“When I think of the frightening journey I had to take to illegally flee Iran, chills still run down my spine,” said Fahrokh Askari, a 60-something Iranian Jewish grandmother now living in Tarzana.
Her escape from Iran by foot and van through the deserts and mountains into Pakistan is similar to the experiences many local Iranian Jews endured when they fled Iran during the 1980s and 1990s. However, Askari’s stands out for the fact that she was a widow accompanied by three of her children and two other Jewish children when she made her escape, which was dependent on smugglers who left her terrified throughout the entire journey.
The motivation for the escape was triggered at the start of the Iranian revolution, when her husband, Manuchair, a civil engineer specializing in highway construction, was fired from his Ministry of Transportation job because he was Jewish. The leaders of the radical Islamic government in Iran accused him of aiding the shah’s regime by helping to build massive highways and bridges in the country and prosecuted him for two to three years in the newly formed revolutionary courts.
“They tried to imprison him or execute him by searching for some infraction of his, but because he had a clean record of excellent performance, they couldn’t do anything,” Fahrokh Askari said in a recent interview.
Her husband was later asked to return to his post because no one else was qualified to fill it. Manuchair Askari returned temporarily, but as a result of being mistreated by his superiors, he was forced to accept early retirement at age 45. Government officials then prohibited the private sector from employing him in his professional capacity because he was Jewish.
The entire Askari family also was placed on the official government list of people who could not leave the country or even the city of Shiraz, where they resided.
“My husband eventually went into a deep depression because he couldn’t work as a civil engineer, and his private business ventures also failed,” Askari said. “He developed a severe form of diabetes, then later developed cancer and, at the age of 53, died in 1989.”
One year after her husband’s death, Fahrokh Askari found herself a widow with only limited funds, no other family members to help her and no means of supporting herself. She decided to flee Iran and sought the help of smugglers who had helped her brother escape a year before.
In October 1991, she paid the equivalent of $6,000 to a smuggler, and with her three children — two daughters, 10 and 16, and a son 15 — as well as her cousin’s 15-year-old son, she left their home and traveled to the Iranian city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. The smugglers had with them a another Jewish boy who was also to be taken across the border.
“We were supposed to meet our smuggler in the middle of the desert road, and all the while the cab driver was telling us horror stories of how the local smugglers in the area were brutal.” Askari said. “This made us even more terrified.”
While they were in the cab, her son saw the smugglers on the side of the road and demanded the cab driver stop immediately, but he refused because he was frightened himself. Eventually, the smugglers arrived with their van, into which they loaded Ashkari and the children. They drove off into the rocky desert to avoid police checkpoints on the main road.
“We finally stopped. We got out and all held hands as we walked on foot,” the widow said. “I can still remember the chattering noise of my children’s teeth during that walk. I also remember our guide telling us every so often to lay down on the ground.”
Askari and the five children were taken to a poorly lit house with two rooms and told to sleep on the floor for the night, before their border crossing the next day into Pakistan.
She said she and the children were surrounded by an all-male group of smugglers that night, and she feared that one of them would harm her children.
“It was one of the longest nights in my life. They kept telling me to go to sleep, but I just could not, because I had young girls with me. Then one of the smugglers came into the room and fell asleep at the entrance,” Askari said.
At daybreak, the lead guide left to obtain a van on the Pakistani side of the border. He left Askari and the children with his relatives, who loaded the group into another van.
They traveled through the wilderness and across dry riverbeds to avoid police checkpoints on the main road. Their van stopped periodically, and the guides gave the driver directions on where to go until they finally crossed a deserted portion of the border into Pakistan.
When the van finally stopped in a desert area inside Pakistan, the smugglers left Askari and the children there alone, promising that their main guide would pick them up later in the day.
“They left us all alone in the middle of the desert with only some fruit and a little water — it was a very hot day, and there was no shade,” she remembered, still feeling the terror.
“I just didn’t know what was going to happen, and the kids were getting restless and fighting with one another — we were all alone for seven to eight hours in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
Finally, their original guide picked them up, and they were taken to a series of safe houses in the small, lawless villages along the Pakistani border, which were populated by smugglers and criminals. At every home, she said her heart sank with mind-numbing fear that one of the criminals in the homes might at anytime harm her or the children.
“In one home, one large and tall man, the height of an NBA basketball player, entered the room drunk with a bottle of whiskey in one hand, a cigarette in the other one hand, and he sat next to me,” she said. “He was drinking the whiskey like it was water, offering it to me, and I was terrified that this drunk ogre would try to do something crazy to me or my kids.”
The smugglers were having difficulty transporting the family, because fighting had broken out between the tribal groups in the city of Queta, making travel very dangerous. Nevertheless, her guides managed to get the family to Queta and then onto a train to Karachi, where she was to meet members of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for help.
Since the mid-1980s HIAS had been stationed in Pakistan, helping Jewish refugees who escaped Iran. After three months in Pakistan and several months in Vienna, Askari immigrated with her children to the United States, where she received asylum.
She said she still considers her escape from Iran a miracle.
“It was a horrible, horrible experience. Every moment was full of fear that I just cannot describe to you, and I had young children with me, too,” Askari said. “We had no clue where we were going. We sat in a van in the middle of the desert for long hours, and they could have done anything they wanted to do us — but fortunately nothing bad happened to us.”