A Refugee From Oppression Is a Role Model For the American Dream
By Ned Barnett
America is a nation of immigrants, a nation built by people who fled oppression – political, economic, religious, ethnic or social – and came to America to build a new and better life … and along the way, to help build a newer and better America.
Our nation traces its colonial roots first to the Pilgrims who fled religious oppression to come to America, and carve a new country out of the wilderness. In turn, they were followed by others who came here to escape religious or economic conditions in their homeland that kept them from creating the kind of life they’d dreamed of. Catholics fled from Protestant England to help create the Maryland colony. Quakers fled the established Church of England to help found Pennsylvania. Huguenots fled Catholic France to help create then-Dutch New Amsterdam (now New York) and New Jersey, and then a half-dozen other colonies. Economic prisoners fled debtors’ prison to help create the Georgia colony.
This tradition remained strong after the Revolution, as new waves of refugee immigrants came to America, fleeing political, religious, ethnic or economic oppression from all over Europe, and then later from Asia. Following each of the world wars of the 20th century, oppressed minorities migrated to America to create a new life. Jews fleeing pogroms of the late 19th century, and the aftermath of Hitler’s “Final Solution” flocked to America, as did those who fled Communist oppression beginning with White Russians and continuing until the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact – and they continue to flee from Cuba to this day.
This is a tribute to a more recent fugitive from oppression, a remarkable woman – Dr. Soheila Rostami – who, as a teen-aged girl, risked everything she had, including her life, to flee her country. She came to an America still suspicious of “Iranians,” seeking only the right to pursue a higher education, and the right to build a life based on freedom for her, and for the children she planned to have one day.
While all refugees face hardships, few faced more difficulty than those fleeing from religious and social oppression in the Iran of the Ayatollahs.
Those like this young woman, refugees coming to America from Iran, took greater risks, and faced stiffer obstacles, than other refugees. Free-thinking Iranians – those who chose to try and escape the oppression of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic extremists – the strict and fanatical Islamic fundamentalists who replaced the Shah of Iran in the late 70s – not only had to find a way of escaping a country sunk into oppression and fighting a bloody war to the death with neighboring Iraq, but they had to come to a country which wasn’t always welcoming them.
America had first abandoned the Shah – opening the door to Khomeini’s revolution – then suffered humiliation during the 444-day embassy hostage ordeal. That crisis created ignorance, anger, humiliation and fear among Americans that unfairly raised our collective suspicions about all Iranians.
For that reason, many Iranian refugees insisted on being called Persians, just to remove the “taint” of being known as Iranians in their new adopted country.
First, getting out wasn’t easy. In the years after the fall of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini and the Mullahs, Iran was largely surrounded by countries that did not welcome refugees. The Soviet Union wanted nothing to do with people seeking freedom. Pakistan and Afghanistan were Islamic nations, largely supportive of the new Iranian leadership. Iraq was at war with Iran, and that border was not only closed, but the site of warfare that killed millions on both sides. Only Turkey seemed to offer a safe haven, but getting to that nation’s remote border, and then safely crossing the border, were both daunting challenges.
It took a great desire for freedom, or a great fear of oppression, to risk Turkey.
Yet that is exactly what one young Iranian woman, Soheila Rostami, did, once it became clear that she would be denied both an education and even basic human rights, primarily because she was a young woman, and “too politically active.” During the reign of the Shah, she attended private schools that mixed her education between English and Farsi. However, the revolution occurred while she was in middle school, and while she was in high school, and despite her consistent top-of-her-class grades, it became clear that her desire to go to university was to be blocked, because of her religious beliefs, her ideology and gender – along with her belief that education should not be denied to girls.
With the help of her supportive parents, she fled Iran for Turkey, thinking she’d go to college in Turkey. Airports were closed because of the war, and the road to Turkey was long, and dangerous. Yet the danger of the trip was less than she feared the danger of staying might be.
In Turkey, she was lucky – it was akin to winning the lottery – and she obtained a student visa to come to America to study. With that came the requirement that, to stay in the country, she had to stay in school, which raised the issue of Finance, and the near-impossibility of bringing funds out of Iran. However, she was offered a series of scholarships to Howard University in Washington, based on her grades, which were exceptional. This took her through her undergraduate years as well as her Medical School. In 1992, scholarships for students here in America on student visas became a political football, and – in compliance with changing regulations – she was only able to receive a half-scholarship, which meant she had to support herself while going to Medical School – an difficult burden, but one she was able to overcome.
Following medical school, she received internships at Washington Hospital and at Howard, followed by a University of Maryland Fellowship. During her residency, she not only scored top marks again, but during her term as Chief Resident, she also gave birth to her son, Armon – she became a mother during her last week of Residency, proving again that she had remarkable talents to do what others deemed arduous.
Continuing with her work in medicine, she first received her “green” card, allowing her to remain in the country, and then to eventually become an American citizen. Along the way, she discovered that, while she loves the land of her birth (though neither its leaders, nor their intense focus on fundamentalist Islam), she loves America far more.
“It’s a wonderful country,” she says, “because of its freedom of speech and its freedom of ideology.”
To those who take America for granted, she says, “You don’t know what you have. Be happy for what you have – it’s wonderful to be here, with no gun to your head telling you what to do, or what to believe. But,” she adds, “You have to keep it that way.”
She knows, because her birth-country once had those freedoms. “It is easy to lose those freedoms,” she says, from experience.
While she’s proud to be an American, she has neither turned her back on her native country, nor its people. She is on the board of a group, “Children of Persia,” which helps children in both America and in Iran. Despite the embargoes against trading with Iran, those bans do not include humanitarian medical aid to the children of Iran. Her group has a license from the U.S. government to provide that aid, which has helped to build, open and operate a children’s hospital in an impoverished part Iran.
“Helping children in poverty is not ‘helping the enemy,’ and the U.S. government agrees with and supports our efforts to help children in need,” she explained.
She also works with another organization, one dedicated to helping girls in Iran between the ages of 13 and 21, “girls who are helpless and who have been taken advantage of.”
She believes that women are the key to transforming the Middle East into modern and open cultures. Right now, in Iran, “half the population there is treated like animals – it’s unbelievable to Americans raised in freedom and equality, but it’s true. You have to wonder why the men do this – why they don’t have respect for their own wives, their own daughters.”
The Middle Class still care about their daughters, but they’re leaving Iran, or being forced out of the middle class. The Working Class – who have been brainwashed by the government – don’t have the same attitude toward their daughters, which is troubling and puzzling to Dr. Rostami.
“We in Iran used to have the most advanced culture in the Middle East. We had women judges, women doctors, women in parliament. However, little by little, women have been limited by what they’re allowed to do, and their rights are evaporating.
For instance, under the Islamic government, it takes the testimony of two women to “prove” facts in court, but it only takes the testimony of one man to prove the same thing. So an assault against a woman must be witnessed by another woman – who is brave enough to testify to that fact – before any justice can be given.
“Women in Iran still fight for their rights – but it’s an uphill fight against a downhill slide for the country.” This is why Dr. Rostami works with causes that help those helpless girls and young women in Iran.
She and her husband and her two sons are a tight family. “We are trying to create a ‘community center’ within our family, to show our children their heritage and their culture. We wanted them to learn Farsi – our oldest son has learned to speak but not read Farsi, but not our youngest son. Our sons right now are more interested in being Americans. They face the problems faced by millions of first generation immigrants, such as acceptance by society, and “being American” helps them with that.”
As an American who’s proud of his own immigrant roots, and who is proud of a country that welcomes refugees yearning for freedom, I am proud to know Dr. Soheila Rostami, and I offer her example to all those who value America’s freedoms too lightly.