Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Moving to the US (Part 3)


The day that I left Maryland was one of the saddest days of my 17 years of life, for one reason only, leaving my father. My gentle, kind and mild mannered father was the person that I loved the most in life. When I was a child he traveled often for his job. Sometimes I would not see him for weeks at a time. The days that he would come home from his trips were always joyous for me. In fact, the happiest moments of my life to this day were on a Thursday afternoon when I was about four or five years old. My mother had just given me a bath and was helping me get dressed when I heard my father's voice. He had just arrived from a long trip. Hurriedly, I got dressed and ran upstairs to the family room where my father was. I saw him, ran to him and threw myself in his arms. He embraced me tightly and kissed my cheeks. I was overwhelmed with joy. I felt so safe. I clang to him tightly. My world was absolutely perfect at that moment. It was complete, and it felt like it would always be. I truly believed that my father was able to make everything better, and for as long as I was in his arms nothing in the world could ever harm me. It seemed to me that he was a kind of a God. Those moments in my father's arms on that day have remained the happiest moments of my life. I have never felt so secure and protected as I did that day.

Throughout the years I have remembered that day and those moments with my father. In moments of absolute loneliness and despair when even God is nowhere to be found, I have longed for that Thursday afternoon.

I came to the US so that I would have an opportunity for higher education. My parents came in order to seek medical treatment for my father. My father had been sick for awhile and no one knew what was wrong. A few months after we arrived here, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, but on the day I left Maryland, we didn’t know what was wrong with him. He was terribly sick. His urine had been full of blood for days. He was weak in bed. We were all in a state of panic and confusion. The initial Dr. visits had not helped in diagnosing the problem. On that day my father was terribly worried for me. I alone was going to move to Kansas and finish my last year of high school there. I went to the bedroom to say good bye to him. He was laying in bed. I tried to comfort him. I told him that I would be OK, that I wasn’t going to be alone. I told him that Mahta and her husband Mehran, my relatives, would help me. I kept telling him that he didn’t need to worry about me. As I sat on the edge of the bed, I leaned forward to give my dad a hug. He sat up. As I embraced him, he put his head on my chest and sobbed painfully. That was the first time I saw my dad cry. I held him tight in my arms and kept telling him that he didn’t need to worry about me. I will never forget the pain that he and I both felt on that day. Looking back, staying in Maryland and graduating from high school a year later probably wasn’t a bad thing, but the idea of it seemed terrible to me at the time. I just didn’t want to delay finishing high school. I was young and felt that life might move by quickly and leave me behind. I was driven and determined.

On the day that I was leaving, my brother took me to the airport. He never told me that my flight to Kansas had a stop in Indianapolis. My English wasn’t good enough to be able to read the ticket for myself. I had noticed that giving out as little information as possible was typical of my brother who practically was a stranger to me. He had left home when I was seven. He had come to Iran twice for a visit in the ten years he had lived in the US, but he was very distant in his behavior and mannerism. I knew that he would never be a person in my life that I could rely on. His attitude was that I came to the US alone and struggled; you’ll have to do the same. That was fine with me. I didn’t mind making it on my own. I didn’t have a relationship with my brother after I left Maryland. I never asked him for anything. In all these years, I have seen him only a few times. Many years later in a phone conversation, he said, “Throughout all these years in the US, you never asked me for anything. I thought at some point, you would ask for help in some way, but you never did.”

I got on the plane and sat next to two men who were traveling together. They were kind to me. I was seventeen, but I looked younger. They were curious to know why I was traveling alone, especially since I could barely speak English. With my broken English, I tried to explain to them my situation. They understood that I was going to Kansas. When plane landed in Indianapolis, I was totally confused. I thought I was supposed to go to Kansas. How did I end up in Indianapolis? As I was about to leave the plane, the two men stopped me and explained to me that the next stop is going to be Kansas. We were in Indianapolis for one hour. The two men decided to leave the plane and walk around the airport during that time. They asked me if I wanted to go with them, I gratefully said yes. I was afraid of being alone and not understanding something else and being totally lost. They were so kind to me that when the plane landed in Kansas, I felt sad that I would never see them again. A part of me wanted to cling to them just like a helpless child, which I actually was.

