Tears ran down my face as my grandmother told an interviewer in Persian the story of her miraculous escape from Iran 25 years ago.
I had heard portions of her story many times before, but this time, I was serving as her translator for an on-camera interview, and for the first time, I discovered the important role I played as a young child in making her immigration to America a reality.
“It’s been years since I left Iran,” my grandmother told the interviewer, “and I have tried to forget that very special life I had and what happened when I was forced to leave it all behind, because those are very painful memories.”
Up until that moment, her story had seemed remote to me, something that took place long ago in a faraway land.
My grandfather, Esmaeil Khorramian, who was in his 50s at the time, and my grandmother, Pari, who was in her early 40s, saw their seemingly peaceful and very affluent lives in Tehran overturned in 1983 on Tu b’Shevat at services in their synagogue. That night, friends urged them to leave the country, because some of their tenants were Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and word had leaked out that they were planning to arrest my grandfather in order to seize his assets.
“After 26 years of building my near-perfect life, one day I realized that I had to dismantle that life and leave Iran forever,” my grandmother related. “My home in a high-end neighborhood of Tehran was like a small castle, and everyone who saw it would say it was incredible.”
Escape would not be easy. My grandparents faced the problem of fleeing Iran, which had closed its borders during the Iran-Iraq War. However, a greater challenge was how to bring along my grandfather’s 92-year-old mother, Sara. She insisted that she would not leave Iran under any circumstances.
With few options, my grandparents turned to smugglers, who agreed get them out of Iran and into Pakistan for a fee. However, they demanded an extra 2 million in Iranian currency to also smuggle out my great-grandmother.
“One night I went to sleep, and the next day, Feb. 8, 1983, I left my house, my belongings, my entire life behind, and left with only a handbag in my hand,” my grandmother said in tears as she recalled the departure.
My grandparents had to lie to my great-grandmother to get her to leave the house, telling her that they were all going on a vacation.
The smugglers were also taking a Baha’i woman and her young daughter. The Baha’i woman was a doctor, and she had been released from prison by a guard who recognized her as the doctor who had treated his child.
The five got into a van and were driven to a tent in the middle of the desert, near the Pakistani border. By this time, my great-grandmother had realized that they were not headed for a vacation but instead were fleeing Iran, and she began loudly protesting.
The smugglers became upset with her and wanted to leave her behind. However, the Baha’i woman suggested slipping Valium into her food to put her to sleep.
“We were simply terrified at this point,” my grandmother said. “The smugglers told us that in the morning, we would cross the Iranian border into Pakistan at noon, when there were noon prayers, and also told us, ‘We’re glad you’re Muslims and not Jews, because if you were, we would kill you immediately.'”
The next day, they crossed undetected into Pakistan during prayers.
“It was dangerous, because not only were we illegally leaving the country, but we were also sitting on large containers of heroin that were also being smuggled into Pakistan by the smugglers,” my grandmother explained.
The group entered the notoriously dangerous Pakistani border town of Queta via a very narrow and winding road, where only one vehicle at a time could pass.
“When we arrived at the checkpoint, the guard asked us all where we were coming from and what we were doing in Pakistan; we just looked at him and said nothing,” my grandmother said, explaining that they were following instructions of the smugglers to pretend that they couldn’t speak. “He then asked my mother-in-law, Sara, the same question, and she shouted at him, ‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know we just escaped from Tehran?'”
Everyone was furious with Sara, and the smugglers said they were going to kill her for betraying them, the interviewer was told. One of the guards demanded a bribe of 400 rupees.
“The angry smugglers told us that they would not pay the bribe, and that we had to pay the bribe ourselves or be arrested,” my grandmother recounted. “We had no other choice, so we and the Baha’i woman each paid a share of the bribe from money we had hidden in our belongings, and they let us go.”
Not knowing anyone in Queta, my grandparents and great-grandmother took a plane to Karachi, Pakistan, where they stayed for a few days with the help of a Jewish family. Then they were able to bribe a Pakistani officer to help them get a flight to Switzerland and to Lisbon, Portugal.
My grandparents spoke neither Portuguese nor English, and they were taken to a hotel in a bad area of the city. They knew no one in Portugal, had little money left and little food, so they called my mother, who was in Los Angeles. My parents had only been in the United States for three years, and we had no contacts in Portugal and knew no one who could help my grandparents.
At the time in 1983, I was a 5-year-old kindergarten student at Temple Beth Am’s day school. My grandmother told the interviewer that at school, I told my teachers, “Mama is in Portugal” several times, because that is what I had heard my own mother saying many times at home.
My teacher asked my mother what I was talking about. She told them about my grandparents and great-grandmother who were stranded in Portugal with no contacts and little money.
“Then Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi [Jacob] Pressman got involved and told my daughter he would help find a Jewish contact in Portugal that would help us,” my grandmother said. “Thereafter, my son called the rabbi’s Jewish contact in Portugal, and the man took us to a better hotel and helped us find a lawyer.”
I honestly didn’t remember what I told my teacher at school until my grandmother told the interviewer about my part in her story — that as such a young boy, I was directly responsible for helping her in her time of need.
My grandparents and great-grandmother remained in Portugal for two months before being sent to Italy, where they sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy. Months later, they finally arrived in Los Angeles.
My grandmother wept as she told her story. She told me it was a miracle that she was able to escape from Iran with a 92-year-old woman who had jeopardized her life.
My grandmother’s story, along with the many stories from the older generation of Iranian Jews who had to flee, are particularly heart-breaking, because of how they were forced to forfeit everything.
In the 1930s and ’40s, they had worked hard to escape the poverty of the Jewish ghettos in Iran by educating themselves and working hard in business, only to have it confiscated by Iran’s totalitarian fundamentalist regime.
While I may never be able to help my grandparents fully regain what they were forced to leave behind in Iran, I am nevertheless proud to have helped them safely reunite with the rest of our family in America.