1425 Market Blvd, Suite 530-98
Roswell, Ga 30076
1425 Market Blvd, Suite 530-98
Roswell, Ga 30076
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“ You can’t just tell the stories of those who chose to leave their countries to settle down elsewhere for a better life. Many of us didn’t have a choice.” She claimed while putting the cube sugar in her mouth and taking a sip of her cup of dark amber tea in the clear cup. Just as she always took her tea.“ I didn’t choose where, I didn’t choose how and I didn’t choose who to go with.”
“ What do you mean? You sure chose to leave?” I questioned. Looking around at the beauty she surrounded herself with, I mentioned, “ You moved to create all this beauty, didn’t you?”
She lived in California. An Iranian Immigrant. A part of the wave who fled the country after revolution, I assumed. At this point in her life she had spent more years in US than in Iran. That’s probably why I was a bit surprised when I visited her. Once you closed the front door of the house behind you, you were transferred to a different world. A world of Persian history and culture, a world of traditional arts and crafts. I could even smell the scent of a Persian home; antique silk rugs, Heavy wooden furniture, thick wall decorations and drapery ,and of course, freshly home cooked meal. I was surrounded by distraction. A good kind. Every little corner had a story, a memory attached to it. One would wonder how much elaborate effort was put into creating this warm and unique space that spoke a million words about it’s inhabitants. A space that took you beyond time and physical distance.
“ Not really. I didn’t have a choice. It was a destiny dictated to me. I was too young and too naive to choose.” She continued, noticing my distracted presence, she chuckled, “ I know! Too many things from Iran. See, I had to live my lost childhood one way or another!”
“ Why lost? Tell me!” I struggled hard to focus on our story.
“ I was just ten years old when the revolution happened. I didn’t understand much at that time. Things were changing. I could feel that adults are stressed but didn’t know the depth of it. My father used to be a National Guard pilot, a very prestigious profession. We travelled a lot. The world was our playground but home was home. Home was Iran. It was always the most satisfying pleasure to come back to that familiar, warm place. My parents loved it as much as I did. They had created a heaven for us. Me and my younger brother. We had a good life. Upper middle class but quite open minded and worldly.
After revolution, my father retired himself at a very young age. He just couldn’t handle the stress of the totally different environment that was governing the workplace then. He was never big in religion even though he was a very principled man. He was asked several times to join the army, but war had just started. There was no coming back home if he chose to fly again. He decided to stay put and wither, gently, slowly. He was old, way before he was due for old age.”
“ What about your mom? Did she stay home too?” I interrupted her. Curiosity is my last name and can be my enemy at times. Makes me forget I need to listen.
“ She was a school principal. After my father quit work she worked for a couple of years but decided to retire and stay with him. They were lovers and best friends all their lives. That’s how I knew marriage was supposed to be.”
“ That’s truly nice to hear. It’s a rare environment t be brought up in these days.”
“ I guess.” She responded thoughtfully,“My brother was 2 years younger than me. The pressure was on my parents to send him out of the country or he would soon need to join the army and take part in the war. But he was too young to be sent away alone. They started researching for different ways. And that’s how they found my husband.”
It was time to use another cup of tea as an excuse and spend a few minutes peeking into the shelf of antiques as I could tell she was getting a bit uncomfortable and emotional.
I said,“Can I bring us the next cup of tea? I promise to pour it just like you want it to be.” I sensed her relief.
“ Sure, that would be sweet. Thank you.” She sighed as I made my way to the kitchen counter where hot water was gently simmering in the Samovar with the elegant teapot on top of it. It was such a joy to even pour tea from this Samovar. Bringing back so many memories for me, it made it even harder to focus. It was almost like I was being forced into my own story as well.
“ I hope the tea is up to your standard.” I said charmingly as I walked back to the living room. Trying to lighten up the conversation.
“ It’s great. Thank you. Nothing connects me to the moment more than this cup of tea!” She smiled.
“ I agree. It’s amazing how it has become such an indivisible part of our culture and our togetherness.” I added.
“Yes. Not forgotten yet. Unlike many other parts of our history.”
As a tradition, you wouldn’t put sugar in your tea. You would put a cube sugar in the corner of your mouth and gently sweeten your tea as it flows from your cup to your mouth. Quite an acquired skill.
She re-engaged in the conversation calmly,“ I was telling you about my husband! My brother and how my life changed because of the males in my family.”
“ As my parents started researching ways to send my brother away, one of the relatives suggested introducing us to this gentleman who lived in US and was looking for an Iranian wife. He could not come to Iran for a visit due to political restrictions. We were told that he is educated and successful and is particular about finding a wife from a good Persian family. The thought was that if I married him and moved to US, I could take care of my brother as well. He could move in with us and go to school. That was part of the deal.”
“ The deal?!”