At the Kansas City airport, I found Mehran and Mahta very quickly. It was good to see them. I stayed with them a little over a month. They were young and newly married. They now live in Australia. In fact, in a few weeks, I’m going to Australia for their daughter’s wedding. They are two lovely people who created a beautiful family. They now have two grown children. It has been a joy for me to see their happiness from afar.

The night I arrived, I called my parents to reassure them that everything was fine, and I was happy. I didn’t want my parents to worry about me. They had so many problems themselves. I decided to never complain about things when talking to them even if things were terrible. In the years that followed, there were many difficulties in my life, but I learned to keep them to myself and deal with them the best I could. I wanted to spare them from the pain that I was going through.

In a day or so, I went to the high school to register with Mahta and Mehran. I met my advisor Mr. Blackman. He was a nice man who tried to put me in classes that were suitable for me. In contrast to the school in Washington DC there were only five foreign students in this school which had about 1600 students. The first day I went to my American History class, I met my teacher, a woman in her thirties. She started to talk to me very fast saying a bunch of stuff I didn’t understand. I thought if she would speak slower, maybe I would understand something. She stopped talking after about a minute and waited for a reply from me. Since I had not understood anything, I said, “Please repeat”. At which point, she gave me a dirty look and said, “Just take a seat”. I knew life was going to be miserable. This language thing was going to kill me. It seemed like an impossible challenge. I would ask myself, “How am I going to learn an entire language and be proficient in it? How am I going to go to college?”

It was the same way in all of my classes. I hardly understood anything. I was lost. My teachers ignored me. I would go to class, be totally lost and then go to the next class and be totally lost. The only good thing was that all my courses from Iran were accepted at this school. So other than American History and American Government, I could take whatever I wanted. So I had a lot of easy classes like Gym, Home Economics and such. A couple of weeks after I had started school, one day, I noticed that the teacher in my American Government class passed around some papers. I had no idea what it was. Then I realized that it was a test. I had no idea that we were going to have a test that day. At that point, I quietly started to cry. I felt so overwhelmed by not understanding English. Tears rolled down my face, and I could not stop them.

At home every night, I would try to read my school books with an English to Persian dictionary. It would take me two hours to look up all the words in a paragraph, and then when I would put all the words together, I still didn’t fully understand the content. The sentence structure and how words are used in English are so different from Persian. It was very difficult to do a direct translation of the text.

Since the American History class that I was in was too difficult for me, my advisor decided to put me in a different class, a class that only had a few students and was moving at a very slow pace. It was the Special Ed class! My teacher was a sweet and gentle woman who had aged prematurely. She was 44, but she looked like she was 58. All of her hair was white, and her skin looked much older than 44. One of the first things that she said to me was that I was very small and skinny. I was five feet tall and weighed 90 pounds. I have a small frame, and I had always been one of the smallest kids in my classes, but here I was even smaller. The average American is taller than the average Iranian. In that class there were two mentally challenged students and me. My teacher gave me a very small and thin American History book. I would read it on my own and ask her questions when she wasn’t busy working with the other 2 girls. This book was much easier for me. I think it was written for grade school kids. I still had to look up words, but it took less time and the text was easier to understand.

