Coming To America – Tehran, Iran

Citizens’ Journal is proud to present the Coming to America series of immigrant related interviews conducted by Ventura resident Dr. Kathleen S. Roos. CJ publishes a new story each Sunday. These stories describe what life was like in their native country, the whys of wanting to come to America and what they have found here. It is the hope of each interviewee that those born in America, who have not had these experiences may reflect on what it means to be an American by these immigrants. Many have risked their lives and their families to come to America. Some have had an easier road, but the desire to be free, to make choices and what it means to become an American is a thread found throughout these interviews.

In current news today look at the young man Enes Kanter, the Boston Celtics basketball player speaking out about human rights and comparisons to China and the companies who do business there! He is from Turkey and Muslim and his family is paying a price for his decision to speak out.  He is also taking a lot of heat from others here in the U.S. to risk his career to take such a stand.  A very decent guy who makes a great example to Americans. He is well-known and appreciates the U.S. and our freedoms and deplores the atrocities in China and other parts of the world relative to abuse and lack of human rights. Most of these interviewees are not well known, or famous but their stories matter. All the varying perspectives of the interviewees are presented. Each one is their own story.

For the Citizen’s Journal readers who want to go back and view previous interviews we have included a list of those already published which can be located through the journal’s search engine box by typing in Coming to America, and the name of the Country. These include interviews from Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge through Cambodia: The Next Generation (installments 1-3), Oaxaca, Mexico (4), Santiago, Chile (5), Aligarh, India (6), Santiago, Cuba (7), Cambodia: years later told by an American dental professional (8), Jalisco, Mexico (9), Bagdad, Iraq (10), Bulacan, Philippines (11), and United Kingdom (12).

This week’s installment CJ is presents Mark Lai’s story from Saigon, Vietnam. Future interviews will include; Plauen, Germany, Rimmanapudi, India, Great Urswich, UK., Helsinki, Finland, Tehran, Iran, North Korea, Riga, Latvia, and Dr. Roos’ story from her travels and experiences.

 

Interview with Hengameh Kazemi on Oct 26, 2021

 

Where were you born? Country, town?

I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. Tehran is the capital of Iran where I grew up and finished high school.  Tehran is the largest city in Iran.  My mother is from Tehran also but her parents lived in a city called Yazd. My dad was born in Qazvin and grew up in Rasht (known as the “City of Rain”) but moved to Tehran when he was seven or eight years old. My husband jokes that all Iranians are from Tehran. 

 

I have two siblings, both of whom live in Sweden now but we all went to high school in Tehran. I moved to the U.S. 43 years ago and have been back visiting Iran only one about 37 years ago.  

 

I can tell you; times and customs have changed. During my grandparents and my parents time the custom of marriage is very different than here. You don’t have a girlfriend. My father just saw my mother on a train and he fell in love. That is rare that you get to see the girl before you’re married. My dad had to ask my grandmother if he could marry her. The girl’s parents are the ones you need to get permission from. My mother never saw him until he asked her mother to marry him. The whole ceremony of marriage is complex.

 

Tell me about growing up in your country. Comparisons to U.S. if applicable.

Before he got married, my dad was a columnist for a Russian owned newspaper in Iran. He wrote mainly in Farsi. I asked if he was a journalist and Hengameh said no he was more of a columnist. The columns he wrote were mainly on business and economics. The paper he wrote for was very International and they would attend many international get-togethers. When he got married to my mom many things changed. He went from being an international columnist to an accountant. He thought this was a better fit for a family.

 

My mom was a tailor first and later a beautician. Tailoring was way too much for her. She once got her hair done by a beautician and paid a great deal of money for it. When she came home my father hated it and asked her to redo it her way. That incident got her thinking about becoming a hair stylist herself which she signed up for the following week. 

Hair salon in Tehran in 1977: “This is a scene you would no longer expect to see in Iran – but even after the Islamic Revolution, hairdressers continued to exist,” says Prof Afshar. “Nowadays you wouldn’t see a man inside the hairdressers – and women would know to cover up their hair as soon as they walked out the door. Some people may also operate secret salons in their own homes where men and women can mix.” (BBC news Feb 2019)

To clarify, being a beautician was not considered a prestigious position for our family.  In my grandmother’s view, you might as well be a street girl.  Education means everything in our circle of family and it always trumps money.

 

When I was going to school during Shah’s regime, we could wear whatever we chose, study what we wanted, we had many successful female doctors, judges and scientists.  We had freedom of religion and although in Islam a man could have up to 4 wives and many temporary wives, legally, men could only have one wife.  I never knew anyone who had more than one wife until the regime changed.  Since the regime change, that law was changed and now there are many men who have more than one wife. 