“ Yes. I was underage. I could hardly push 15. A very immature and naive one. You know what I mean. Times were different. We were not raised being exposed to sex like kids these days. A 15 year old then, in Iran was totally uneducated about marital life. I was still a kid, playing with dolls and toys. I had no idea what was expected from you as a married woman, as a wife.”
I could easily understand what she meant. We were almost same age and raised in the same culture. It was easy for me to relate to her story looking at it from that stand point. But is was still hard to imagine making such a decision for one’s child now that I was a mother. Would I do this to my son?
“ So how did you meet if he couldn’t come to Iran?” I asked.
“ We met him in Greece. My father and I travelled for a week. We spent a few days with him and prepared the documents. He was kind. Not much younger than my father. But he tried to be gentle and understanding. He offered his full support for my brother as well and promised my dad that he will take care of us with all his life. That was the extent of my encounter with my husband before getting married to him.
In many ways I felt lucky. He was educated and well-off. And he was a truly respectable and kind man. I always thought, it could have been worse! Later in life I heard a lot of horror stories about Mail-Order brides.
My parents took care of the details in a determined sorrowful deligance. They didn’t want to let us go. They had never imagined tearing our life, our home apart like that. But what choice did they have? Life in war is uncertain. Life in war is merciless. One does what one can to save loved ones.
Adults decided on having a small ceremony in Turkey, from where I could leave directly and meet my future. There was no fluff, no lavish party, no fancy dress. A practical and respectful gathering, heavy with doubt, depleted of joy, loaded with mutual understanding.
My parents had packed me as much memory as they could pack in three suitcases. Not much clothes but a couple of silk rugs, some antiques and Persian crafts. I guess it was their way of trying to keep me connected to them.
Three months after I moved my brother flew to US and joined us. His room and his school was already well arranged. My husband made every effort for us to be comfortable and feel supported. He is a good man.”
“ I see you are still married.”
“ Oh, yes. I learned to love him. In fact, I learned what true love is through him. He raised me, he cherished me, he provided for me, he loved me with all his heart and never let me down. I never felt the age difference to be an issue.
So, in a way our marriage was an arranged marriage. I know how much its looked down on in many cultures but I really don’t want it any other way. Maybe I got lucky! We got lucky! Because I hear a lot of couples that fall apart as soon as they settle in a new environment or migrate. As for me, I had a choice to follow the common belief, yearn, desire, fall into homesickness and self pity or to make the best of what life had offered me: a good husband, safety, security and comfort. I chose the latter. I was determined not to let my family down and it all worked out.”
“ What about your parents? Could they visit?”
“ Yes, they started visiting us once or twice a year after a few years and every time they would bring us any piece of Iran they could put in suitcases. Gradually, I guess they transferred my childhood home here, you see!” She opened her arms, pointing at everything around her joyfully. “I love it. It gives me joy and a sense of peace to know that I was able to keep my brother safe, make my parents happy and have a loving marriage.”
“ You are a brave and wise soul.”
“ Maybe. At the end of the day, all life, is a result of the choices you make, taking responsibility for them and for what you give priority to. True happiness comes from being aware of those choices and priorities and accept them with contentment.”
Easy to say…. Hard to do….
“ We have applied for Australia. Trying to move there.” He said rather thoughtfully.
“ Move? Again? Immigrate again? With 5 dependents? Are you sure?”, I replied with a tone that couldn’t hide my concern.
I ran into him at one of our favorite latin dance spots. A place I knew he would visit on Fridays, him and his beautiful Columbian wife of 22 years junior. I had known them for almost four years now. Their family was almost doubled in size since then.
Miguel was a hispanic immigrant. He had run the border in his twenties. A smart, hardworking and very capable young man. Probably born in a wrong place, at a wrong time. His father had given him the gift of depending on his hands for making a living. He could fix anything when it came to cars and engines. What a fortunate coincidence! He had to become independent and support his family by the time he was fourteen. His father was killed way before he was able to enjoy the fruits of his life.
“ But, why do you want to take all the trouble again? With 4 kids?”, I asked. Trying to change his mind while secretly wishing I was as bold as he is.
He replied, with a deep fatigued voice, “ We are still illegal, Afsaneh. We are living our lives on egg shells. I am tired. 18 years. I can’t do it any more. I want to walk in the streets freely and without fear. I want to take my kids to a picnic and cook for them without the anxiety of being questioned. I want to be able to attend school events and be a part of my community. Not just the tight community of illegal immigrants. But a community that can support us in achieving our dreams. A community where my kids can have as much opportunity for success as others.
You know I work very hard. But, you know what happens? Every mechanic shop I work for under pays me and eventually doesn’t pay because they know I can't speak up. I work in the shop all day and then teach boxing in the evenings just to provide for my family. But it feels life I am just chasing my tail. I am not getting anywhere. I can’t even establish a home for my family. We are running from one apartment to another. I can’t do it anymore.
When it was just me, it was ok. But now, with Sofia and four kids… I want to have a place I can call home.
This land was not the land of dreams for me after all. And I don’t want my children to carry this feeling in their hearts. I want them to feel that they belong. It has been tough. Really tough.”
“ I can’t even imagine, Miguel. I can’t even fathom. It breaks my heart and at the same time fills it with admiration. It’s hard to say anything! I wish you the best. I know it will not be this way for ever.” I was just babbling. Not able to find words.
I see my child in his kids’ eyes. What would I have done for my kid in a situation like this? What if I was born into poverty and hardship? What if I had to work for cash for the fear of losing everything I have built? I feel that our lives are way more intertwined than we think.
Five years ago when they met on the dance floor, Sofia was visiting United States with her two kids on a tourist visa. She had come to visit her sister and to get away from the mess of the marriage she had left behind. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She had a feeling she didn’t want to go back. They moved in together, living under the same illegal roof and raising her kids. Soon, they grew their family. Raising four children with abundant love and ample insecurity. What a dichotomy!
I ponder, where would life take them. How is history repeated in their story? People moving across the globe, facing unthinkable hardship, to finally come to a place they can belong to. Will they ever?
Belonging; this inconvenient and cruel human desire.
As the eighth child born to a rather well off traditional family in Tehran during the hey days of Pahlavi Dynasty, I truly got to enjoy the fruits of my father’s entrepreneurship. Born to a muslim family and attending a Catholic school equipped me from early age with the privilege of “ curiosity”. Questioning everything was my safe zone. Never believing things just the way they appear enabled me to step out of the cultural and familial norms very early in life. Did the habit damage my trust? I would say so. What shattered my trust early in life though, and made impermanence the stage from which I acted my life story was revolution; both the one in my family and the one in the country.
Most often I ask myself how my childhood determined the course of my life. How did the turn of events made me choose to uproot myself? How would life be different today if the revolution hadn't completely turned my country upside down? You see, before revolution, I studied in an all English school. In fact I learned how to read and write English before I learned my mother tongue, Farsi. Love of reading took me to life stories not many kids my age even imagined. By the time I was ten I had not only read many classical novels, I had also travelled to more than 15 countries in three continents. Poetry was my safe heaven. What was an obligation to other kids, like memorizing and reciting Hafiz, Rumi, Khayyam and Sohrab, came naturally to me. I truly believe that novels, poetry and traveling set a very different foundation for my life not just by opening my horizons but also by showing me that there are many ways of seeing life and responding to it not just the way of my family or the social circle surrounding me. This was an invaluable lesson in resilience.
Anyhow, while I was growing up, before 1978, life felt like being delivered on a magic carpet from joy to laughter, from USA to Europe, from villas in the mountains to private pool parties. Where would I be in life if everything went on the same way? Well, it didn’t! In 1978 my whole world came tumbling down. The revolution in Iran followed by a forced war completely turned the pages of my life. It was truly like waking up to a nightmare. In a blink of an eye everything was lost. Everything. The holiday homes in north of Iran, the chauffeur, servants and the cook, private international school, books, music, TV, passports; yes, passports were gone. So was traveling. Traveling was now running away from the city during missile attacks. TV was nothing but mourning ceremonies for Shohada ( martyrs) or images of underage soldiers swimming in their own blood. Books were only Arabic prayer collections that you would recite and cry to beg God for his mercy. Music was only recitations of Quran or melancholy songs of separation from Haq ( God Nature) by male singers. Women were not allowed to sing any more. Nor were they allowed to dress the way they wanted. A black cover suddenly became their national outdoor garment. Universities and colleges shut down. Food became scarce and in some cases portioned. It was hard not to notice people standing in lines for bread and not to hear the sirens that made up the background noise of our lives. Changes were too drastic to be neglected. The choice was there, to fall apart or to be resilient.
Amidst all that social change, my family life was shaken as much as the country. My father, suddenly, decided to leave a 40 year marriage. He abruptly decided to move on and start a new life. While my outside world was loud and noisy by missiles, explosions and sirens, home was all of a sudden very quiet, very different. When I look back, 40 something years later, I still don't know how the ten year old me handled this chaos and survived it. I must have been either out of my body or really tough! I believe the tension and suspense of those days sparked in me the wish to fly away. Every breath, perhaps quite unconsciously, I was working on strengthening the wings that would take me beyond the borders. A dream was born. Continuously fed by the insecurity, suspense, lack of freedom and injustice. Awaiting maturity.
Those years of separation from all that was familiar to me, I submerged myself in reading. I would read any piece of English writing I could lay my hands on. Whether it was an obituary in an old newspaper wrapped around the meat from the butcher’s shop or a dusty paperback retrieved from the junk pile in a second hand bookstore. I started writing my journals in English and play in English. Soon I was dreaming in English in a household where hardly anyone spoke the language.
