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"All of the other families were just terrified," says 24-year-old Niousha

By Caitlin Keating
Updated February 02, 2017 11:47 AM
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Credit: Courtesy Todd Lincoln

Last month, Niousha, a 24-year-old American-Iranian citizen, took a flight out of Los Angeles International Airport to visit her family in Iran like she does every year. But this time her trip was cut short — by the news of President Trump’s immigration ban.

The business student tells PEOPLE about the moment she and her family first learned about the controversial executive order temporarily halting the entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“We saw the news and got very worried,” she says. “I didn’t take it seriously because I’m an American citizen but I wanted to go back just in case.”

For much more on those personally affected by President Trump’s immigration ban, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

When her plane touched down in Los Angeles on Saturday, just one day after Trump’s immigration ban went into effect, her phone was ringing non-stop with concerned family members and friends wanting to make sure she had safely arrived.

“I was shaking on the plane because my entire life could be changed by one executive order. I was terrified,” she recalls. “I was getting off the plane and I was waiting in line [for customs]. There were three Iranian families in front of me.”

As the families in front of her — all of whom had green cards or visas –were pulled away, Niousha, who didn’t want to give her last name, says she was frightened she’d be pulled aside for further questioning.

“I go up and the guy says, ‘Okay, you come too.’ I was born in Iran. I grew up there and I didn’t get my American citizenship until I was 8 years old so I thought, maybe this is happening because I was born there,” she says.

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The customs officers took Niousha and the others into a room and the only thing she said was, “I’m an American citizen, this is ridiculous.”

She recalls sensing that the officers themselves “felt ashamed having to do this.”

“They didn’t say anything but you could tell from their eyes,” she says. “They couldn’t even look us in the eye.”

She stayed silent as people were questioned and their social media accounts were checked.

A Hispanic customs officer then came up to her and told her to come with him. The words he spoke next she’ll never forget.

“He said, ‘It seems like Trump wants both of us out of here,’ ” she says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ”

The officer laughed and said, “Not today,” as he slammed the stamp down on her passport so hard that the table shook.

“You’re free to go,” were his last words to her before she walked out of the airport.

Niousha recalls now that everyone around her appeared terrified as they awaited their fate.

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“I was in a room with a lady, her husband and newborn baby,” she says. “There were also two older Iranian people, like in their 80s, who looked they were coming here to visit their children.”

She says her experience made her feel “like a second-class citizen” and like she’s not important.

“My parents came here with no money and came here for a better life to run away from oppression,” she says, “and we’re being more oppressed here than we are over there.”

She adds: “The only reason I wasn’t sent back was because I’m also an American citizen. I’m lucky. People are waking up and protesting and it’s amazing. I never thought in a million years that so many Americans would be coming out and speaking out about this. It feels really good.”