A month and a half after I moved to Olathe Kansas, Mahta and Mehran moved to Lawrence Kansas so that Mehran could go to grad school at University of Kansas. During my stay with them, they helped me find another place to live. There was a college in Olathe called “Olathe Nazarene College”. Mehran and Mahta both went to school there. As the name suggests it was a religious college. Through someone at the college, Mehran found a lady who was 70 years old and had a basement that she wanted to rent. She also needed someone to do house cleaning for her. We met her. She seemed nice enough. It was decided that in exchange for cleaning her house, I would rent her basement for one third of the usual price. That sounded reasonable to me. My parents had given me some money, and I was determined to make it last as long as possible. They were not wealthy, and I was very mindful of that fact. The only thing that I did not like about my upcoming living situation was the fact that Mrs. Philips, the lady I was going to live with, had two dogs, and one of them was a huge German Shepherd. When we went to meet her for the first time, I was frightened by the German Shepherd. I had never been around dogs. In the Middle Eastern culture, people do not typically have pets. Animals are not allowed in the house as they are considered unclean. Growing up neither me nor any of my friends had pets. I had never petted a dog before. And this one was huge and scary. It weighed more than my 90 pounds.

Two days after Christmas on a cold snowy day, I said good bye to my relatives and moved into Mrs. Philips’s basement.

To be continued…

Thursday, September 29, 2011

My Talk

I wrote the article below for an event in June of 2011 to honor the Baha’is in Iran who are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. The part of the article that enumerates the injustices inflicted on the Baha’is of Iran has been extracted from sources that have kept an eye on the plight of the Baha’is in Iran over the last 32 years. I would like to thank my friend Charles Rakay for his editorial suggestions in writing this article. It is with humility and awe that the following text has been written in honor of all of those who have fought for justice in non-violent ways. It is their perseverance, uncompromising principles and dignity that has touched our hearts and has left a lasting legacy.

On August 10, 1980 Dr. Vafai, my brother in law, a prominent member of the Baha’i Faith in the city of Hamadan in Iran was arrested for the 4th and final time by the local government officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran along with 6 other Baha’is. All seven Baha'i men were arrested without any charges or explanation of any wrongdoing. Within a few hours their heads were shaved, mug shots were taken, and they were placed in a prison along with murderers and hardcore criminals. What followed was months of interrogation, and imprisonment in the most appalling and unsanitary conditions where all 7 men were held in a small cell for the next 10 months.

During the 10 months of imprisonment, my brother in law and the other 6 Baha'i prisoners were told by the authorities that their only crime was that they were members of the Baha'i Faith. They were told numerous times that if they would publicly recant their Faith, they would be free to go back to their families, and everything that had been taken away from them would be given back to them, otherwise they would be killed. The seven Baha'i men did not recant at any of the given opportunities to do so.

During one of the interrogation sessions, the Baha'i prisoners were told by the lead Islamic clergy of the city, “We know that you are good people and are much loved by the entire city. Your reputation is impeccable. You are here because you are Baha'is.” In response the seven prisoners said, “What is wrong with being a Baha'i? We are loved by the community because of the teachings of the Baha'i Faith, which is a religion devoted to service to humanity. Why do you want us to recant our religion?” At which point, the Islamic clergy replied, “We want you to recant because the growth of your religion will bring an end to Islam.”

Ten months and 10 days after the day my brother in law and the six other Baha'is were arrested, one night they were taken to an unknown location where they were tortured, their bodies severely mutilated and then they were each shot several times. As none of the shots were to the head or the heart, they died a long and agonizing death. This was how the lives of the seven innocent men, who had served their community for many years, ended. After that, life was never the same for their wives and children who had to endure the difficult years that followed. Soon after the execution of her husband and confiscation of their property and belongings, my sister and her young daughter had to be smuggled out of Iran, since their lives were in danger.

Bahaís hold no political ambitions, are committed to non-violence, and seek only to help in the development of the societies where they live. Yet, in Iran, for more than 30 years, they have been persecuted solely for their religious beliefs.

The persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran has its roots in Iranian history going back to the inception of the Baha'i Faith in the19th century where 20,000 Baha'is were killed in a short span of time. Baha'is in Iran enjoyed a period of relative calm in the early part of the 20th century until the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 when the current campaign of systematic persecution began. In the 1980s, virtually the entire leadership of the Iranian Bahá’í community was arrested and executed or disappeared. Bahá’ís have been detained, imprisoned, and falsely charged with “spying”; they have been denied access to education and sources of livelihood; they have been stripped of all influence in Iranian society and deprived of their right to religious freedom.