By the time I was eighteen colleges and Universities reopened after 7 years and so did Iran Language Institute. I had to fight my way for registering myself for English classes. Before I knew it my deep British accent was lost. And before I knew it, along with my B.Sc in Chemistry I was graduated from ILI with such flying colors that I was invited to teach there. A profession I never thought I was so cut out for.
Ten years went by, loving my job, loving the kids. Doing all I can to not only teach English but raise awareness. I drowned myself in work. It was numbing. It kept me going. Working and becoming the first independent woman in my family was just the beginning of living my life as a trailblazer.
By 2000 the war in Iran was over leaving behind a million dead bodies in Iran alone. A rather liberal president, Khatami, had brought many improvements to the society. Books were published in abundance. Music and theatre were flourishing. In fact I attended the first concert where a female sang on the stage after almost 20 years. Art was somehow celebrated again however conservatively. But I had grown way faster than my revolution & war stricken country. I despised limits and rules. Felt suffocated by religious laws. It was as if anything joyful, anything enlivening and fun, anything that a healthy youthful soul demanded was banned. Sometimes it felt like breathing was banned. And that’s why, despite my great job and the opportunities ahead of me when my cousin offered me petition to bring me to US there was not a trace of doubt in my response. “ Sure, I’d love to! Only if you'd have a good job lined out for me".
So, Valentine’s Day 2001, my Iranian passport was proudly stamped with an H1B visa to United States. The occasion was celebrated in McDonald’s in Ankara with the few Iranians who had travelled to Turkey, like myself, for appointments at the American Embassy. I will never forget, I called my mom from a phone booth, “ I got it,”. “what?!” She asked with a tremble in her voice that only a pained heart could hear. “ My American visa.” I mumbled. A pause as lingering as eternity. We both knew what this meant. I had signed in to the separation chapter of my life. The enormous hollow that had just caved in our hearts would never get any smaller. The number of times we could hug each other all of a sudden seemed invaluable. She murmured,” The bird flew off the cage,” and we both held that sacred space in silent tears.
The few months that followed seem blurry. Arranging for this big journey of my life seemed tougher than I had anticipated. Each inhale was a sorrowful, melancholy sense of gratitude for an exhale that facilitated cutting ties one by one; family, culture, history, memories. There was a voraciousness in the painful way of seeing everything. Seeing, taking in whole heartedly and letting go simultaneously. Looking at everything; faces of loved ones, the house I grew up in, the streets that held memories of joy and fear, the mountain range in north of Tehran that watched me grow up and spread it’s trails to my first footsteps of resilience and independence. Looking at everything and thinking,”When would be the next time I would see them?”. Days were long chains of goodbyes. I knew, life would never be same. I knew, I was risking it all. How often is it that we know and how often do we think we know?
April of 2001, after a 26 hour journey of suspense, I prodded into my ambiguous future with 3 suitcases and $3600 in my pocket, arriving at Hartsfield Jackson Airport. The details of getting ID and starting a job and establishing myself in a male dominant industry as a naive 32 year old is a book on its own. All in all, there was a lot to learn. From work itself to work ethics, from finding directions to a meeting to ordering food from a menu where everything seemed gibberish, from making friends to finding a doctor or a hairdresser, from shopping to putting gas in the car. One of my funniest memories that still makes me laugh at myself is from my first gas station experience. I did the first few things right: open the lid, put the credit card in and follow instructions. How hard can it be? Well, if in your country gas stations do not sell diesel along side regular, unleaded & super you are allowed a little confusion. I picked the nozzle and as hard as I tried, it would not fit in the hole! “Is something wrong with my car? Do I have to go to a special gas station?” Being too scared and intimidated, the latter seemed to be the best solution. I got back in the car and drove to another gas station. Gratefully the nozzle was the right size this time! It took me a very long time till I realized what was going on. How often do we over look the challenges of an unfamiliar realm? How often do we practice patience and compassion for someone dealing with one? How often do we break the boundaries and put ourselves into one of those trials?
The first few years were truly challenging. I missed my mom more than anything in the world but I couldn't leave the US since my visa was one entry. Besides, a fear shadowed my yearnings more and more every day and escalated with the 9-11 catastrophe. “What if I go and I can’t come back?” I had endless nightmares that paralyzed me from taking any action.
Besides my mother, I missed everyone. I missed the scent of Spring. I missed the togetherness. I missed the daily family drama. I missed having a cup of tea with a friend, someone I had a history with. I missed looking around and seeing familiar faces, familiar spaces, familiar sounds. I missed waking up to the sound of my mother making breakfast. I missed tilting my head backwards so that she could brush and braid my hair. I missed waking up about 3 am to the sound of Shajarian reciting Rabanna before the daily fast started in Ramazan. I truly missed hiking up the mountain range in north of Tehran early hours in the morning and witnessing sunrise at the peak in silence.