 

When I was attending school, we had many fun activities similar to US.  We had annual school talent shows where my aunt for instance did a Persian dance.  We had parties where we gather at friends’ houses and danced through the night.  There were ski resorts, bowling allies, and skating rinks where girls and boys were able to attend together.  There were several bars and discos where alcohol was served for those over 21 years of age.  After the revolutions, slowly but surely, these were taken away by having male, female gathering separately.  Women were no longer allowed to sing or dance if men were present.   All of the movies, TV shows and music concerts where women were not properly (religiously) covered were forbidden.  Alcohol of any sort was forbidden and discos with bars were closed down.

 

Did you travel to other countries prior to coming to U.S.?

My parents had traveled extensively.  The year before I was supposed to go to Sweden to continue my education, my mother and sister traveled to Sweden.  However, U.S. was my first trip outside of Iran.  I have since traveled to quite a few countries since then and on each trip, I find myself being grateful for living in US.

Iran in 1970s

My dad went to Austria and Italy and traveled a great deal through Europe. This is after my mother and he had traveled a great deal in the past. We had family and friends all over.

My dad went to visit an aunt living in Austria. We have family and friends that live all over Europe so it was not unusual for them to travel to see these friends and family. We also had an aunt in Sweden. On his last trip my dad got very sick and he was hospitalized in Sweden. As an accountant he was extremely worried about the cost. He was always a very cost-conscious man. When he got out of the hospital, it was a long stay he was very fearful of what the cost would be. He asked them what do I owe you? They told him nothing! He was so happy. You understand Sweden is considered a socialist country and this was a socialist program.

 

Also, Sweden and Iran have a long-standing relationship. Sweden built many ships for Iran and Iran was always buying these ships. My dad felt that would be a great job for my brother but you had to be able to speak Swedish. So, my dad came home from Sweden, packed my brother up and shipped him off to Sweden to learn the language and go to school. Dad’s thinking was even if he didn’t finish school, he would still have the language and he would be able to have a successful career. My brother was about 17 or 18 years old. My brother fell in love with Sweden, never finished college but he did learn the language. He never worked in the shipbuilding business. My dad was upset that he never finished college.

 

 

What were your experiences in school, college educational system in your native country?

 I happened to be ahead in school. I graduated high school at sixteen and was planning to go to Sweden also for school. In Iran you don’t have your own passport when you’re under 18. I was on my father’s passport to travel. This is when we planned for me to go to Sweden for continuing education. Then my dad passed away and I was unable to go. I stayed in Iran and took the National Test where you have to choose a field of study and I flunked.  In Iran the National Test, based on your scores decides the school that you would attend.

Studying at Tehran University in 1977: (A. ABBAS / MAGNUM PHOTOS RIGHT) WHILE many women were already in higher education at the time of the revolution, the subsequent years saw a marked increase in the number attending university. This was in part because the authorities managed to convince conservative families living in rural areas to allow their daughters to study away from home. “They tried to stop women from attending university, but there was such a backlash they had to allow them to return,” says Baroness Haleh Afshar, a professor of women’s studies at the University of York who grew up in Iran in the 1960s. “Some educated people left Iran, and the authorities realized in order to run the country they needed to educate both men and women.” (BBC News 8 Feb 201)

With my dad’s passing, and failing the college entrance exam which was only offered once a year, I decided to leave Iran.  I started researching other countries, I chose not to go to Sweden as I didn’t want to learn Swedish.  I also discarded Germany, as I didn’t like the language.  France was too expensive and England required two years of English before I could be accepted at any university.  I also found US was more than welcoming as long as I could pay for out of state tuition and living costs. I went to Milton College for a year, and transferred to UWM (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) before I dropped out for a year and got married.  I later finished my accounting degree in Seattle, Washington.

 

Why did you want to come to the U.S.? Or did you want to come to the U.S.?

You had to comprehend English before you would be accepted into most Countries’ university systems. I looked at England, France and Germany also, however, they did not seem to have what I needed so I started looking at the U.S. U.S. had less requirements as long as you could pay the high tuition.  I started by contacting an agency in Tehran, where the appropriate paperwork was completed and I was accepted in Colorado and Texas.  With that, I was able to apply for student visa.  However, instead of Colorado or Texas, our family friend, suggested I go to Chicago where he picked me up and took me to a small private college in Wisconsin where I was able to sign up for classes immediately.

 

Although I had a student visa from two universities in US, the flights were limited as US had asked its citizens to leave Iran.  