In contrast to its campaign of outright killings, imprisonment, and torture of Bahá’ís during the 1980s, the Iranian government has in recent years focused largely on economic and social efforts to drive Bahá’ís from Iran and destroy their cultural and community life. The government has also used arbitrary arrests and detentions, coupled with the confiscation of personal property, to oppress and terrorize the Baha’i Community. In the 1980s, over 10,000 Bahá’ís were dismissed from positions in government and educational institutions. Many remain unemployed and receive no unemployment benefits. Efforts to impoverish the Bahá’í community and to deprive its members of their economic livelihood have continued through a variety of means. In particular, government authorities have in many places around the country continued to block Bahá’ís from receiving pensions, conducting business, or finding employment. Even when Bahá’ís find employment in the private sector, government officials often intervene and force the owners of the companies to fire them. And when Bahá’ís start a private business, the authorities attempt to block their activities.

Since the inception of the Islamic government Baha'i youth have been denied access to formal education and are banned from attending colleges and universities. In what the New York Times called “an elaborate act of communal self-preservation,” the Bahá’í community in 1987 established its own higher education program to meet the educational needs of as many of its young people as resources would allow. That program evolved over the years into a full-fledged university, known as the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education. It had a faculty of more than 150 first-rate academics and instructors, and complete course offerings in ten subject areas. The classes for the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education were held in private homes throughout Iran and what little permanent infrastructure it had was composed of a handful of rented classrooms and laboratories scattered throughout the capital. Because of the continual threat of persecution, the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education was forced to operate in a highly circumspect and decentralized manner. Then, in acts that speak volumes about the government’s real attitude towards Baha’ís, twice government agents fanned out across the country, arresting Baha’i Institute faculty and staff, raiding homes, and confiscating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of books, equipment and records in a blatant effort to shut the university down. The most recent raids were carried out, on May 21, 2011 where 14 Baha'is associated with the university were arrested. “The materials confiscated were neither political nor religious, and the people arrested were not fighters or organizers. They were lecturers in subjects like accounting and dentistry; the materials seized were textbooks and laboratory equipment.”

When the Islamic Republic’s new constitution was drawn up in April 1979, certain rights of the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities in Iran were specifically mentioned and protected. However, no mention whatsoever was made of the rights of the Bahá’í community, Iran’s largest religious minority. Under Iran’s concept of an Islamic government, this exclusion has come to mean that Bahá’ís enjoy no rights of any sort, and that they can be attacked and persecuted with impunity. Iranian courts have denied Bahá’ís the right of redress or protection against essentially all forms of persecution; including assault and even murder. — and have ruled that Iranian citizens who kill or injure Bahá’ís are not liable for damages because their victims are, as the Iranian Government calls them, “unprotected infidels.” Among the Baha'is currently in prison in Iran are the seven leaders of the Baha'i Faith. This group of 5 men and 2 women recently started their 4th year of imprisonment. The seven were charged among other things, with espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic, the establishment of an illegal administration - charges that were all rejected completely and categorically by the defendants. Their crime is nothing more than being members of the Baha’i Faith. Indeed, the trial of the seven in many ways was the trial of an entire community of more than 300,000 Iranian Baha’is. The charges against the seven reflects the kind of false accusations and campaign of misinformation that Iran’s regime has used to vilify and defame Baha’is for decades.
The trial of the seven Baha’i leaders ended on June 14, 2010 after six brief sessions, characterized by a blatant lack of due legal process. The final sentence was 20 years of imprisonment.

The worldwide Bahá’í community is today one of the most diverse and widespread organizations on earth, comprised of individuals from virtually every nation, ethnic group, trade, profession, and social or economic class. The Bahá’ís in Iran seek no special privileges. They seek only their rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to life, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to education and work, and the right to profess and practice their religion.

The international community has responded to the persecution of the Bahá’í community in Iran with overwhelming sympathy, expressing concern for the Bahá’ís and condemnation of the Iranian government. The Bahá’í community believes that this outpouring has been a strong restraining force against the government, preventing persecution on a much greater scale.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has passed more than 20 resolutions expressing concern about reports of human rights violations in Iran, and each has made specific mention of the situation of the Bahá’í community there. We are heartened that representatives of the United States government have recently spoken out about the continued denial of basic human rights to Bahá'ís in Iran. We thank President Obama, who on March 20th of this year, when speaking about the Iranian Government’s persecution of the Baha’is, and others, said, “ The world has watched these unjust actions with alarm”. We thank our own congressman Mike Coffman who co-sponsored House Resolution 134, which condemns the government of Iran for persecuting its citizens of the Baha'i faith. Because of support from our leaders like President Obama and Congressman Coffman, and support from the international community, the wholesale genocide of the Bahá’í community in Iran has so far been prevented.

It must be said that under the Islamic government of Iran other religious and ethnic groups have suffered as well. In fact, the Iranians citizens have suffered greatly in the hands of this regime and its tyrannical ways. Our hearts go out to all Iranians who have endured, and still are enduring the atrocities inflected on them. We Baha'is dream of a day when people of Iran, the country which is the birthplace of our religion, live in a free, just and peaceful society.

Human history speaks of unimaginable cruelties. In the last 100 years, we have witnessed two world wars, the Holocaust and many genocides and acts of ethnic cleansing across the world. Whatever suffering and turmoil the world faces today, however dark the immediate circumstances, the Bahá’í community believes that humanity can confront these trials with confidence that the ultimate outcome will be a just and united world. Baha'is along with other like-minded groups and individuals across the world are committed to helping humankind reach the long-promised age of global peace, justice and unity. The prerequisite for this outcome is the acceptance of the principles of oneness of mankind. Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, teaches that an equal standard of human rights must be recognized and adopted. In the estimation of God all men are equal; there is no distinction or preferment for any soul in the dominion of His justice and equity. I will end with the words of Baha'u'llah:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My Friend and I

This picture was taken on 9/5/2011, Labor Day Weekend, with my friend Shari.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Neighbor

My neighbor Kim and her family moved to the house across the street from me about 6 years ago when I was going through my divorce.

Kim is married with 2 young children. At the time, I was so engrossed in my own life and pain that I didn’t notice when they moved in and how many people lived in their household. I lived oblivious of my surroundings. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anybody or make friends. I intentionally avoided making eye contact with my neighbors.

A year after Kim and her family moved in when my relatives were visiting something came up, and I actually had to say hello to Kim when I saw her on the street. That started our acquaintance. I was impressed that after the initial meeting every time she saw me, she said, “Hi Soheila” with perfect pronunciation of my unusual name. She obviously had a good memory. Unlike most people, she remembered how to say my name after hearing it just once.

Kim is a stay at home mom who is always outside. She is usually sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. She is often talking to the neighbors and working in the yard. I see her every morning when I leave my house and every evening when I come home. She is always sweet and warm in all her interactions. She keeps an eye on everything that goes on in the neighborhood.

One day about 4 years ago, I got a notice from the homeowner’s association that my lawn didn’t look perfect, and I had some weeds on the edges of my yard. I called and told them that due to the water use restrictions my lawn doesn’t look that great, and I will pull out the weeds. During that conversation, I found out that one of my neighbors had complained about my lawn. They wouldn’t tell me who it was, but I had a strong suspicion that it was Kim who was always working in her yard, had the most perfect lawn and kept a close watch on everything that was going on in the neighborhood.

When we had a snow storm with 15 inches of snowfall about 2 years ago, I came home from work on Thursday evening. I worked from home the next day and did not leave my house until Monday morning. When I got home Monday night, Kim saw me and said, “You didn’t leave your house for 3 days. There were no tire tracks on your driveway the entire weekend.” Her observation made me uncomfortable. I got the sense that she was watching everything I do.