But there were certainly things I didn't miss that truly kept me going stronger every time I wanted to doubt my choice. I didn't miss covering up. It was hard to miss insecurity, injustice and lack of freedom. It was hard to miss the butterflies of fear fluttering in my stomach with the sight of the religious police. It was hard to miss the night spent in a local jail with the thought of suicide for picnicking with a couple of male friends. No way I would miss being stopped at the entrance of every building to have my nails checked for polish or my attire for not being“ the right color”. There are certainly things I have not and never will miss. I will never miss being a woman in Iran. But then again, how was being a woman in corporate America in construction industry treating me? Different? Yes. Better?!
After all, despite what I had imagined, life did not turn out to be all rainbows and butterflies after I left Iran. Proving myself at work was truly challenging. Corporate world and culture hit me hard on the face with no mercy. Kindness was not easily found. Grace seemed to be just a word you heard in church, wrapped in with your charity donation and dropped off on your way out. I thought I would come to a world where passion is alive, where joy is celebrated, where one’s human essence is respected. I had imagined a life exposed only on marketing materials. I learned the hard way, after many times of falling and getting back up, that people are people. There are kind, loving, graceful and selfless people with different colors and religions in this longitude & latitude as there are elsewhere. And there are, at the same token, people who lie, cheat, have addictions or are drowned in greed or self centered-ness just like anywhere else. There are all kinds of people everywhere.
Running away all of sudden lost its glory as a solution. The toughest challenge of immigration revealed itself: Stop running away and start dealing with yourself! What I learned reinforced my belief that life is what you make of it. I met immigrants who never stepped out of their circle of friends from their country of origin, immigrants who didn't indulge in any of the opportunities their new home offered and yet, they left their country for“ a better life ”. What constitutes a“ better life”? What do we really strive, seek and perhaps find( or not) that makes up for all the hardship of uprooting and disconnecting? What do we leave behind and what do we take with us?
When you choose to become an alien, far away from your homeland, these questions, and many more, lay a background for your everyday life. At least they did for me. Every breath became loaded with doubt, with a search for belonging, with a yearning for arriving. When I wanted to visit Iran after 13 years, I would say, “ I’m going home.” Two weeks later in Iran, I couldn't pack fast enough to “ come back home”. Fifteen years later the question still remains unanswered: “ Where IS home?”
“No, you can’t”. They insisted. “You can’t study Civil Engineering. What do you want to do with a Civil Engineering degree? You are a girl!”
Their objection, however bitter in my mind, was grounded in facts. What did I or could I do with a Civil Engineering degree in India? A female engineer was NOT welcome on a job site, as I got to experience it later.
“Ok, I’ll try Computer Science for a year. And we can decide then.” After all, girls who passed the All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE) were supposed to study Computer Science but perhaps “supposed to” wasn't persuasive enough for me. I did try Computer Science for a year only to prove to my parents it’s not my passion. The virtual world of codes was neither comprehendible nor attractive. I struggled through the first year until they finally agreed that I can move to Civil Engineering. The 6-hour distance between home and college was considered “far away” even though I came home every other weekend. Being the only girl in my class and the only girl in my internship program didn't make it any easier. From that first year of undergrad I knew my dreams and my ambitions had to be fulfilled beyond the borders. There was no future for me as a female engineer in India.
“No, you can’t!”, They objected, “You can’t go to US! What are you talking about? All by yourself? Who wants to pay for it? How are you going to support yourself?”
The arguments started when I discovered the plaque featuring my predecessors in the Engineering department. They had all continued their Masters in the University of Florida, USA. Apparently there was a student exchange program that offered students from my graduate college, a chance to explore the foreign education. The Dean encouraged me, “You are doing wonderful. You deserve it more than anyone. You should apply.”
I come from a family of medical doctors. All, literary all of my paternal and maternal uncles and aunts, including my parents and my younger sister now, went to Med School. Even though that was not the life my parents wanted for me, they still couldn't accept their daughter to be the trailblazer she was determined to be. The first girl in the whole family to study Civil Engineering, the first one to leave home for college, the first one to leave the country for education, the first one to live on her own. The concept_ living on your own_ is hard to grasp when generation after generation, you all live together, eat together, grow up and grow old together. Sometimes under the same roof. In a culture where cousins are like your siblings, where the whole family comes together at least once a month, moving away is petrifying. In a country where parents stand by and take care of their children for as long as kids need them, just like the kids will be taking care of them when they get old, moving creates an ambiguous hollow. Breaking patterns is not easy. There’s always a price to be paid. But the reward is worth it. A least one would hope. It took a lot of promising and begging besides planning and organizing to make this big move of my life happen.
Fall of 2013, along with a group of students I went through the paperwork to get may F1 visa. A rather painless and exciting process. We were all approved and planned our big trip together. All of us being on very tight budgets turned our suitcases into a miniature home supply department. Anything from spices to clothes, from utensils to blankets was packed tightly in three suitcases that we were eligible to carry. Anything that could save us a few dollars. The whole group stood by each other. Strangers yesterday, united by the power of aloneness. Our survival instinct bonded us with tight invisible ropes, finding ourselves without anyone to turn to. After arriving in US, we all rented apartments in the same building. Boys, our guardians by choice, on the upper levels and girls sticking together on the lower levels. None of us drove. No one had a car. It was safer to walk together. At least it felt that way. Perhaps more so after I got mugged trying to be brave and walking home by myself. How would my parents feel had they known that someone pulled a knife on me outside a store in a dark parking lot? They never found out; another little secret paving my path to independence.
My promise to my family was to study a semester and perhaps go back to India. A fake promise, as it was. The Masters’ program, the sky being the limit, the independence, the very nature of I CAN, the dream I was living; how could I give it all up? It was like eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge. Once you take the bite, you are forever under the spell. You can try, pressure can make you deny, but you can never undo “knowing”. There was no question for my parents that I am not going back to India especially when my father came to US and attended my graduation.
After finishing my Masters’, I had one year to work under OPT (Optional Practical Training). I had one year to find a job with someone who would be willing to apply for H1B visa for me so that I can stay in my land of dreams. Maybe after all it is true that the Universe provides the cushion when you dare to jump. It did for me.
I do question myself at times; should there be a boundary, a restrain to one’s dreams? How far should one’s heart and mind be allowed to wander? To what extend are we obligated to live our parents’ dreams? When is the thin line between obeying and autonomy trespassed? How would I keep my culture and my value alive for my children?
I don’t have the answers but I know, I dared to dream and neither regret nor fear have been a part of my curriculum. I can’t undo knowing. I can’t even pretend.
Under usual circumstances those early summer days in the suburbs of Tehran would have been not only pleasant but quite delicious. Acres and acres of orchards, with rows of apple, peach, apricot, cherry, pear and plum trees, connected by gravel roads and streams of water pumped from the wells. Bountiful orchards that were connected like notes composing the most magnificent concerto, like organs shaping a whole human being, like individuals coming together in a tribe. The mesmerizing cheer of the flowing water declared life and growth among the fruit trees like blood running in the veins of a meditating guru. Celebrating an existence, however quiet and a growth, however gentle.
Dwindling population, abundance of nature and minimal pollution, the ingredients for most cherished getaways, made these suburbs lively in some seasons and peacefully quiet in most. During Spring, the area hosted picnics and family outings filled with games and good food. In Summer though, the tree branches opened their arms to climbing children who sought the glory of reaching the highest fruit. Walking on the footsteps of Eve, they would fall for the seduction of the forbidden fruit, the most unattainable pleasure. Nature was an invitation to them for stepping into the land of rules-that-had-to-be-broken. Young and old would nourish their bodies and their souls with the heavenly gift of nature.
Heaven was still on Earth those days. Children were safe running around without supervision. Water from the wells was drinkable and fruits on the trees didn't have to be rinsed thoroughly from the pesticides before the first bite. Life tasted fresh, just like the rush of the juice filling one’s mouth after each bite of that peach; just picked from the tree. Looking at the sky was full of hope. The afternoon fiesta was still a natural part of the day. Being alive was easy. Destruction was not anticipated in every breath.
Those particular years though, things were different. Circumstances were not usual. Those were years pregnant with immense change, deep fear and torturous anxiety. Years that signaled the end of an era. Years of war. The war between Iran and Iraq. Times of red sirens filling the air instead of shouts of laughter. When pastures sinfully and unwillingly camouflaged landmines and skies became the dirty canvas of flying missiles. Nothing about war was beautiful.
Often times, during the war, the attacks were just on the borders. Most of the heat the fight was happening in Northwest of Iran. But every other while Tehran, the Capital, would become a target too. And when Tehran was under attack of Russian and American long distance missiles, tension would rise up to the roof. One of those waves of attacks was during the Summer of 1982. Almost like the finale of a life-threatening firework, this one however did not announce a celebration.That Summer the attacks were so intense anyone who had the opportunity to leave Tehran, fled for the suburbs or safe cities. We were some of those fortunate ones, I guess.We left everything behind, hoping that they would still be there when and if we got back. It was during that summer that almost 18 of us including my mom, my siblings, nieces, nephews and in-laws, cramped in a bedroom-less hut with no running water in Shahriar suburbs, fleeing Tehran for our lives. An opportunity to experience those joyful orchards in a very different mode. Survival mode.
True. We were grateful we had a safer place. We had a choice, unlike many. Many people whose names filled the pages of unwritten obituary for over one million Iranians killed during the war.
The little structure on our property that we stayed at was not designed for overnight stay. It was just a room with a kitchenette built for an afternoon fiesta during hot summer day-visits to the orchards. It was certainly not designed to house almost 20 people for over a month. But it beat the alternative; the roar of missile explosions after the ear piercing red sirens. And then the torture of the silence after the attack that was shattered into pieces by helpless screams of ambulances and firetrucks. The alternative was taking the chance of our lives. Any hardship seemed easier.
Of course, food was scarce everywhere. It was even harder to find groceries in the suburbs since they were now over populated. We had to stand in lines for bread, dairy and meat. Basically for anything we couldn't harvest from the Earth. The air was so heavy with fear it was hard to breath even amongst the trees. Sadness was the mask covering all faces. Even children could feel the tension. Suddenly, during those years, picking fruit from the trees lost its joy and became a chore. Being together was no longer fun but an obligation. Tracing missiles in the sky became the new hobby. Guessing which areas have been destroyed in Tehran was our sad game of Clue. Wondering if our home, our friends and family were safe after each attack. Afternoon fiesta was filled with newscasts about war. Everyone would just sit around watching News on TV or listening to the radio if they were not busy providing necessaties. It sure was a different kind of life in the suburbs.
Women, all of us, had to wear hijab at all times. Since at any given time there were men around. Wether it was one of my brother-in-laws or a gardener, it was forbidden to uncover any part of our bodies , except face and hands. Most nights we even slept with the cover on our heads.
For the 13 year old me, this circus of doom was unbearable. I was not born to give in or give up. I was not wired to accept defeat or misery. I had come to this life to live with joy and spread joy. Even at that young age, I knew poisoning my mind and soul with news was not going to do me any good. Don't ask me how. I just knew. So, I was determined, truly focused on how to protect myself from trauma and make the best out of those days. I was determined to find ways to keep my sanity and health. Long walks in the orchards and getting lost in the web of fruit trees became a part of my everyday routine. Dreaming became my best friend. Imagining life without fear-secure and safe-was the best hideaway. Reading whatever novel I could find, saved many hours. And then, there was the Sun! The sun that melted my anxiety and fired up my resilient being. “Let’s make the best of this”. She mumbled in my ear.
Just like that a story was born. The story of this non-conforming 13 year old muslim girl during war who would climb up a ladder to the hot asphalt covered flat roof of the hut under missile attacks to sunbathe in her bikini away from the maddening crowd. Dreaming of somewhere, far far away, on a beach with a cold drink in her hand. She not only survived the missile attacks but with her resilience and determination got the best sun tan ever in the Summer of 1982 in the suburbs of Tehran in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the war. She set a very high bar for the power of choice, for herself, for everyone who knew her then and everyone who came to know her for the rest of her life. She devoured the forbidden fruit of Choice, Resilience, Awareness and Mindfulness with no hesitation. The bite that marked the beginning to a lifelong journey of never giving up, never giving in and never stopping to dream.
We all experience missiles in our lives one way or another. They may not be long range and explosive. They may appear just as a two by four wake up call. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. And a matter of, how we choose to respond to life when it sends us missiles.
After all, what was your wake up call? What did you do with it?
When you are born to a Serbian mother and a Croatian father and a big family scattered in Southeastern Europe, borders lose their glory and home is a word stretched far and wide, connecting several countries, cultures and languages. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I grew up speaking Serbian, Croatian, Russian, Bosnian and English. Not to forget 6 years of Latin education at school.
My parents were both Chemists and after meeting in college chose to reside in Serbia. Living in a high-rise on the Danube jeweled my childhood with exotic memories until the day it became the beacon of terror. The day we witnessed war planes from our 9th floor balcony flying over our extended home, the neighboring countries. The view that left a scar in our hearts and caused my mom a sudden aneurism. The view we didn’t know we would have to get used to. Life took a sharp turn since that day. The suspense, the anxiety of not knowing who’s safe and who’s not, became a lingering state for many years that followed.
Considering the history of Serbia and how it has always been the strategic path for invaders of all religions, doctrines and civilizations, my parents made education the main focus for me and my brother. This invaluable gift assured our chances for building a career wherever life was about to take us. Change was eminent. It seemed to be filling the air we were breathing day after day. Future seemed unsafe. Therefore, my brother left Serbia right before the war broke. The following years marked some of the most stressed times in the eventful history of Serbia. It was not a matter of whether there were bombs and missiles aiming at us or not. Not a matter of if civilians were being arrested and Slaughtered or not. It was a matter of who was aiming them and who had to seek shelter. From Russian missiles piercing through the air, to civil wars and ethnic cleansing tearing up the streets, from seeking shelter to avoid NATO( North Atlantic Treaty Organization) bombings to marching for freedom, from food shortage to inflation, from running to the bunkers in the middle of the night to endless hours of power outages; I lived it all. Yes, these were the events that shaped my memories for what was supposed to be the best years of my life; my youth.
Life at home had its own challenges too. After the attack of aneurism, my mother worked hard, despite the conditions, to regain her health. She conquered the paralysis that had taken over half of her body to some degree but she was still not fully mobile. So running down the stairs to the shelters was not manageable. My father would pick her up with each siren and make it to the shelter out of breath. He managed, until the task became too dangerous and he decided to send us away to my uncle’s farm in the countryside for safety. Was this an introduction to the separation chapter of my life? Was I supposed to grow more and more resilient to prepare for the rest of the journey? Or was it a discomfort to complain about and victimize myself forever? The choice was mine.
If nothing, living through war, sanctions and shortages, makes you creative. Not just in an artistic way but in a utilitarian application. It sure made a wizard out of my father. I remember how he had to use an old Johnny Walker bottle to make a light for us since we couldn't find light bulbs. Or how he used the old transistor car radio to power up the bathroom light. So when you used the bathroom the radio would play. The first few days it startled me but soon it became a natural part of the process. Something to be missed later on.
Hard times not only make you creative but they also teach you flexibility. Struggle for survival beats life challenges. And if nothing, the images of war shape you for the rest of your life. I still carry, in my heart, the site of the bombed hospital and the nurses carrying babies out of the rubble to a safe place. I don't need to close my eyes to see the destroyed bridges on the Danube. I can still hear the sounds of rebellion in the streets of Serbia. I remember how I suddenly had to use “a passport” to visit relatives in Croatia. The confusion of the guards checking out this young girl with a Serbian first name and a Croatian last name was priceless.
When my mother passed away in 2001 my father shared his determination with me about sending me to United States to live with my brother. This was at the peak of the rebellious demonstrations in Serbia against dictatorship. The move was sudden and unplanned and I can’t really say I was excited or in favor of it. I didn't know what to expect. Uncertainty didn't leave any room for excitement. A student visa and a ticket…farewell my homeland, greetings adventure and hard work.
Since I entered US with a Student visa I had to start school right away. Before 5 days into my move I was registered and was being pulled between SAT, TOEFL and all kinds of tests. I was also obligated to keep my average over 3.8 and had to be a full time student and was not allowed to work. No drivers license in Georgia meant riding my bike next to 18 wheelers in Highway 75 to get to Kennesaw State, the school that embraced differences and cultures more than anywhere I had seen. After 2-3 weeks of not speaking to anyone, and I really mean “ anyone”, I made my first friend in art class. Our secret bond was established by discovering the art teacher’s mistake describing Kronos( Cronus), the God of time. After all we came from the land of Gods. A strike of a Russian comment between us and we were friends for life.
As tough as life was during those years and as scarce as money was, I managed through. Being a full time student, volunteering 20 hours a week, living on $300 a month would make it hard to even afford food. You could find me in any lecture or talk where food was provided. Even if they were just crackers or fortune cookies, they would still beat hunger.
Struggling with basic human rights; food, security and freedom doesn't leave much room for being easily offended or too emotional. Even though I would hear a comment, “ Go back to your country” here and there, I felt welcome in the circle of my immigrant friends. I felt safe. But truly, unless you are a native American, you are not eligible to make that comment, I think.
The whirlwind of hard work and suspense didn't end with getting my undergrad. I needed to enroll for Masters right away in order to keep my visa. A very different chapter of college life started at GSU( Georgia State University). A not so pleasant one. Still, continuing with straight “ A”s was my top priority. And then to be able to stay in US I had to get a job right away and transfer my student visa to H1B. I started working at an international non profit at Georgia Perimeter College and actually enjoying what I was doing. Just as things were settling in place and life was slowing down a bit, the recession hit. The biggest recession in the history of America. And I was, once again, hanging by a thread. One more thing to add to the long list of my tough experiences. Lay offs, furloughs, program shut downs. Losing my job would have translated into losing my visa and the possibility of being deported. I was determined to do everything legally. There was too much sacrificed for me and my future. Too much was left behind. Too much at stake. I had to make it a legal residency without risking anything. It seemed that as much as I wanted to plan and do everything in its own time, life had a different mission for me. It seemed that I was being trained to make last minute decisions and trust they were right ones. Marrying my boyfriend of seven years was of the sort. Another unplanned decision: “ Let’s run to the home office and get married.”
During the few weeks between my current situation and my residency approval I refused to step out of the house. Nothing was worth the risk of having any discrepancies in my status especially that it all coincided with the immigrant crack downs in Georgia. I needed that security blanket. That Greencard.
And there… the next chapter of my life was ready to be written, like a clear canvas. But was it really as clear as I thought or was it shadowed by the memories that shaped me; my country, my culture, my family? The food I would always miss. The warmth, the feeling of being held, that I never experienced since I left. The knowing that visiting my father was now an occasional luxury.
And well, the memory of getting a “ B” on the history of my well trodden homeland during my undergrad. A “B” by a professor who believed in retold history more than first hand experience of a Serbian. The only “ B” during all these years of struggling and surviving. The” B” of historians versus people who live history. People who write it with their own flesh and blood. I give myself an “ A” though, if for nothing, for being a living history book. A survivor.
A first generation immigrant who has lived through revolution & war. Resilient by birth.