Marathon runner stopped in his tracks by Trump travel ban

Toronto long-distance runner Soroush Hatami qualified for the Boston Marathon, but is banned from the U.S. by its controversial travel ban.

Toronto's Soroush Hatami qualified for the Boston Marathon, but is banned from the U.S.

Long-distance runner Soroush Hatami qualified for the Boston Marathon but can’t enter the U.S. because he was born in Iran. (Barry Smith/CBC)

When it comes to long-distance running talent, Soroush Hatami has the right stuff for the Boston Marathon.

He just has the wrong passport.

Hatami, 37, ran the 2016 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in three hours, five minutes and 42 seconds.

It was a personal best and also more than four minutes under the Boston Marathon qualifying time for his age category

"Finishing it and knowing I qualified for Boston, I was so happy," he told CBC News. 

The Boston Marathon is one of the most elite long-distance races in the world.

Kevin Smith, Hatami's coach and president of the Toronto running club Marathon Dynamics, says qualifying means a runner is within the top 10 to 15 per cent of their age category.

Smith calls Hatami a "driven" athlete who has improved quickly after taking up the sport five years ago.

"I'm really impressed," he said in an interview.

The Boston Marathon is one of the most elite long-distance races in the world. This year's will be held on April 16. (Stew Milne/Associated Press)

Born in Iran

Hatami's application for the marathon was accepted, but his path to the race hit a major roadblock last winter.

He has lived in Toronto since 2013, is a permanent resident of Canada, and is in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship.

But he was born in Iran.

Last January, a controversial executive order issued by U.S. President Donald Trump blocked citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, from travelling to the United States.

"I realized it's not going to be easy to run Boston," Hatami said. "It's a big disappointment."

The ban is now extended to citizens of North Korea and Venezuela. After being challenged in lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the law, with arguments expected in April. 

In the meantime, the country's highest court has allowed the ban to remain in place.

The marathon is on April 16. 

Hatami was accepted for Boston after running a Toronto marathon in just over three hours and five minutes. (Barry Smith/CBC)

According to Toronto refugee and immigration lawyer Erin Simpson, Iranians and other citizens banned from the U.S. may apply for a waiver to enter the country, 

But Simpson says going through the "complex" process often involves hiring a U.S.-based lawyer and doesn't guarantee entry.

"The state of affairs is that he's barred from entering the country," she said in an interview.

Hatami doesn't want to go through that process just to spend a weekend in Boston.

"I think I will be rejected," he said.

Raising funds

Hatami's hope for going is getting his Canadian citizenship application completed in time. But he isn't just waiting idly.

He says being caught in the "unfair" ban inspired him to fight it.

"We decided to use this story to spread the word about the travel ban and how it can affect people," he said.

Hatami worked with fellow Marathon Dynamics runner Daniel Sellers to start the Banned On The Run fundraising effort.

Fellow runner Daniel Sellers worked with Hatami to start Banned On The Run — a fundraising effort for groups fighting the travel ban. (Barry Smith/CBC)

Money collected will go to the Muslim Advocates legal organization and the International Refugee Assistance Program, two groups working to oppose the travel ban and support people affected by it.

The project's goal is to raise $26,000 US — $1,000 for each mile in a marathon.

"The travel ban offends me as a rational, fair-minded person," Sellers said in an interview. "I'm happy to do anything I can to publicly denounce it and make some small effort oppose it."

Hatami and Sellers, who also qualified for Boston, are continuing to train for the race together, hoping that Hatami's citizenship comes through.

If it doesn't, Hatami says he's just as focused on the fundraising. 

The experience has shown him how serious the U.S. travel ban is -- stopping not just long-distance runners but students, families, and medical patients from entering the country.

"The bigger goal is the fundraising," Hatami said.

"If we raise this money, it's like running my race."

About the Author

Trevor Dunn

Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español. trevor.dunn@cbc.ca