunt, and part brainstorming session, because he didn’t know what else to do. “You can Google a lot of stuff in small business, but where do you go when your employee has been detained by an executive order?” he says. “I just wanted the business community to be aware of what’s going on. Look at what happened to my employee. This is not right. She has a legal visa and she should be able to come back to the United States….She just went home to help her mom and her family out for a few weeks because she felt guilty living so far away.”
Eric Martinez, founder and CEO of Modjoul, is doing everything he can to get Nazanin Zinouri, one of his startup’s 12 employees, home. “If we don’t fight for her, nobody’s going to fight for her,” he says. (Photo courtesy of Modjoul.)
As his LinkedIn post started circulating, reporters started calling his house. Meanwhile, Clemson University’s governmental affairs office helped him connect with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Graham’s office sent forms for her to fill out, and, as a flood of constituents emailed after seeing Zinouri’s Facebook post, his press secretary contacted Martinez to schedule a meeting. “It was my wife’s 50th birthday party on Saturday night,” says Martinez. He lives in Mercer Island, Wash., thousands of miles from Clemson, and scrambled to get to South Carolina and make that happen.
On Monday, Graham went to Modjoul’s Clemson offices to hear about Zinouri, and, says Martinez, a few hundred people showed up from Clemson University and elsewhere in support. Graham told people there that Zinouri “is exactly the type of person we want to be part of America,” according to the Washington Post. “She’s a valid visa holder. She’s paying taxes, and she’s adding value to this business.”