I was a statistic. But statistics don’t tell the story of immigration.
I’ve landed in United States of America. To foreigners, this is an imagined world infused with newcomers permeating with great hope; the land of opportunity, the land of hemp milk and honey, laden with extraordinary richness, abundance, comfort and luxury. That’s the Pollyana view. But assimilation is seldom smooth and rarely filled with such irrepressible optimism.
The challenges all immigrants face isn’t new. But the personal stories are.
I guess, in every life a little rain must fall! Except my rain felt as though it came from a super loaded cloud.
I came to the United States in 1980 as the Islamic revolution began to break out. The secular Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was overthrown and forced into exile and the theocratic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lorded over as the new supreme religious leader along with his guardian council of aging mullahs, and renamed Iran: The Islamic Republic of Iran.
For the secular, this meant life would no longer exist as we knew it.
The new regime was strong, dynamic and absolute. And there was no indication that the supreme leader and his circle of ayatollahs had any intention of giving up their control. They would reign over their newly found power.
The antipathy for the new Islamic regime by the shah-supporters and non-muslims began. It was evident we had to leave.
At the time, I was 9 years old along with my older sister and my mother. My dad remained in Iran to sell our home and business. I vividly remember my dad coming home one night as he said, “Nora joon, you, your sister and mom will have to leave Iran tomorrow night. You will be on TWA flight 837 to Israel and then on to America.”
I knew we’d eventually have to leave but this felt so sudden, unplanned, and impulsive. I was shocked, confused, shook up and scared. The questions came fast and furious.
I querried my dad, “ dad, where in America would we go? What about my school? My friends? What about all our stuff? Our home, my toys, my books, our photo albums?” In retrospect, I realize all we took with us were our memories.
He half-whispered, “ I’m sorry Nora joonam (a term of endearment)…you can’t take anything with you. It’s too dangerous making your departure obvious. We have to make it look as though you are going on a vacation and that you’ll be back. And we may, in fact, come back when this all clears itself out.”
We never went back.
I rapidly inhaled deeply and exhaled forcibly as I tried to make sense of all that was happening. What does what my dad say even mean? I didn’t want to go. I didn’t even speak a word of English. Why couldn’t we go to France? At least I spoke French. I cried myself to sleep that night and tried to download the images, of my house, my bedroom, my den, my backyard, my school, deep into the hard drive of my brain where no regime could take it away from me. Saying goodbye was difficult. I clung to my dad and didn’t want to ever let him go.
I didn’t know it at the time but I wouldn’t see my dad until two years later.
Some scars are not visible but they nevertheless exist and continue to haunt us.
Next thing I knew I was on the infamous TWA flight to Israel. Fear took over me as I realized I was sitting in a plane at 36,000 feet elevation, outside temperature is -86 degrees, wind hauling and I had no anchor except the plane I was sitting in. Right now, my life feels as though there’s no anchor. The flight attendant desperately tried to no avail to calm my nerves by handing me different puzzles and games to occupy my restlessness.
And so my story begins. We came to America seeking a future safe from revolt, prosecution, fear, restraint and paranoia. In hindsight, I profusely admire my parents for their courage. They foresaw the future of our country. They didn’t wait until it became blatantly evident that people couldn’t have an opinion, or could be taken to jail for no reason at all and even killed. They didn’t wait until it became apparent there would be no clear laws to keep us safe from the new regime, who could overrule any public change by a pseudo-elected president who would in the near future become wildly out of touch with the general population.
My earliest memory of America was the lush green landscape from above as the plane was landing. The land was filled with freshness, cleanliness, and tidiness. Could I finally have order back in my life here?
But I was also eminently scared . I didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t communicate with anyone. I was terribly hurting and morose. My dad wasn’t with us. And he wouldn’t be with us for the next two years. The longest two years of my life. I felt dreadfully insecure. At the time, I felt abandoned by my country, by my sovereign, by my father and by God himself. The fear of the unknown embedded in my every pore and essence.
I would have to diligently work on myself for years before I could successfully resolve and rid myself of this all-encompassing distress, anxiety and constant unease.
The first two years were the hardest. We didn’t have any family besides my paternal grandparents and, from a child’s point of observation, an unwelcoming uncle with whom we had to share a tiny house on Centinela Avenue in West LA. After close reexamination, I realize he didn’t have to take us in but did so as a direct respect to my dad. Nevertheless, I was unabashedly depressed, had sleep disturbances, and lost my appetite during the first few days and leading into the following months. I was utterly helpless and lacked any control on my life. It felt as though I was a mere character in my own life cast for a part I didn’t even audition for.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was the change to my daily routine, the different customs and language barrier, and the lack of family and friends.
Awkwardly, we had to sleep in the den on the floor at my uncle’s and my grandmother told us we needed to quickly wake up in the morning before my uncle and clean up as to not be in his way. One night, I couldn’t sleep and was daydreaming about the comfort and privacy of my bedroom in Iran. My uncle had a habit of eating in the middle of the night. And this time he wasn’t aware of where he was walking. He stepped on my feet and I remember it hurt so very badly but I kept my mouth shut as to not wake my mother up who had earlier cried herself to sleep. He continued on to the kitchen mumbling about the burden we’ve put on him. Apparently, my mother had also been awake and heard the entire rambling. The next day, she looked at several listings in the newspaper and within a few months she found us a one bedroom 800 square foot apartment in Beverly Hills. She had heard Beverly Hills offered the best schooling system and wanted her two girls to attend. My parents could no longer afford to send us to a private school like the Lycee Francais we attended in Iran.
It wasn’t easy transitioning to a new school in the States. The misconceptions and misunderstandings Americans have about foreign born people are monumental. They would contemptuously laugh and taunt me. I once heard, “expectation is like quicksand” but I think discrimination is like quicksand. You drown slowly and there’s nothing you can grip on to pull yourself out.
“Go back home to Iran. We don’t want you here. You don’t belong here. Go back to Khomeini. You killed the Shah”, students would scoff at me as they recited their mantra. It was very difficult for me to make friends and even interact on a basic level with my classmates. It appeared my presence offended them. Later, I became friends with a few Americans but it didn’t work. The culture was too different for us to be able to intermingle.
You see, all those who aren’t “us” are “them”. I was the “them”.
Assimilation takes time, sometimes two generations.
One day, on a proverbial bad day, I met my first Persian friend, I was immediately emotionally affected. I was grateful to have met someone like me. We instantly became friends and she’s my good confidante to this day. After all, we only had each other. We instinctively understood one another when no one else accepted us. Things got slightly better in High school. There were more Persians and we all hung out together and made a little Iran for ourselves. We called it Persian Alley and marked it our territory!! The school officials and staff got involved trying to make the Persians and Americans interact and befriend each other. It was to no avail. We were too different and neither side concurred.
As I started college, I finally felt semi accepted as an American citizen but didn’t quite feel it in my soul. I even Majored in English Literature!! But in the end, I just got comfortable with being uncomfortable. We began to celebrate Thanksgiving, Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve became a new tradition. But I continued to miss the soul of Iran, the smells of the mouth-watering food, the beautiful sights of the streets, the warm and hospitable people and the way it warmed my heart. We continued to stay true to our heritage and culture by celebrating Norouz (the Persian New Year welcoming spring). This helped me remember the essence of Iran and hopefully pass the tradition down to my children.
Any visitor who spends significant time in Iran or with Iranians will find ample justification for the Iranian’s reputation for open-mindedness, artistry, intellectualism, and an almost fanatical reverence for culture. The most popular poet in Iran is Hafez, a national hero who is more readily quoted by most Iranians than the Qur’an or the Torah and is filled with a rich rhetoric. His poetry is full of wine-soaked revelry, unrequited and requited love and a palpable hatred of religious hypocrisy. I terribly missed my dad reciting and interpreting Hafiz for me. When would he come back and hold me close as he chanted the prophetic stanzas?
I find it noteworthy to mention, Iranian-Americans are among the top 20 highest educated people in the United States. Iranians are in professional occupations more than any other minority group. And we have excelled in education attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher.
We have historically excelled in business, generating a total net income of over $6 billion, and in academia, the sciences, and arts. We have successfully in the past 35 years assimilated to a new culture and way of living. However, our integration into the US society hasn’t prevented us from keeping true to our roots, our heritage and our rich culture.
Unlike many immigrants who left their country because of economic hardship, Iranians emigrated as a result of a religious revolution.
And so now in 2017, as I sit outside the porch of my house, and sip French Boujaulais wine with my husband and three kids, contemplating on the trajectory my life followed, I reminisce and chunks of my haphazard memory forms as tears in my eye and rolls down my cheeks. I ruminate my life and the lessons I’ve learned so far. In truth, life is always full challenges and I’ve had to learn to be happy in spite of those circumstances.
The moon is full and its light reflects and illuminates the sky, in the same way America illuminated my development and progress.
My husband lovingly looks at me as he caresses my arm. In vino veritas, I think. After 37 years away from Iran, after transforming from a child to a woman, I realize that as much as my heart and soul bled for leaving my native country, my heart mended and my soul grew in my adopted country. The cloud of anxiety and confusion didn’t burst and the heavy burden I carried with me has been replaced with laughter as I make, cherish and value the memories I make with my loving husband, children, family and dear friends. You live, you love, you laugh and yes you cry a little too!
My heart and mind will forever yearn for Iran and I will never fully realize what could have been had the Islamic republic not taken over. But I could have never remained in a country that in the months and years following the flight of the Shah and the triumphant return of a zealous ayatollah and his control over the liberals and progressives crushing any opposition to his totalitarian ideology.
America welcomed me with open arms. My soul’s voice has been expressed.
I no longer sit and wonder in a wordless dialogue whether I should shed tears at my half-horrific memories or be amused at my half-comic reality. I have order in my life.
I’m home and I’m at peace.
Honey, that’s just life!
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