 

 I came to US in 1978, while there were US hostages here in Iran, so there were already some tensions.  However, compared to now, those were the good days.  U.S. was working with the new regime in Iran to work things out and get the hostages back which happened right after the US election of Ronald Reagan. 

 

I left Tehran within the three-day period when the Shah had left and Khomeini had not come to Iran yet. I recall purchasing my ticket to Chicago, in a black market under a foreign name.  Once on the plane, I was among mostly Americans who were fleeing Iran.  Luckily, I sat next to a very nice middle age American. He was very familiar with Iran and its customs. He took me under his wings and gave me a great deal of advice about going to Chicago.

 

During this trip we got stranded in Holland for three days due to bad weather conditions in Chicago. The airlines put us up in a very nice hotel. Back then it was much nicer to fly. The planes were beautiful and how they treated you was great. The first night at the hotel, we were having dinner and I met another young American. He sat at our table where I was sitting with my friend from the airplane. I did not speak English very well and this new gentleman was asking me questions about where I was headed and going to school. Suddenly the man who took me under his wing said we have to leave right now. I was not sure what was going on but he was very insistent that we have to leave now so I somewhat trusted him and we left dinner. He told me I was naive and because I did not understand the language the man was asking me to stay with him when I got to Chicago. He shared that many American men can be really terrible but he said I had to grow up and if I don’t understand the language I need to ask. I need to tell them I do not understand. He was teaching me all the way and when to play by Iran rules and when to play by American rules.

 

Our family friend in Chicago picked me up at the airport. Next day, we headed to the private college in Milton, Wisconsin where he knew the foreign advisor.  I signed up right away and started college without knowing any English.  The US currency at the time was 7 Toman to $1.00.  Today that rate is 30,000 Toman to $1.00 (Toman is the super unit of the official Iranian currency, the rial. One Toman is equal to ten rials).   Also, what I discovered when I got to this country, I realized my high-school level of training was much higher than most of the education here in the U.S. Since I already knew the material, I concentrated on taking math and chemistry in college to help me learn English.  I even taught calculus in my second year of college as a tutor. The education level at college was so far below in the US, compared to what I had studied in Iran. I had no problem passing them even without speaking the language.

 

Have you become a U.S citizen?

My husband and I were married about 5 years when we had taken an overseas trip and were coming back.  At the airport, my husband took only a few minutes to clear the boarder where as it took me well over 2 hours.  Once through the line, I decided, to become a citizen where I would also be allowed to vote.  I started the process of becoming a citizen through the naturalization by the US government.

 

I immediately married a guy from Chicago. He lived in Palm Springs and I lived in Wisconsin (confusing?) I was about 19 years old. Within a short time of our marriage, he decided he wanted a divorce. He however, found he would be disinherited if he got a divorce so he wanted me to ask for the divorce. I did not have a green card and he had never applied for a green card for me. This was a problem. If I got divorced, I would be deported. I married someone else only for the green card. He agreed, and that was 40 years ago. We went to a courthouse in Vancouver. At this time in the U.S., it was relatively easy to get a green card. It took about 6 months. The problem was finding my records. There was reciprocity with Oregon and Seattle. We were told to go to one place and then another. My mother-in-law actually contacted some US Senators so they could find my files. My records were found in with the illegal Mexicans papers in the basement or the courthouse. We were married a couple years and by then I finished school. My new husband and I decided to stay together.

 

When we decided to marry, we had to do it the Muslim way. This is what my mom insisted on. My new husband had to be Muslim. He wasn’t Muslim but he didn’t care so he changed and became a Muslim to marry me. I found a mosque in Seattle where we could get married. Again, this was something my mom insisted upon. My husband had already been married and he was paying child support. In between all this Muslim wedding business, I had also been in a very bad accident. I left school for a while. It seemed like my accident took about three months being hospitalized so it caused some delays.

 

 

Describe religions of your country? Is there religious freedom? Do you think that is important?

While growing up, we had freedom of religion where we had churches, mosques, synagogues, and …. and no one was forced to pray.  After the revolution, however, everyone was forced to be Muslims, even if it meant pretending to be one.  Friday prayers became mandatory!  A lot of people who actually believed in God have now become atheists all due to the pressure from being forced to the religion.

 

 My husband was a Presbyterian and he changed to Muslim to satisfy my mother’s wishes. In contacting the mosque, it took a great deal of communication and back and forth calling to get with somebody. I was told I could get married there and I would just have to donate to the mosque and it was up to me to decide how much I wanted to donate. We decided on $100. Also, we were told we needed witnesses. I asked an American friend and her boyfriend to be my witnesses.  We traveled to the mullah’s house, at his direction, as the mosque was being used. This was to get all the approvals and be married. When the mullah saw my blond, blue-eyed friends he said’ they cannot come into my house. they are not Muslim’. It was never mentioned that the witnesses had to be Muslim. I do not approve of this type of religiosity. So, the mullah of the mosque, called his friends to be our witnesses.

