August 20, 2019

Iranian Jews Tackling Problems With Drug Abuse

By Karmel Melamed


Three years ago, Raymond P., a 28-year-old Iranian Jewish youth was a fully-fledged member of a notorious Los Angeles street gang and involved in violent crimes, activities that were helping him fund his near lethal drug habit.

Now in recovery, Raymond P.—who asked that his real name be withheld—is just one a growing number of Southern California Iranian Jews that have been using and selling illegal drugs at alarming rates during the last ten years.

“I came from a very good family but I didn’t care who I was hurting as long as I was getting high,” said Raymond P. to the crowd of nearly 200 Iranian Jews gathered at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana this past August to discuss the community’s drug abuse epidemic.

Since their arrival to the United States more than 25 years ago, Iranian Jews – now totally 30,000 in Southern California – have become perhaps one of the most educated and financially successful Jewish communities in the country. Yet with many in the community having experienced the American dream in such a short time span, a portion of Iranian Jews have not been immuned to problems such as drug abuse within the American society.

Shattering the community’s long standing taboo of not publicly discussing drug abuse problems plaguing Iranian Jews, Eretz-SIAMAK became the first local Iranian Jewish organization to begin an open dialogue on the issue by gathering a panel of experts to educate families about drug abuse.

“For years we’ve been quietly helping addicts in the community to get recovery for their drug use,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “But this year we finally decided to go public and try to fix this problem when we noticed it has really become widespread among our young people”.

The leadership at Eretz-SIAMAK, often working as trailblazers within the community and unafraid of addressing serious issues such as poverty, pre-martial sexual relations among young people, and new Jewish immigration from Iran, decided to go forward with their drug abuse awareness event after an anonymous donor provided specific funding for their program.

“This generous donor who has asked to remain anonymous was responsible for helping us put on this event and we are already planning more upcoming drug education seminars because of his donation,” said Fakheri.

Community activists said illegal drug use among Iranian Jews of all ages has increased in recent years because most Iranian Jewish families have been afraid of seeking professional help for fear that any news about their family members using drugs would cause others in the community to look down on them or even ostracized them.

“Our culture is the type that wants to keep everything secret and not talk about it because it’s embarrassing and people put a label on you,” said Dara Abai, a community volunteer. “In Iran, I remember that if someone told you to go to a psychologist they thought you were crazy and had a serious mental problem”.

Abai, who has also worked as a mentor to local Iranian Jewish youth for the last 20 years, said some young Iranian Jews have indirectly been influenced to experiment with drugs after seeing their parents drinking alcohol excessively on a regular basis.

“I believe that in parties in our community we have a lot of alcohol use and I think alcohol has a lot to do with our drug problem,” said Abai. “I go parties and see married people half drunk and their kids see this and they think it’s fun so they try alcohol at a young age and sometimes that leads them to try drugs”.

Despite the drug issue growing with the community, some Iranian Jews have conquered their drug addictions and are trying to outreach to the community. Iranian Jewish Psychologist, Dr. Iraj Shamsian is perhaps the one of the best examples of a former addict who took his negative experience and turning it around to help other addicts in the community.

“During those years I never said no to any drugs I saw,” said Shamsian who was a full-blown drug addict from 1983 to 1993. “I shot heroin, I used cocaine, I used different downers and uppers, even tried acid and mushrooms”.

Shamsian said his addiction was so intense that he wasted away his own savings, his family’s funds brought over from Iran, and he ultimately ended up living on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles before finally seeking his family’s help in getting recovery.

After become drug free, Shamsian obtained his credentials in order to help other addicts with the community and is now working in private practice as well as the program coordinator at “Creative Care”, one of the most respected drug treatment facilities in the country located in Malibu. In addition Shamsian also hosts “Ayeneh” his own Persian language television program featured on the satellite network N.I.T.V., which is specifically geared to educate Iranians around the world about the dangers of drug use.

“We discuss different topics about drug use on the program and answer phone calls from Iranians around the world – even in Iran, that is now the number one country with the most drug addicts in the world,” said Shamsian.

Shamsian and other experts said that young Iranian Jews, just like most young people, at first experiment with different drugs out of peer pressure or to fit in with their friends, then this experimentation often results in them become addicts.

Shamsian also said that while many younger Iranian Jews have been primarily using marijuana, a significant number of older Iranian Jewish men working in Downtown Los Angeles are using opium on a regular basis because of their past use and familiarity with the drug from Iran.

Unfortunately problems with drug abuse have also lead many Iranian Jews to face criminal prosecution for their illegal drug habits, said Iranian Jewish L.A.P.D. Sergeant Dariush Sameyah.

“I was in court recently with this person from a very prominent Iranian Jewish family and she was heavily involved in narcotics and credit card fraud to support her narcotics habit,” said Sameyah who works in L.A.P.D. Internal Affairs. “This issue is very prevalent in our community and is not isolated at all, if you look at the court records everyday and see the cases coming up you will see Jewish Iranian names quite frequently”.

Despite having lived in the United States for nearly three decades, Iranian Jews have by in large not had exposure to law enforcement here and are completely unaware of the legal consequences of their drug use, said Sameyah.

“They still think the old system in Iran can be applied here, unfortunately they get a very very rude awakening once the handcuffs go on,” said Sameyah. “Back in the day if a very well respected Iranian person got arrested in Iran, they wouldn’t get handcuffed or strip searched the way they do here. It’s such an insult and slap in the face for an Iranian person when they are told to bend over and spread your butt cheeks for a cavity search, but that’s the law and public policy in the United States”.

Sameyah said a joint investigation lead by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Los Angeles Police Department led to the arrest of nearly a dozen Iranians in Southern California—many of whom were Jews—this past summer for allegedly selling and importing opium as well as laundering money generated from the sale of opium.

“The profits are so high from the narcotics trade that you can’t go deposit it in your bank account because now you have to show where that money came from and pay taxes from it,” said Sameyah. “In order to hide their activities, they have to launder that money by some how taking it out of the country and bringing it back through another method”.

Aside from marijuana and opium use among Iranians living in California, heroin has recently been making a huge comeback as the drug of choice within the Iranian community, said Sameyah.

Community volunteers said many Iranian Jews have mostly sought recovery for their drug addictions at Chabad’s Treatment facility located near the Miracle Mile area because of the facility’s strong emphasis on Jewish values and spirituality.

Three years ago, Shamsian along with a handful of other Iranians from different religions helped found the Iranian Recovery Center (I.R.C.) located in Westwood. The non-profit organization primarily offers Iranians seminars and education about substance abuse as well as referrals to those seeking treatment for their addictions.

“The services of the I.R.C. are totally free and open to the public, we help Iranians of all different religions, some more wealthy, others without much money get their questions answered about drug use,” said Shamsian.

Drug abuse experts said that despite the cultural and generational gap between Iranian Jewish parents and their children, the best way to prevent drug use among young people is to educate them before their teen years about the dangers of drugs.

“If you want to start talking about narcotics to a 15, 16 or 17-year-old, you’re about ten years behind the curve because that kid has spent the last ten years in school with god knows who having glorified narcotics use for them,” said Sameyah. “Education about narcotics starts at the age of three and four, about what drugs can do to you and what they look like are key”.

Abai, Shamsian and Sameyah, all of whom appeared as panelist at the Eretz-SIAMAK drug awareness event said they would like to see greater involvement from local Iranian Jewish leaders in drug prevention programs.

Local leaders and volunteers also said Iranian Jews must first change their outlook and perspective on drug addicts within their own ranks in order to overcome the community’s taboo and make real progress in battling the community’s drug problem.

“We have to try not judge people with drug addictions, we have to look at drug abuse as a disease and not from a moral point of view,” said Shamsian. “We have to also accept the fact that because of the exodus from Iran and changing countries, this [drug abuse] is normal, this is what happens and it’s not the parents fault that the kids are using drugs but the whole experience that makes us vulnerable.”

This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Iranian Jewish Chronicle magazine: