October 17, 2019

The Burden of Freedom

“How does it feel to be here?” I asked my father while we were standing inside the magnificent rotunda of the U.S. Capitol a few weeks ago, during his first trip to Washington, D.C., for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference.

“I feel burdened,” he responded.

“Burdened?” I exclaimed. “Here?!

“Yes,” my father said. “Here, I’m weighed down with the burden of freedom.”

Can freedom be burdensome? That depends. 

Three decades ago, my father and mother, along with their two young daughters, escaped the destruction of the Iran-Iraq War and the anti-Semitic aftermath of the Iranian revolution, and were admitted as protected refugees by the United States. This June will mark 30 years since our arrival in Los Angeles after temporary resettlement in Italy, through the help of HIAS, formerly known the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The redemptive space that was where the blessing of our asylum was made possible is the U.S. Capitol. 

It was there that Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a permanent and systematic process by which protected refugees could resettle in this compassionate country. 

For many years, I dreamed of taking my father to visit the Capitol. Standing in the space where American lawmakers decided the fate of his family, he felt a sense of unequivocal joy that was nonetheless mired with the despondency of reality. 

That despondency began in Italy more than 30 years ago, when my father tried desperately to bring his mother, father and other relatives out of Iran. The attempt failed for many reasons, and we never saw them again.

But during these past 30 years, my father has enjoyed the freedom and opportunities that make day-to-day life in this country something of real quality.

In this country, while he was witnessing his oldest daughter — my sister — graduate with a master’s degree from Harvard University in 2006, some of our family members in Iran were living under the rule of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made even the most oppressive Iranian leaders look like progressives.

“Can a person ever truly be free if he is still emotionally shackled to another’s physical oppression?”

In this country, while my father was welcoming the birth of his first grandchild in 2009, Iranians were being murdered in the streets for demanding free and fair elections during the Green Revolution. 

By the time his fourth grandchild was born here in 2017, my father was receiving news from Iran that the country’s dismal economy was making daily life so unbearable that there was a national shortage of infant formula, prompting mothers in some provinces ro give their babies sugar water instead. 

Can a person ever truly be free if he is still emotionally shackled to another’s physical oppression? It depends on how much burden that person is willing to place on his or her own shoulders. 

There’s also another aspect to my father’s “burdensome freedom,” and that entails the infinite possibilities that this wonderful country offers. 

Back in Iran, my father was the revered man of the house, and both our family and Persian culture in general imposed certain norms that his daughters were expected to follow. 

Here, the life that my sister and I enjoy has come against the backdrop of the “wild, wild West” of American freedom (and the glory of women’s rights); this means that for the past 30 years, my father couldn’t dictate how his daughters chose to test their freedom. 

For my sister, that meant attending Harvard, 3,000 miles from her family. For me, my chutzpah with testing freedoms began the day I moved into the college dorm. Those stories are best saved for another time. 

Watching from the sidelines, our father had to trust in his daughters’ sense of responsibility and morality, while knowing that his will, however reasonable, was no match for our newfound American freedoms.

There’s also another burden: the overwhelming loss of control that comes with unfettered access to information in this country. 

I’m referring to the fact that in Iran, the regime controls the media but at least its citizens know what they’re getting: blatant propaganda that can’t be masked as anything else. 

Like other Americans of his generation, my father, who is 70, is so enthralled by the sheer amount of “news” — especially on YouTube — that he often has a hard time distinguishing what’s legitimate and what’s not. 

That, too, is the price of ready access to information. I would never go back to state-controlled media, but I wish that my father would frequent fewer “media” sites dedicated to topics ranging from which world leaders are secretly Jews (he takes great pride in this “information,” even if it was posted by anti-Semites) to which members of Congress have had firsthand experience with extraterrestrials. 

I implored my father not to share any “exciting” developments he had seen or heard on YouTube during our time in Washington because we were joined by 20 young Jewish professionals from Los Angeles who constitute 30 Years After’s Maher Fellowship, the nation’s only young leadership training program for Iranian-American Jews.

It was a blessing to have seen my father — my rock and my teacher for everything ranging from Zionism to American patriotism — interact with the Maher Fellows, all of whom were born in the U.S. They asked him about what life was like in Iran, and he was bewildered that none of them had heard of his favorite YouTube channels.

On our last day in Washington, we stood inside the Capitol — me, my father, and 20 first-generation Iranian-American Jews — and thanked America for our freedoms. 

“Please,” I begged my father. “Don’t feel so burdened. Look at me. Look at them,” I said, pointing to the Maher Fellows. “We exist here because of you … because of our mothers and fathers.”

“I know, Tabby, and thank God for this country,” my father observed, but not before adding, “Let’s see if we can visit the actual room where Congress meets and find a few aliens.”

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and director of 30 Years After’s Maher Fellowship.