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PERSIAN : MY STORY OF ESCAPE FROM IRAN

As told to Rayle Rubenstein

Shiraz. It’s a majestic city, famous for its beautiful gardens and ancient palaces. It’s a place that lingers in my memory despite the revolution that marred both its beauty and my childhood, and despite the decades that have passed since my escape. When I came here to the United States, people asked me silly questions, like whether we had cars or what it had been like to live in a desert. I’d tell them that Shiraz was a modern and gorgeous place, that I hadn’t been a nomad but a civilized person in a civilized city. But what I wanted to tell them as well was this: my story is your story. My past is your past. My future is your future because as Jews, there really is only one story to tell. This is galut; it just plays out in a million different ways. So instead of looking at me as an immigrant, see me as a part of you.

I don’t speak much about my journey here. But as the years go by, I feel it is time to share it. I will begin like this. There was once a flourishing Jewish community in Shiraz. I was a part of it. I remember the faces, the names, and the sights and sounds that made up our kehilah. I remember every step in the path I took, away from my family through arid and dangerous territory, to arrive here. And I will share some of this with you, so you remember, too.

 Life in Shiraz

I was nine years old when the fanatics began their rise to power in my native Iran. I was 12 when the revolution started.

Before that time, life had been pretty good. I was part of a big family – the second youngest of seven siblings – and divided my time between school and home in beautiful Shiraz. If there was anything I was missing, it was an extended family. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents and their families had emigrated to Israel before I was born. My parents were the only ones who were unable to join them, although they had tried twice and were denied permission.

My maternal grandfather came from a small city called Yazd. He had been a rabbi there; he was very religious. I remember my surprise when I saw photos of that period and all the men were wearing peyot and a long coat.

As for my own family, we were very traditional, like so many of the other Jewish families around us.  We kept all the chagim. My father used to make us children stay at the table until after Birkat Hamazon, answering amen to each of his brachot.  In Shiraz, there was no such thing as Reform or Conservative; all of us were just Jewish.  There was no yeshivah where we lived, but even though there was not a proper Jewish education like you have here, everyone had very high value for the Torah. Everyone made sure they were finished cooking before Shabbat. And there was so much respect for talmidei chachamim. We all knew that Torah learning was the most important thing. And we knew what it meant to be a Jew.

I came from a very average family, financially. My father worked very hard to feed so many people, and he tried to provide as much as he could. Our home was not luxurious, but it was very comfortable – and very private. Our house was surrounded by high walls; no one could see in. Between our front door and the front gate was a beautiful courtyard filled with fruit trees and flowers. I spent a lot of time out there playing, eating, and just enjoying the sunshine. I even slept out there with my siblings when the weather was especially nice. That’s how private it was. That’s how most of the houses in Shiraz were built.

There was always something happening in our house. As my sisters got older and started families of their own, our home was filled with my nieces and nephews.  The house was so busy that it kept me occupied – which was a good thing since I didn’t socialize much outside of school. Part of that reason was that most of our classmates were not very friendly to Jews. Our classmates often taunted my Jewish friends and me, and some were quite vocal about their less than favorable opinions about us. They would call us “dirty Jews” or worse. And this was before the revolution!

My daily life as a child was very pleasant. Shiraz had wonderful weather; warm but not too hot, with abundant sunshine. School was only in session for half the day; each week it alternated between morning and afternoon sessions, so I was in class from either 8 to 12 or 1 to 5. At that time everyone, including the men, came home for lunch in the middle of the day.

I sometimes accompanied my mother to do the shopping. We didn’t have many big stores, although we did have malls. And there was the open air market, which sold everything from rugs to produce.  On our shopping trips, we’d buy the basics – including bread but no other bakery items – because mostly everything had to be made from scratch: lemon juice, tomato sauce, you name it. We brought fruit to school for snacks. I recall going with my mother to buy a chicken, which we then brought to the shochet and cleaned back home. Luckily, we were able to get meat from the one kosher butcher, so trips to the shochet were limited to chickens.  

If the food preparation took effort during the year, Pesach was something else entirely. There was very little we were able to buy in the way of ingredients, so for those eight days, our diet was limited to eggs, rice, and meat. There was one matzah factory, and each family would go down and make their own matzah from start to finish.

Our shul was modest, and we went every Shabbat even though it wasn’t very close. On Purim morning, my mother would bring us at 6 A.M. to hear the megillah. I remember playing in the yard with a bunch of kids on Yom Kippur; we stayed there the whole day even when we were small. On Tishah  B’ Av around Minchah time, there was always a cow to be shechted at the shul, and its meat would go to poor families after the fast.

Life was quiet and peaceful, until the revolution started.

The Revolution

In the early days of the revolution, the streets were filled with mobs and violence, and people were breaking and burning things. My parents wouldn’t let us out of the house.  

