The Story of an Iranian Refugee: My Sister
The discriminatory and un-American immigration ban set forth by the U.S. President has targeted and impacted many innocent people and has lead to the detention and deportation of families, professionals, students, and other hardworking members of our communities, legal residents and Green Card holders. The ban heavily targets immigrants of Muslim countries.
Though this feel very personal, I did not want to come on here to explain why I have joined protests and supporting groups that are fighting against this bigotry.
Instead, I wanted to open up the platform for someone else, a former refugee herself, to share her story and the story of many others targeted by this ban.
From the moment I met my sister-in-law Sara and her family, I have loved them. The warmth and affection with which her family welcomed me, a stranger, was something I will never forget. They are a large family, boisterous and fun. Her mother Feri is like a big warm hug and her many cousins and uncles and aunts are the epitome of family. I am overjoyed that I get to call these kind, beautiful people my family, to call Sara my sister.
But before that could happen, they had to journey to America.
This is their story, as told by Sara and her mother.
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Many Iranian-American families share stories similar to mine. My family fled Iran after the Revolution, because my grandfather was labeled an enemy of the regime. After he was arrested and died while in custody, my mother knew we were no longer safe there and we immediately began planning our escape. Our goal was to immigrate to the United States because my uncle had come here to finish school and was living in Los Angeles at the time. Since we were unable to travel to the U.S. directly, my mom and I made our way to Istanbul, Turkey. It was not where we wanted to be, but it was the only place we were able to reach safely. We lived in a house with other refugees who had also recently fled Iran. Everyone in this house was between the ages of 18-25, except for me. I was just 3 years old. When I was older, I asked my mom to describe how the situation felt for her at the time. She said, “Do you want to know what life as a refugee is like? It is hopeless.” Every day, each refugee would do the same thing – wake up, check on their immigration status, and figure out how to make it another day.
Even from Istanbul, getting to the U.S. proved challenging, so my mom decided to establish residency in Canada first. It took nine months just to get approval to travel to Canada. To say it was a difficult nine months is an understatement. We were in a place we did not want to be, couldn’t plan for any future because we did not know where we would end up, and struggled to make it each day. It took a lot of persistence, hard work, and tears. And just when we thought we were close to getting approved, the immigration officer at the Canadian embassy told my mom that we would not be accepted after all. When she learned they were going to delay our application, she tearfully begged the immigration officer to allow us entry into Canada. She offered him everything we had (essentially, a couple pieces of jewelry), if he would just let me go, alone, to meet family in Montreal. She pleaded with him because she knew that if we were to remain in Istanbul, we may not survive. Hearing a mother beg for the life of her child moved him enough to turn to her and say, “Welcome to Canada.” Looking back, this stranger probably saved our lives by putting aside the bureaucracy and embracing his humanity.
Feri, at 26, with Sara, 3, living as refugees in Turkey.
Once we reached Canada, my mom and I established residency and then embarked on the next leg of our journey – continuing to the U.S. to be with the rest of our family. We were granted a visa to enter the U.S. and we finally arrived on November 11, 1985. As soon as we got to California, my mom hired an immigration attorney and filed for political asylum. You might think that from here on it should have been smooth sailing, but the truth is it took several years for our case to be processed. We finally became U.S. citizens in September of 1996, almost eleven years after we first stepped foot in this country. What made all of this possible was my mom’s will to persevere and the hope that we would be in a safe place, starting a new life. From the moment we came to the U.S., we worked hard and appreciated every opportunity that was presented to us.
Feri and Sara today.
Fast forward almost twenty years to January 27, 2017, when our newly inaugurated President had just issued an Executive Order banning entry to people from seven Muslim majority countries. I was glued to my laptop and television absorbing the news of innocent people who had their lives turned upside down by an ill-conceived and clumsily implemented policy– detained at airports, forced to turn back to wherever they came from, or denied their flights into the U.S in the first place. I was appalled to learn that these accounts included people with visas and green cards. The reason these stories resonated so much was because they were similar to my own story of immigrating to the U.S. as a political refugee. I saw the hopelessness in their faces and tears. I saw how their story was similar to mine. The difference is – we had the chance. We had the opportunity for a new life and a shot at the American Dream and in return have been hardworking, grateful, and loyal citizens. But now, this Executive Order is not just disrupting the lives of travelers and refugees, it is demoralizing for the naturalized citizens who came to this country for a better future and are doing their best to live the American dream. The United States is the only home that we have. We are proud of and fiercely loyal to this country, but these actions make us feel as if we are less than American.
When I was younger, I was convinced I was going to be a politician. I went to law school with the goal of working in government, however, after a few years of service at the local level, I became disillusioned and decided to change my career path.Over time, I became more of a passive participant and observer of politics. That changed when the Executive Order was issued. Even before this point, something was stirring inside me as I watched the election play out, but this was the wake-up call. I am no longer going to be a bystander watching from the sidelines. I feel the need to share my story to humanize the experience of refugees and immigrants seeking a better life in this great country. At some point you have to stop and think about what is happening in the simplest of terms. This is not about being a Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It is not about being an immigrant or a native-born American. It is about being human. It is about showing compassion. It is about giving refugees hope that they too will live in safe place and live a normal, happy life.
My brother Andres and Sara on their wedding day.
My grandfather once told my mother: “Remember, the world was not created with borders. Man created these borders. We are all human after all.”
Thank you to Sara and Feri for sharing their story.