 

While at his home he told me that my husband to-be had to go into the shower and speak special words under the shower. He read to him what to say from the Quran. ‘Now you are Muslim. My husband did not understand and said I already took a shower but they insisted that he go and take a shower and whisper these words from the Quran while showering. All of a sudden multiple Muslims showed up to witness our ceremony. They had been at some other ceremony. When all the work was done and we were supposed to be allowed to get married I asked him how much? He said to write a check for $200. I was furious. I had already been told I could make the decision on how much I would donate. We had chosen $100. When I left his home, I immediately stopped payment on the check. My mom called me from Iran about 2 years later and said that a mullah had contacted her and said I had an outstanding bill to his mosque, that he needed to talk to me he said he would sue me in the U.S. I had no proof of my marriage. I figured we didn’t need anything. I was pretty young.

 

My husband is a retired Marine. He was in the Marine Corps for 20 years and used his military benefits to go back to school. That is how we met in college. At 32 I decided I wanted children. I had not wanted children before. Now I have a daughter and she is 26 years old. My husband already had daughters and we have a marvelous family.

I trained to be an accountant and I was going to sit for my CPA exam and was told I make more money than I would being a CPA. I continued to work as a controller and an accountant. My husband needed some medical help and I worked hard and then took a break. Now I volunteer and I do everything. I volunteer for The Villages Clark County which is a nonprofit organization directed to help seniors to stay in their homes and active in their own neighborhood. 

 

The concept, I’m told came from an aging neighborhood in Boston where neighbors decided to help each other and it worked so well that it was registered as a nonprofit and now it’s being suggested for everyone interested in various states. We provide assistance for the elderly to maintain their standard of living in their own homes.  For instance, currently, I provide in home help and assistance in their day to day living.  Currently, I’m volunteering to read the book that was authored by a gentleman who is now blind.  This book was used for the Ph.D. program at Portland State University.  He is 84 years old and full of life.

 

I also volunteer for The Garden which is owned by Seventh-Day Adventist.  We grow vegetables for the low income and the homeless. In addition, I also work for the Vancouver Lake Crew which is a nonprofit organization through University of Portland, getting juniors involved in water activities.  It provides a great deal of camaraderie paddling around the lake.

 

Do you see parallels of things happening in your Country compare to U.S. Good and bad?

            The most distinctive parallel I can think of is the civil unrest as the people of this country take sides.  For instance, the political climate in US where the boarders go from no illegal immigrants allowed to everyone is welcome regardless of legal status. This is occurring although, the laws haven’t changed. Also, in my opinion, people as a general rule were much more understanding and believed more in community and helping your neighbors than they do now.

 

The political unrest has been very apparent over the past 42 years since the revolution.  As different groups come to certain power, the power pressure goes on.  So far, the religious groups have been the strongest as they are in power by changing the laws as they feel gets them to what they want.  Iraqi’s whom we were in war with for eight years, are no welcome to the country with open arms.  Same with Chinese as they’re now investing millions in the country.  When I was growing up in Iran, all of the neighbors knew each other and we as children plays in the streets from sun up to sun down sometimes as it was safe.  However, these days, everyone is afraid of being reported by their neighbor so the community style is disappearing. 

 

My sisters and brother live in Sweden and they love it there. My sister and mom went through the unrest in Iran while Iran and Iraq had their eight-year war.  Afterward, my sister and Mom traveled to Sweden for a visit when my brother helped my sister stay in Sweden.  There was a time we didn’t have to cover ourselves. Many of the religions in Iran are now impacted. Many religious groups have to pretend that they are Muslim. Christians and Jews all pretend to be Muslim. The mullahs are just stealing everyone’s’ money. I feel so sorry for young girls now in Iran. They sell their parts of their bodies; they sell their kidneys and many of them have become prostitutes just to get some money. (I have heard this same report from a local Iranian woman friend).

 

I went back to Iran around thirty-even years ago and everyone was unhappy and they’re even more unhappy. There was happiness when I was growing up there. This unhappiness is even worse today. The Chinese and Arabs are all coming into Iran. They use the girls. In the very religious city, many Muslims come to visit from China and Arab countries. The Chinese government has moved into the southern part of Iran. The Chinese and Arabs take all the jobs.