That was terrifying, but what struck me even more was the change in our neighbors. There was one family with many children living next door to us that my parents had helped many times over the years. In fact, one time when the parents were away, one of the children burned himself. My parents not only brought him to the hospital but stayed the entire night and made sure he was all right by the time his parents returned home. We thought we had a great relationship with them, but when the revolution started, their true colors emerged. They turned on us and became hostile and even threatening.

The new regime was very fanatic. At the age of nine, I had to wear a covering on my head, and a long dress with pants underneath. It was hot and uncomfortable – and it was a tangible statement of our lack of freedom.

These were bad and brutal years. There was no source of media, no connection with the outside world. There were revolutionary guards everywhere. They were not good people. Many of them had been criminals in the past and came from very poor families. They were pleased with their new power and tried whatever they could to instill fear into everyone. They’d stop people – sometimes for not dressing according to the new laws and sometimes at random  – and just take them away. So many people disappeared and were never heard from again, including young kids.

I was young, but I remember my parents talking about Jewish shopkeepers who were executed. There was one lady we knew who cut hair. She was taken away in the middle of the night and all the Jewish families prayed for her – I remember praying for her – but they executed her the very next day.

There were also stories of Jews being taken from their homes after being accused of selling alcohol, which was forbidden under the new regime. It didn’t matter if the accusation was false. We were easy targets, and this was an easy way for anyone to cause us harm.  

There is no way to describe the fear we all felt. I was on the bus one day with my mother when we saw a large crowd gathered in the street. My mother put her hands over my eyes so I shouldn’t see what they’d gathered for, but it was too late; I’d already seen the horror. They had hanged a man right there, in the middle of the street.

In the beginning, this was a regular occurrence, another way to spread fear.

The revolution marked the end of a good period for Jews, and it marked the end of my childhood. Once you see people hanging in the street, when people you know are taken away and never heard from again, and you are forced to wear heavy, dark clothing or face arrest, you can never again be a child.

The Decision

The years passed. I became a teenager and started high school in a Jewish school, close enough for me to walk to and which I truly enjoyed. The revolutionary guards held their frightful posts, but the hangings and captures were less frequent.

Still, the fear never left. Every time a car stopped or even just passed, I’d freeze.

One Shabbos, I was walking to shul with three friends when a car stopped, and some revolutionary guards jumped out.  They told us to get into the car. We were incredibly frightened, but my friend was brave enough to ask what we had done wrong because we were dressed properly. Our “crime,” we were told, was laughing in the street. We argued with the guards for half an hour until they gave up and let us go. (At the time, the guards were all men and by law, they weren’t allowed to touch women or girls; that worked in our favor. A few months later, they recruited women who would grab any girls they thought had committed an infraction. )

When I returned home and shared what had happened with my parents, they said two things. Number one, it was a miracle they’d let us go, and that was certainly in the zechut of going to shul. Number two was a bit more drastic: it was time for us – my younger sister and I – to leave the country. Our parents no longer wanted us to risk our lives just by living in Iran.

My sister is eighteen months younger than me. When my parents made their final decision to send us out of the country, we were 18 and 16-and-a-half years old. We were the two youngest in the family and the only ones unmarried of all our siblings at the time.  To this day, I can’t fathom how my parents had the strength to make that decision. We were an incredibly close family, and I’d never spent even one day or night away from my parents and siblings. We were extremely young and naïve and had never been anywhere, let alone abroad.

But just as I will never understand how loving parents like mine were able to send their precious girls away, I will also never know what it means to parent a child in a time and place when walking the streets means risking your life, when fear pervades every step of daily life.

The Journey

I was still in Shiraz when the Iran-Iraq war broke out. I have memories of hearing a bomb and sirens the night Iraq bombarded our airport.

It was in the midst of this chaos that my sister and I were smuggled out of the country.

Smuggling out children, as you can imagine, was no simple affair. For one thing, it was incredibly expensive; my father had to borrow quite a sum of money to pay the smugglers. It was also incredibly dangerous. In fact, a group that left right before ours was caught and sent to jail. We don’t know what happened to them, or if they ever made it out alive.

This added dimension of fear did not deter us.

Early one morning, my sister and I took off with our brother, who escorted us to a city near the border called Zahedan. There had been few goodbyes prior to our departure. My parents had forbidden us from telling our friends, nieces, or nephews to prevent them from spreading the news of our departure. The evening before we left, our sisters had come to bid their farewells, but that was all.

We didn’t manage to say goodbye to our brother once we met the smuggler; it all happened so quickly. We got into a pickup truck where 10 other children between the ages of 10 and 18 were also waiting.

We were sad and afraid, but at that point did not realize we’d never see some members of our family again.  We also did not realize that the plan the smuggler gave my father – that we’d easily pass through the border to Pakistan in a car, would be light years away from our actual escape plan.

The pickup truck drove off and we traveled for a few hours before it stopped at some mountains. We were told to get off, and that’s where we stayed, alone for hours, not knowing if the smuggler would return. We had nothing on us but a small bag with a change of clothing and cans of tuna.