When my niece was visiting 2 years ago in Dec and had parked her car in front of my next door neighbor’s lawn with 2 of the tires partially on the curb, Kim had knocked on my door and had given her a hard time, at which point my niece had told her, “I didn’t park in front of your house, why are you so concerned?” That day I got a call from Kim at work all upset saying that she didn’t mean to cause trouble, and she didn’t want to upset anybody, but she was concerned that my next door neighbor could not properly shovel the snow on the sidewalk if the tires were on the curb. I told her, “Don’t worry about it, it was no big deal, and no one is upset.”

Kim is actually a good neighbor in many ways. When I had left the garage door open one night, she called me at midnight to tell me that my garage door was open. When my car was stuck in the snow, she helped push my car out. When my bicycle was broken, she lent me her bicycle. When my sister’s car broke down, she gave her a ride to where she wanted to go. She is always very helpful and friendly. She is also very religious. She ends each conversation with “God Bless”.

It is just that she truly is watching everything that goes on around her. Last winter, I got a call from her saying, “Your mother’s bedroom window is open about 8 inches. It is going to snow, so you may want to close it.” Sure enough, the guest room window where my mother stays when she comes over was open about 8 inches. I was wondering how she could see that from her house. Does she use binoculars? When my mom fell at my house and broke her back, as soon as the ambulance arrived, Kim was in my house wondering what was going on and if she could help.

Last summer one morning as I was leaving my house, I put the trash can outside so the trash would be picked up. As I was getting into my car, I heard a voice calling my name. I looked around, but I saw no one. I heard someone calling me again. I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from again, I looked around and saw no one. The third time I heard my name, I looked up in the sky and thought to myself, “Is this voice coming from the heavens? I don’t see anybody anywhere.” At that point, I heard the voice say, “It’s Kim, I’m up here in the 2nd floor bathroom of my house. I’m looking at you from the bathroom window.” I said, “Oh, Hi Kim. I can’t see you.” She said, “Is your trash pickup company Pro Disposal?” I said, “Yes, it is”. She said, “They already picked up the trash. You missed them.” I thanked her amazed at how nothing escaped her keen eyes.

So in the last few years living as a single woman again, I have dated a lot, in fact too much, and Kim has watched different men come into my life. First there was the guy with the Honda, then there was the guy with a Mustang, then the guy with a Porch, then the Acura guy, and then there was the guy with the Corvette and so on… Kim has watched these men come and go and surprisingly has not said anything as she has watched the traffic from her porch.

So when a couple of months ago, my friend Rick came to pick me up with his motorcycle, as I was putting on the helmet and the leather jacket that he had brought for me, I bursed into laughter knowing that Kim is watching and wondering. I got on the back of the motorcycle and as we drove away, I saw Kim looking at us with her mouth wide open. I tried really hard to tell myself that she is not really there.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Love Lost

I want to bury you in the deepest darkest corner of my heart and never remember that I once loved you.

I want to bury you and never remember that you were once my heart, my pulse and the reason for my every breath.

I want to bury you and never remember that you once permeated my entire being.

I want to bury you and never remember that you once loved me.

I want to bury you and never remember that I died a thousand times loving you.

I want to bury you and never remember how I came to life when you loved me.

I want to bury you and never remember that you were once my happiness.

I want to bury you and never remember the coldness of your hands, your eyes and your heart the last time I saw you.

I want to bury you and never remember how my heart was ripped to pieces the day you left me.

I want to bury you and never remember how I drowned in the sea of my sorrows once you were gone.

I want to bury you in the deepest darkest corner of my heart and never remember how I suffered loving you.

I want to bury your love.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Song

I love this song by Leonard Cohen.

Below is Leonard Cohen's words about his inspiration for the song. It makes the poetry more meaningful.

'Dance Me To The End Of Love' ... it's curious how songs begin because the origin of the song, every song, has a kind of grain or seed that somebody hands you or the world hands you and that's why the process is so mysterious about writing a song. But that came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin," meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song -- it's not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Plight of the Iranian Baha'is

Below is the link to the Colorado Public Radio's interview with my sister and I about the plight of the Iranian Baha'is.

For more information about the Baha'i Faith, please go to

Friday, March 4, 2011

Moving to the US (Part 2)


The people on the plane were mostly Iranians. Two of the four flight attendants were American. I had seen 2 or 3 Americans in my life before, so seeing the very fair skinned, tall, blue eyed and light haired women was interesting to me. The flight took about 22 hours. We stopped in France and England. With each stop more Iranians left the plane and more westerners got on the plane. I started to hear less and less Persian spoken on the plane. We landed in New York City at about 2:00 AM. Going through the customs was a huge challenge. The immigration agents had all sorts of questions. My parents didn't speak any English, and I only spoke a few words. I had to run around and ask the other Iranians who spoke English how to say what I needed to say in English. I remember feeling overwhelmed and scared. I thought, “What did I get myself into? It’s going to take me forever to learn English and until then I don’t know how I’m going to live.”

My brother and his American girlfriend were waiting for us once we left the immigration area and officially entered the country. That night we drove about 4 hours to Maryland where my brother lived. His house was entirely made of wood in contrast to the houses back home that are made of brick with very thick brick walls separating the rooms. The house seemed fragile and paper like to me. It had 4 small bedrooms with wood floors, and you could hear people talking in other rooms, since the walls were made of thin wood (drywall). When I woke up the next day, I looked outside the window and saw how lush and forest like the area was. I couldn't believe that I was in the US. The scenery around me was so different from what I was used to. It was all very surreal. It all seemed like a dream, the feeling that I was in a dream lasted for several months. Every so often, I would stop in my track and remind myself of where I was and be amazed by it. Everything was so different, the people, the places, the language, the cars, the food, the signs and etc.

I remember on the second or third day of my arrival, my brother's girlfriend accidentally dropped something on the kitchen floor and said, “Oh shit”. I didn't know what that word meant. At night, when my brother came home, I asked him what it meant. He told me, but I didn't believe him. To me the “S” word was a very dirty word to utter loudly for something so minute. It’s equivalent in Persian was not even in my vocabulary. I could never say it out loud. I thought, “How could she say that word so causally in front of someone else?” One of the things that I soon realized was that Americans are totally comfortable using vulgar language in routine conversation. Over the next two years, I heard all the common vulgar words in the English language. I was shocked every time I heard a new one, but eventually I got used to it. Ten years later, in an argument with my first husband, Paul, I heard myself say the “f” word. I was shocked and appalled at myself. It was a word that he and every young person around me used often. I had become numbed to it.

Another thing that was a huge adjustment for me was the food. On the second night of our arrival, my brother took us to McDonolds and said, “This is a place were all Americans go to eat.” He ordered Big Macs for us, since we didn’t know what to order or how to order. I didn’t like the smell of my Big Mac. With hesitation, I took a bite and nearly threw up. I could not swallow it. I kept it in my mouth for a few minutes before I finally swallowed it. I thought that it was the worst thing I had ever tasted. The taste and smell of the sauce and melted cheese were unbearable to me. I put the Big Mac down and didn’t have another one until 4 years later, at which point my taste had changed so much that I loved the Big Mac I ate, and it became a part of my unhealthy college diet. There were a lot of foods that just tasted so odd to me that I could not bear to eat them for years. One of them was cheese. I was used to Feta cheese and variations of it. I had never had American cheese, Cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese and etc before. The texture of the cheeses common in the US felt like plastic to me. It took years before I could eat cheese. It took 10 years before I could eat a grilled cheese sandwich. It took about 10 years before I could eat Nachos. I couldn’t stand the texture of melted cheese for many years. A lot of these foods, I now love.

