Earlier this week my grandparents celebrated 31 years of living in freedom in the United States after fleeing war-torn Iran in the early 1980s with the help of smugglers via Pakistan. Their dangerous story of escape from Iran through the treacherous desert and with the fear of being executed at any moment is heartbreaking. Their story is one that they have tried to forget but can never because as Jews they were forced to leave behind everything they owned in Iran in order to survive from the treachery of Iran’s radical Islamic regime. Yet my grandparents story is very similar to what many Jews and other Iranian religious minorities fleeing Iran experienced during the 1980s and 1990s. Likewise today as Iranian Jews like myself who live in the U.S., view video footage of Christians and other religious minorities being slaughtered in Iraq and attempting to escape annihilation at the hands of ISIS, only we truly understand what these innocent men, women and children are experiencing in their fight for life.
The story of my maternal grandparents fleeing Iran is quite traumatic and miraculous. Their story was very similar to the stories of many Jews who during the last century fled the Arab world and Iran because their lives were in serious danger. 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 building’s Muslim tenants were members of the 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. For Jews to flee Iran was even more dangerous because if Jews were caught by the Iranian authorities trying to escape the country, they would face indefinite imprisonment and maybe even execution. 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 opium smugglers based in South Eastern Iran, who agreed get them out of Iran and into Pakistan for a fee. However, they demanded an extra two million in Iranian currency to also smuggle out my great-grandmother. The smugglers knew the desert routes between the two countries and smuggled both illegal drugs and human cargo at exorbitant costs. “One night I went to sleep, and the next day, Feb. 8, 1983, I left my house, my belongings, my entire life and fortune 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 Baha’i woman and her daughter faced imminent death if they remained in Iran as well since the Iranian regime does not recognize the Baha’i faith and kills its followers.
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 morning Islamic prayers by the border guards. “It was dangerous, because not only were we illegally leaving the country, but we were also sitting on large containers of opium that were also being smuggled into Pakistan by the smugglers,” my grandmother explained. The group entered the notoriously dangerous Pakistani border town of Quetta 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 Quetta, 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. Eventually with great difficulty my grandparents were able to obtain asylum in the U.S. and finally arrived in Los Angeles after many uncertain monthly of traveling from one unknown dangerous place to another.
As I look back on my grandparent’s story I realize that they were indeed the lucky ones as thousands of individuals from various religious minorities were killed or imprisoned when attempting to escape Iran. Today we are seeing history repeat itself nearby in Iraq with hundreds of thousands of Christians and Yazidis in Northern Iraq being executed by ISIS militants who consider them infidels. Hearing the stories and seeing the images of the innocent men, women and children being slaughtered by ISIS in Northern Iraq today just for being of a different faith in heart-wrenching for me. And what are their crimes? Just because they do not follow the same beliefs as radical Sunni Islam as the ISIS fighters, they are to be slaughtered? This is complete insanity! Again we are witnessing radical fundamentalist Islam destroying the lives of religious minorities in the Middle East and the world has done little if nothing to stop these senseless killings of innocents. It does not matter whether the fundamentalist Islam is Shiite stemming from the ayatollahs in Iran or radical Sunni Islam stemming from ISIS, this ideology of be killed for your beliefs is genocidal and must be stopped!
As Jews who hail from the Middle Eastern countries, having firsthand experienced this forced exile from our homes and seen senseless killings of our people in the region, we have sympathy with the Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Today these individuals are now experienced the same horror we endured during the 20th century at the hands of radical Islamic elements. In the end, this fundamentalist Islamic dogma and the forces behind it must be stopped just as Nazism was stopped by the forces of democracy in the world. Otherwise this radical form of Islam will spread like a cancer throughout the world and continue to destroy the lives of all innocent individuals who do not follow its beliefs. My sole prayer is that my grandparents’ story of escape from Iran will never be experienced by any religious minorities living in the Middle East and the forces of good in the world will stand up soon to stop radical Islamic forces in the region.