As the hour passed we wondered, did the smuggler abandon us? Did he call the authorities? Would they come for us?

The night passed, and to our relief, the smuggler came back, this time with camels.

Through the Desert

I’d never ridden a camel. I’d never even seen a camel in my life. But I mounted one with another girl – there were 6 camels for 12 children – and off we went into the black desert night. All through the night we traveled, unable to see anything, and when the sun began to rise we finally stopped and went to sleep on the ground. Once again, our guide left and told us he’d be back in the evening when it was not as risky to make our way through the desert.

About three or four hours later, a different guide came and told us we’d be walking. It was actually climbing mountains, not waling, and we didn’t have the right shoes for it. We were parched and tired and our feet were sore and blistered within a short time, but we continued. One mountain gave way to another,  and another….on it stretched for miles.

At one point, the guide gave us water. It was dirty, and one boy – he was about 14 or 15 years old – threw it away because there were worms in it. That was a decision he regretted as the desert sun beat down upon us for hours, but there was no more water to be had.

At night the first guide returned with the camels, and we rode them until morning.

We continued in this was for three days, climbing up and down mountains by day, riding camels at night.

Finally, we reached the Pakistan border. There was a full moon that night, and the border was patrolled by guards who walked back and forth. Our guide told anyone with glasses to take them off and anyone with light clothing to cover it, to make our group as unobtrusive as possible. The plan was for us to bypass the guards, crossing the border on our camels.

We started on our way when suddenly, my camel sat down on the ground and refused to get up.

And then we saw patrol lights heading our way.

We all said Shema as our guide prodded the stubborn camel – and it finally got up. With the lights still heading in our direction, we had no choice but to turn around and wait until it felt safe to try again.

An hour later we crossed the border into Pakistan.

Pakistan

Our travails were far from over. Once we dismounted our camels, we got into a pickup – and were promptly caught by Pakistani police. Our smugglers bribed them, and they brought us to a hotel. We were there for two days, and then they brought us to another hotel – this time in Karachi, the Pakistani capital. We drove in three cars to the UN to obtain papers. One of those cars, which held boys, was stopped once again by police. This time, money didn’t prevent them from taking the children in that car to jail where they were beaten. The smugglers were able to get them and return them to our hotel shortly after, where they slowly recovered from their wounds.

And we got visas to Austria.

We’d arrived in Pakistan a week before Pesach. During the chag, all we had to eat were potatoes and eggs. We spent one Seder with a Jewish family, but the rest of the time we were in our hotel. One of the boys in our group was a shochet, and once or twice we bought a chicken and shechted it in the hotel bathroom.

After a month and a half, ten of us left for Austria with the hopes of eventually emigrating to the United States; the remaining two in our group went to Israel.  

Coming to America

We were in Austria – where we had been helped by HIAS and Rav Tov, two Jewish organizations –  for seven months when a tzaddik came to Vienna from the United States to find out what could be done to help us and the many others like us who had come from Iran.

My sister and I spoke to him and said, “We have no one.”

This tzaddik said he would see what he could do to find us a family in the United States. He spoke to his wife, and a short while later they became our family.

I can’t describe the depth of our hakarat hatov to this wonderful couple and their children. My sister and I lived with them for a period of two years, and I can say with certainty that I am who I am because of them. They are part of my family, and to this day – 32 years later – we speak regularly.

Through sheer force of will, my sister and I learned English, attended college, and built families.

But we can never forget that there is a large part of our family we are still missing.

A year after we arrived in America, our father died.   When we had left, we hadn’t even known he was sick. We never said a proper goodbye. I will never forget the phone call we received with the devastating news. I never got over it.  

18 years after I arrived in the United States my mother, my brother, and his wife and children managed to escape to the United States. My mother lives with me today, and I treasure every moment that I have with her.  For 18 long years, I davened to Hashem that I’d do anything to have my mother here, that I’d kiss her hand and wash her feet. I am so grateful to do those things today.

Three of my sisters remain in Iran with their husbands and children. I speak with them often, and from our conversations, I can hear that life there is not as difficult as it was when I was a child. But it is not a great place for a Jew to be, surrounded by so many haters of Israel. As we learned all those years ago, you cannot trust neighbors like those. I pray for my sisters and their families constantly and hope that one day we will all be united.

Tomb of Esther and Mordechai

What can I say; this is galut.

From time to time, I share bits of my past with my children. If there is one lesson I try to impress upon them, it is this: don’t take anything for granted. As you can see from my story, it is a lesson I have learned well.

And yet, despite the hardships, I am grateful. I am grateful for my past and for my present, for the child I once was and for the adult I have become. For the entire saga that has brought me to this point. It is all those things that have led me here, to a time and place where I can raise my children as free Jews who can live a Torah life and blossom without fear.  

And above all, I am grateful to Hashem for allowing me to be among the lucky ones who merited escape from terror to safer shores.

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