It took a few weeks until I was able to register at a high school. My brother was very busy with his job, and it was finally his girlfriend who took me to a school in Washington DC to register. It was a huge school with a very diverse student body. About one third of the students were African American, one third white and one third were foreign students. Since the high school was in Washington DC there were a lot of kids from other countries at that school. I was supposed to be in 12th grade and already had enough credits to graduate, but because my English was so poor, I was told that they wanted to hold me back one year, and have me take some of the classes that I had already taken back home again, so that my English would improve. The classes that I enrolled in were physics, Algebra, Physical Education, English As Second Language and an English reading class. The school was huge, and I was lost in it. I had a hard time finding my classes and once I got to my classes, I didn’t understand anything that was going on in the class. I would leave the classes with a ton of homework, but I couldn’t read any of my books, since I didn’t know English. I went through my days with a strong sense of doom not knowing how to read, write or do my homework. It felt like I was in an impossible situation. There was only one class that wasn’t horrible and that was my English as a Second Language class. That class was at my level. The teacher spoke very slowly and used very simple words. I would translate each word in my head and then put the whole thing together, and if I knew all the words then I understood the sentence. I was at that school for about 2 hellish weeks. My teachers didn’t even care that I didn’t understand anything in the class. The only students that occasionally tried to talk to me were the foreign students. The path that I was on was familiar to them.

Getting back and forth to school was difficult also. I had to take the city bus and walk a mile or so each way. Since I didn’t understand much English, the first week or so, I kept taking the wrong bus and it was an ordeal finding my way home. It seems that I was always lost and had to rely on the kindness of some poor soul that would take the time to explain to me how to get home in the simplest possible terms.

One day when I was standing at the bus stop, I saw 2 young men talking. I didn’t understand what they were talking about, but they kept repeating the words “thirty three”. That was the first time that I became aware of the “th” sound. It is a sound that we don’t have in Persian. It sounded very odd to me, how you put your tongue between your teeth to make the sound. That was the first time I realized how the “th” should be pronounced. Back home in my English class, I had heard my teacher pronounce that sound like the letter ‘t’. Another sound that was one that I eventually realized we don’t have in Persian was the “w” sound. So I used to pronounce “w” like a “v”.

One afternoon when I was walking home from school, I saw some construction workers. They started talking to me, but I didn’t understand what they were saying. One of them said something to me, which I didn’t completely understand. I thought he asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I just lied and said yes so that he would leave me alone. When he heard my reply of ‘yes’ he smiled and said, “I’ll make you happy.” I paused and translated that sentence in my head and understood what he meant. Suddenly, I felt terrified. I thought he might want to touch me. I said, “no, no” and walked away really fast looking back to make sure he wasn’t following me. What he had asked me was if he could be my boyfriend, and he thought that I said yes. In my mind’s eye, I still see that man’s face clearly. In the first couple of years of my life here, there were a number of times that guys approached me for a date, wanting to talk or get close, and I never knew how I was supposed to handle those situations. Part of the time I didn’t fully understand them and when I did I didn’t know what to say if I didn’t want their attention or if I did want their attention. So there were a lot of awkward and weird moments as far as men were concerned. I probably came across as very odd to them. I was in a deep culture shock for the first two years of my life here. In my culture, the relationships between men and women are much more guarded, formal and have the appearance of aloofness on the women’s side even if they are interested. Of course, all of that is changing with the ever-growing influence of American movies and culture in Iran.

After a couple of weeks of school in Washington DC, one day I talked to Mahta one of my relatives who lived in Olathe, Kansas. She said that when she came to the US, she went to a high school in Olathe, Kansas. In that high school, all of her credits from Iran were accepted, and she only studied American Government, American History and English and was able to graduate from high school in a year. She told me that if I move there and go to school there, it would be easier for me. That sounded great to me, since I had taken a lot of math and science courses in Iran, and at the Washington DC high school, they wanted me to take all those courses again, because my English was so poor. I didn’t want to repeat all those courses. I wanted to learn English and take the classes that I needed in order to graduate. So two weeks later, I alone was on a plane to Kansas.
To be continued...