 

Several in your family remain in Sweden and like it very much. Can you describe some of the similarities and differences with the U.S.?

 

My preference to stay in US first and foremost is the language, considering English is the major language spoken in the world.  I also appreciate knowing hard work is rewarded due to the capitalist nature of this country.

 

The medical services are more readily available in US than in Sweden.  Due to Sweden’s socialist status, there are too many red tapes to go through, to see a specialist for instance.  Taxes are much lower here.  The average tax rate in Sweden is around 45%.  The one good thing in Sweden is that no one is left behind regardless of their status. However, for a hard-working person, I find US more rewarding.

 

Over the last 40 years, I’ve seen the changes Sweden has gone through as a socialist country where I see the country more of a socio-capitalist country.  I believe in helping those who are willing to help themselves and only rely on the government assistance where needed.

 

Explain what you mean as freedom and liberty or the pursuit of happiness?

While growing up in Iran, people and specially women had a freedom of choice in their religion, what they wore, to a large extent what they said, what they wanted to become when they grew up and a lot has now been lost.  Women can no longer be judges for instance or hold a high office.  They have to cover themselves as Muslims whether they are one or not. That means, even non-Muslims have to respect the Muslim religion and abide by their rules even though it’s all pretenses.  I was told Friday prayers have been made mandatory specially if the person wants to continue with schooling or get a job.  When I was in Iran, most people, got their positions based on what they had learned in school, now it’s which Mullah you know which as can be seen has hurt the country tremendously.  For instance, there is a religious city called Ghom (also spelled “Qom”, “Ghom”, “Ghum”, or “Qum”) * where there is a lot of salt in the grounds and hills.  A family friend was one of the engineers on that project and told me about the site. Due to the saltiness of the area, they have to pump the water into the city rather than diverting the water from elsewhere by building a dam.  Unfortunately, the Mullahs who took over, decided “if God wants it, it will be ok”!  So, the money was spent and the dam was built, limiting the water from going to the nearby city of Esfahan, through the hills. Shortly thereafter, not only was the water in Ghom* too salty, but Esfahan started having droughts, which to this day, has not come back to its original state.

 

Iran today

I feel so sorry for many women now remaining in Iran. They have become more of a property than a person with feelings.  In one embarrassing video I watched, one of the religious Mullahs in a mosque was comparing having a wife to having a camel and what to do to keep them subservient! 

 

I feel so sorry for many women now remaining in Iran. They have become more of a property than a person with feelings.  In one embarrassing video I watched, one of the religious Mullahs in a mosque was comparing having a wife to having a camel and what to do to keep them subservient! 

 

There are many unhappy married women who basically are at the mercy of their husbands. Divorce is very difficult as if there are any children in the family, the father gets the right to keep them.  A lot of women either don’t work or don’t get paid as much as men due to the limitation of what they can and cannot do per the Mullah’s rules.  You really cannot get divorced because that means you’re no longer a virgin and you should be a virgin to get married.  Honestly, of everyone I’ve talked to, not a single person would have allowed Khomeini to come to Iran had they known what a corrupt regime it will be in the name of Islam. The Iranians would love to have a leader to follow and kick out the mullahs.  The history has thought us over and over again, religion and politics simply do not mix well.  The current mullah’s have come to steal what they can financially, emotionally and spiritually with the rules they make up as they go along.  That’s something, I hope I never have to worry about living in US. (Photos taken from Pinterest and Reddit, 2010)

 I am a female and I am an Iranian and I think Trump was on the right track. I may not have liked all the personal things he did or said but during the Obama years I was sickened about what was happening. I could not believe what he was doing when he sent all that money back to Iran. All Iranians knew what was going to happen to that money. It was not going to go to the Iranians. Now they are planning to extend their nuclear program.  I like how Trump handled Iran. Iran needs a strong hand. I don’t believe any of the American News anymore. Biden terrifies me! Trump was right on trade and on the sanctions and many of his programs.

 

 People here need to travel to see what is going on in other countries. They need to see how other people have to survive. US citizens are so naïve to the rest of the world. I don’t think the US military can even compete with Muslims who willingly strap bombs onto their bodies. How can the military compete with that? From what I’ve seen of the US military today, I’m afraid the standards have come down a lot when it comes to physical fitness and that in itself is a scary thought.

I’ve been very happy in this country knowing I can study what I want, be with who I want, work where I want, and can be myself and be as productive as I choose to regardless of my background.


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Joy Swift

I so look forward to all of these interesting interviews Dr Kathleen Roos is presenting. I’ve really learned a lot about what is and was going on in many countries around the world. These people have gone through so much to be in America!