Iranian American Small Businesses Struggle Under Rising Tensions
On one side of Farhad Besharati's elegant living room is an inviting sitting area. There's food on the coffee table, surrounded by ornate couches and a fully mirrored wall.
On the other side of the room is Besharati's newly implemented home office. What was once a dining room table now holds a Mac computer, pens and a printer.
This is the location of ATT Vacation, a travel agency catering to Iranian Americans.
Up until a few months ago, Besharati hosted clients in his office in Persian Square, a strip in the Tehrangeles neighborhood of Los Angeles that has many Iranian American-owned businesses. But after President Trump enacted the travel ban in 2017, barring visas for citizens of five Muslim-majority countries including Iran, and amid recent threats of a strike against Iran from the White House, he says he has seen a steep drop-off in business.
"Twenty years I was in that office. Now I work from home," Besharati says. "I used to have seven or eight employees, and no one now."
In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Tehrangeles (a portmanteau of Tehran, Iran's capital, and Los Angeles), business owners like Besharati say they are suffering the effects of the travel ban, sanctions and increasing White House threats of war against Iran.
While the business of travel agents is declining as people book trips online, Besharati says, in his case it's not about the Internet.
"The problem is political. My niche market is Iran," Besharati says. "I still have my loyal customers that are older than 50 years old, but they don't feel going to Iran is safe now. That's why they're not going."
Iran had a 7% drop in international tourist arrivals between 2015 to 2017, according to data from the World Bank. When Trump signed the executive order in January 2017, Besharati says, he spent $200,000 on refunds for customers who had booked trips.
Most of Besharati's clients are U.S. citizens, permanent residents or green card holders who go to Iran to visit family. He says that after Trump's executive order enacting the travel ban, they were concerned about getting back into the U.S. if they travel to Iran.
The Trump administration says the ban is needed for national security, arguing that countries have not cooperated with the U.S. in vetting travelers. But critics say the ban stems from anti-Muslim views and unfairly targets people from Muslim-majority countries.
In recent weeks, as threats of a war with Iran filled the headlines, Besharati says, nine more clients asked for refunds on their tickets to Iran.
"They are afraid," Besharati says. "They think maybe the next day they will start war."
Michael Jafari, 51, was one of Besharati's longtime clients. He went to the travel agency in Persian Square to book his parents' annual trip to Iran to visit relatives. But months after Trump issued the ban in 2017, he canceled their trip.
"I decided it wasn't safe. It seemed like things were changing day by day." Jafari says. "I didn't want them to go, and then have things change around, and they couldn't come back."
The newest version of the executive order, upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018, makes an exemption for dual nationals, but widespread news of travelers detained in airports led Jafari to cancel his parents' trip. They haven't visited Iran since.
Twenty percent of the almost half a million Iranians in the U.S. live in Southern California like Jafari, according to the Census Bureau. He says he visits Persian Square not just to book trips to Iran for his parents but also for the food. Surrounding the now-shuttered travel agency are Persian bookstores, restaurants, cafes and specialty stores. And Besharati's travel agency wasn't the only store on the block affected in recent years.
Alex Helmi owns a Persian rug store in the area. He sponsored the initiative to name this strip of Tehrangeles, Persian Square. He too has felt the effect of rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
His store, Damoka, stands out on Westwood Boulevard. It has giant windows that read "Retirement Sale" in front of an impressive display of intricately made rugs. His family has been in the carpet business for three generations. Classical music plays throughout the store as Helmi tells the stories of the centuries-old rugs on the walls.
At the store's height, Helmi had a small factory in Iran where craftsmen would spend years on a single rug made by hand-tying thousands of tiny knots.
He closed his workshop amid economic sanctions and rising inflation. The exchange rate for the Iranian currency, the rial, is 42,000 to the dollar compared with just 8,000 a decade ago, according to the Treasury Department.
"I couldn't import anymore," Helmi says. "So I told the workers I cannot support them."
He says his store has been affected by economic battle with Iran for almost a decade. A 2010 embargo prevented him from importing carpets. When it was lifted in 2015, he could finally restock his store. But Trump's withdrawal just a few years later, as well as the ensuing sanctions, put him back in the same position.
For high-end rugs, Helmi's business is still thriving from his extensive antique collection. But he plans to retire soon both because his children aren't interested in carrying on the business and because he's unable to restock his inventory.
"There's so many things like the travel ban. I don't know how it's going to end up," Helmi says. "Every day it's getting worse and worse."
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