Karmel Melamed
Iranian American Journalist and Commentator

Iranian Jewish Refugees still not over pain of forced exile from Iran

It has been 32 years since my grandparents illegally escaped Iran through a very dangerous and treacherous journey through the Iran-Pakistan border, yet my grandmother still weeps and her heart is still filled with unending pain when she recalls the incredibly beautiful life she was forced to leave behind in Iran only because of her Jewish faith.

The miraculous story of my grandparents’ escape from Iran with the help of smugglers more than three decades ago is just one of the thousands of stories of other Jews who fled Iran to escape persecution from the radical Islamic regime that had taken over that country in 1979. The Jewish refugees from Iran since 1979 in the majority of cases fled or escaped the clutches of the Iranian ayatollahs leaving behind millions of dollars’ worth of businesses, properties and other assets. They went to Israel, America and parts of Europe seeking freedom.

As refugees, they had to start new lives on their own by working hard and often having to re-educate themselves to earn better lives for their families. As a community, the Iranian Jewish refugees who have escaped the treacherous radical Islamic regime in Iran were indeed innocent victims who had everything torn away from them nearly overnight. Yet today we must ask ourselves why there is no international outrage or outcry for the suffering and calamity that befell the Jews of Iran after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Today the Palestinian Arab refugees are claiming they were forced out of their homes and forced to leave behind their properties in Israel with the birth of that Jewish nation. They are even seeking a museum in Washington D.C. to document their supposed forced exile in 1948 out of Israel. Yet why is there no proposed similar museum for the Jewish refugees of Iran and the Jewish refugees from Arab lands who faced far worse calamities, forced exile and expropriation of their properties from their homes in Iran and the Arab countries?

Jews have lived in Iran since 586 B.C. since the biblical Babylonian exile and are considered one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. For more than 2,500 years Jews remained in Iran weathering the rise and fall of different dynasties that took control of the nation as well as withstanding the unspeakable violence over centuries to convert to Islam following the Arab conquest of Iran. Yet from 1925 until 1979, the Jews of Iran under the Pahlavi kings enjoyed relative tolerance, acceptance into the greater Iranian society and were able to flourish in commerce and education.

When the government of the Shah of Iran was brought down in 1979 by the radical Islamic Ayatollah Khomeini, the situation and security for Iran’s Jews grew bleak. The new Islamic regime in Iran had no love for Jews who were deemed second class citizens and the Jewish community’s leader Habib Elghanian was promptly executed in May 1979 on trumped up charges of spying for Israel America. The Elghanian execution and the execution as well as imprisonment of other Jews in Iran by the new regime caused massive waves of Jews to flee Iran with only the shirts on their backs. Countless prosperous Jews either had their assets expropriated by the new Islamic regime or were forced to just abandon their homes and assets to avoid being killed or executed by the Iranian regime’s thugs. Since 1979 Jews from various economic backgrounds have similarly escaped or fled Iran to avoid the persecution of the current Islamic regime in Irna.

My maternal grandparents were among the thousands of Jews living in Iran who feared for their lives because of their Jewish faith and were forced to escape that country leaving behind their assets and prosperous lives. Most recently, tears ran down my face as my grandmother told me in Persian the complete story of her miraculous escape from Iran in 1983. As a child I had heard portions of her story many times before, but this time, as an adult I discovered the truly dangerous nature of her escape from Iran. “It’s been years since I left Iran,” my grandmother told me, “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. This was because word had leaked out that the radical Islamic tenant were planning to arrest my grandfather in order to seize his assets.

“After more than 25 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 at that time. 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 two million in Iranian currency to also smuggle out my great-grandmother. “One night I went to sleep, and the next day, February 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. Overnight my grandparents had lost their fortune and could face imprisonment if caught trying to flee Iran illegally.

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 opium 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, my grandmother told me. 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. The rabbi in our Los Angeles synagogue however was very helpful to our family and made telephone calls to a Jewish group in Lisbon who helped my grandparents in Portugal. 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 uncontrollably as she told her story. She told me it was a miracle that she was able to escape from Iran and also escape that country 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.

As Iranian Jewish refugees we are still waiting for an apology from the current Iranian regime for the evil they unleashed upon our community and for our millions in assets in Iran to be returned to us because of their radical Islamic regime’s hatred of Jews and other religious minorities. If the Palestinian Arabs today seek a museum anywhere in the U.S. to document their supposed forced exile from Israel, then we the Iranian Jewish refugees would like to have a similar museum to document the forced exile, imprisonments and executions we faced at the hands of the radical Islamic regime in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Surely our plight as Jewish refugees fleeing for our lives from Iran was no less traumatic and painful than that of supposed “suffering” of the Palestinian Arabs from Israel in 1948.

About the Author
Karmel Melamed is an award-winning internationally published Iranian American journalist based in Southern California; He is a member of the Speakers Bureau of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa