From Refugee to Rescuer: A Conversation with Zoreh Mizrahi
Interviewed by Alisa Brooks
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to the U.S.?
I was 15 when I left Iran. This was the time that the Iranian Revolution was taking place in my country. I had three brothers and a sister who were already going to university in Boston, Massachusetts, but what prompted my family to send my sister and me to the States was the fact that they were going to close down the school. So my parents were very concerned about the future of our education. They abruptly – and I’m talking about maybe three to five days – arranged for everything for us to go from my hometown, which is Kerman, to Tehran, the capital, arranging for our travel documents and paperwork heading outside of Iran.
We didn’t have any visas at the time. A group of Jewish organizations – the Lubavitchers and other international humanitarian organizations – were helping many students and youngsters who were escaping from Iran, to eventually get visas to the United States. So I was in Italy for 10 days, and the hospitality was just unbelievable. We were 15 and 17, my sister and I, at the time, and we were able to get student visas to come to America in March of 1979. We immediately started school and we continued on with our education.
We moved to Boston and I joined my family. I was also in New York for a few days, again in the home of people that I didn’t even know, but their hospitality was really warm, welcoming, and very generous.
I started university when I was 16. I was in such a rush to pursue my education that when I took the test for equivalency, they put me in senior year classes. I was graduating, but the high school had a problem and so did the university. So for the longest time, I was considered a special student. I wasn’t sure if this was a positive label on my name or not. But the vast opportunities made available to me…I always want to brag about it, because it’s something I was able to benefit from immensely.
I had always wanted to go to law school. But we were very concerned about the safety and security of my family, so I took sort of a sabbatical from my education at the time to…facilitate my family’s departure from Iran…and to help my family to resettle. After two years, I applied to law school. But I knew if I remained in Boston I would not be able to focus on my education, so I sort of imposed myself to another exile. I went to Houston, Texas.
How old were you by this time?
I started law school when I was 22. I had the privilege of going to Thurgood Marshall School of Law. And it’s interesting, because to me the cultural shock was more touchable when I moved from Boston to Houston than when I moved from my country to the States. It was very challenging at the beginning; it was very different in Texas.
Again, I was in such a rush; I made sure I finished law school in two and a half years instead of three. And when I did, I moved to Los Angeles, because there was a greater Iranian community, and a greater demand from the immigrant community.
I started the practice of law in 1990. I immediately started working on cases of refugees. At the time we are talking about the flood of Afghan refugees from Afghanistan, who were escaping the Soviet Union invasion. And then it was the Chinese, who were escaping persecution, either from the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the one-child family planning that the Chinese government had implemented. For me, it was always a responsibility, an obligation, and a privilege to work with the immigrant community, and specifically with refugees, only because I had benefited from that. I wanted to reciprocate by helping others who needed help. Had it not been for many of the Jewish and American organizations helping us, and I’m talking about my entire family, I would not have been able to achieve all the things I had.
When I started in Los Angeles, I began working on cases of Iranian refugees or people who had entered this country unlawfully. My motto was that refugees are not criminals. They’re the ones who need help. They are the activists, freedom fighters, people who want to have liberty and equality and opportunities that they could not get in their own homeland.
My main focus became Iranian women and children, because…these were the only two groups who were challenging the Islamic Republic on a daily basis [and they] were being suppressed consistently. So I felt they deserved to be heard, they deserved recognition in immigration courts.
For the first few years I would dress up like an older woman, because people don’t trust a 26 year old to go to court and defend them. I had to look like more of a mature woman, someone who was wise, experienced, and had some sort of seniority.
I was able to gain the trust of my community, which had been abused and mistreated for many years, by many individuals that pretended to care about the community and their causes. I had a weekly radio program, where I would discuss and interpret the very complex immigration issues in simple Farsi so people could follow. And that brought a sense of knowledge and empowerment, as people realized that they are the ones retaining the services of an attorney, and it should not be the other way around.
I also started working with different organizations, trying to bridge the gap between the Iranian community with the outside community [so] that they should learn about the cultures and languages that also lived in Southern California.
One thing that had a very traumatic effect on me was September 11th. For years I had been on the side of the defense. But then I realized that there was some element within some communities that were new to the States that did not share the same sentiments that we had. I realized how vulnerable America was, and how the innocence of this country was abused and threatened. In the aftermath of September 11th, I decided I want to join the reserve force of the Sherriff’s Department in Los Angeles County. So I went through the Academy. It was a very different experience. I wanted to make sure that our law enforcement was knowledgeable, was trained; and by the same token, if a police officer or a sheriff knows more about one culture, their attitudes would change, there would be a better sense of communication, and a more clear dialogue between an officer and someone in a car speaking a different language.
What are your thoughts on the current immigration situation?
One thing that many members of the community don’t understand is the U.S. government and law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to protect people who live in the U.S., guarding the liberties, the privacy, and the rights that have become sacred to us. But at the same time, you want to make sure when you’re going through the process that we won’t forget where we came from. What I see happening in Syria is heartbreaking. What I see happening in Sudan, in Yemen, Iraq, Libya – and let’s not forget about Iran.
If the laws that are being enforced in this country target the governments in these countries, and not the innocent people, I think we’ll be able to accomplish a lot. And in this sense, for example, the only reason those seven countries were mentioned in Trump’s executive order on January 27th, was the fact that these governments are not willing to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to weed out the bad elements.
My concern is that we have many innocent people that are not necessarily Christians, but they are minorities in Syria, like the Kurds, and they are being persecuted. So we should not stop them from coming to this country. Especially for a Jewish community, we have to understand that we suffered the same in the ’30s and ’40s: They thought we had no room in this country for German Jews escaping the Holocaust.
Many people have asked why countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt – that had more terrorists attacking the U.S. – were not part of the list. And what I’ve been explaining to them is that, at least on the surface, those governments have been cooperating with U.S, law enforcement agencies. Iran has not, because Iran has consistently, for the past 40 years, been financing terrorism. Many of the wars in the past few years have been, in a sense, proxy wars between Iran and the United States. And this is very troubling, because Iranian people love, admire, and hold in high regard Americans.
You’re talking about the average Iranian?
Absolutely. Even people from remote areas, people who are illiterate. They have that sense of connection with the American people. Iran was that melting pot that we so often heard America described as. Many people have coexisted in that part of the region for centuries without having any issues.
We are talking about a minority that has taken over a beautiful country and they are just going beyond the boundaries of governing the nation. They are executing Sunnis in Iran. They are harassing the Dervishes. They are abusing the Iranian Arabs that have lived in Iran for centuries. They have executed Kurds, and let’s not talk about religious minorities.
Is there a way to balance allowing in asylum seekers while keeping out the violent element?
For the past 40 years, different administrations in this country have consistently ignored the most fundamental issue when dealing with Iran. And it doesn’t matter if they were Republicans or Democrats. They always succumb to the pressure, and they negotiated with a government that financed terrorism against America.
How do we deal with a regime that does not recognize the fact that the U.S. is a superpower, that our value system, our principles, are directed at giving value to human life? When you have that conflict in basic principles, you cannot say, “Okay, let’s talk with them. Let’s try to give them another opportunity. Let’s engage in agreements and deals.”
The issue that you are facing today is because time and again our administrations thought that they were smarter and better than the previous administration. None of them ever listened to the Iranian dissidents and opposition groups, but instead gave life to many organizations that were the mouthpiece of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We are just hoping that one of these days our government will stick to one policy, and that is: We do not negotiate with terrorists.
I’m hoping that finally the fact that we have such an elite group of Iranians who’ve been educated in this country will be able to have some sort of influence in bringing about a better understanding between the two governments.
Are these expats hoping for change in Iran?
Absolutely. We believe that we will be able to give support and mentorship, because if any change should take place in Iran, it should be from within. We have wonderful scholars and activists there. We have an amazing Iranian attorney, Nasrin Sotudeh. This woman has been imprisoned over and over, only because she was an advocate for many others. We have many brave Iranians inside Iran who need our help, who need our support, and the Iranian-American community is there for them.
Our stumbling block has been different administrations in this country who didn’t want the change and did not support us. I remember one time in Bush’s administration, in ’97, we were demonstrating because they had thrown students out of their dormitory windows, because they had protested the day before on the streets of Tehran. We wanted to make sure that other people in Iran would see that we are supporting them. They immediately scrambled all the satellites, so nothing went to Iran for them to get that encouragement.
In 2009, when the results of the presidential election were discovered to have been trampled, we went to the streets. We were hoping that Obama would come out and give a few words of encouragement to the students in Iran. He backed off.
We’ve been fighting the fight. Eventually we need some sort of support from one of the governments. I’m talking civil disobedience, not invasion. I never want to see the day that, G-d forbid, one American soldier would go inside Iran. Because to me, that American soldier is my brother, and so is that poor kid inside Iran who has to fight a fight that is not his.
Can you tell us a little about Jewish life in Iran?
I was one of the lucky ones who, thank G-d, didn’t get to see what happened to that beautiful homeland of mine after the Revolution. But let me give you a few points.
I can tell you that in the ’40s and ’50s, and even ’60s, Iranian Jews were able to make huge progress. And they were giving back to the community, to the country. One of the Iranian industrialists, a Jew, Mr. Elghanian, built [what was] the tallest tower in Tehran, called the Plasco. He created many hospitals, the best hospitals. Industrialists in Iran at the time were Jews or Baha’i or even Armenians. We never had any problems.
My father was a Jewish teacher and educator. He was commissioned by the Department of Education in the Shah’s time to go to the remote areas to be in school. It was a town where there is no other Jew, no temple, they don’t know much about Jews…But my father was so trusted, loved, and respected by that entire community, that when he suggested that we needed to build a school for girls, nobody objected. They loved and admired him.
As a result, we, his children, were treated like royalty. We never had any issues. In later years, we moved to the bigger town, Kerman. Again, my dad’s influence was a layer of protection for my siblings and me. That’s where we had a Jewish school, a kosher butcher, a temple. We had our own community. In those days, maybe 150 or 200 families lived in the city of Kerman. When you look at the history of people in Kerman, they’re generally very hospitable and very embracing of anyone who goes there. So we didn’t have any problems. The entire change came with the Islamic Revolution.
In those days we were very concerned about what was happening outside. I remember one day I had taken a huge picture of the Shah, and I was walking around the schoolyard screaming and yelling in favor of the Shah. The principal of the school, who knew my dad, went to him and said, “You’d better take your daughter out of the school. Otherwise she is going to jeopardize the safety and security of the entire community.” On another occasion, I got into an argument with another classmate who said, “Oh, the Shah was a Jew, and he was the servant of Israel.” When I heard this statement it was so bizarre to me. I tried to explain to her that his name is Mohammad Reza and he’s not Jewish. People were changing.
For us, that change was not a pleasant one. These were our teenage years. We were listening to the music of the Bee Gees and Linda Ronstadt. We were so close to the American culture – books, music, and movies – that it was very bizarre to see that wall that was being erected between Iranian culture and society by shutting everyone out because they were not Muslim and adhering to the message of Khomeini.
When I left Iran, suddenly I saw my younger sisters were covering their faces; they would not talk about their religion so much anymore. And naturally, because my father was Jewish, and he had been very active in both the Jewish community and the outside community, he was targeted—like many others that were visible within the community.
Was Purim special in Iran?
Absolutely. Purim was a beautiful time in Iran because it coincided with the Persian New Year and the beginning of spring. Everything beautiful was happening – new things, changes. For us, the kids, it was the grandest time. We would go to the temple, we would send cookies, pastries, and sweets to our friends. Being kids we loved the food; it was all about the food and the music. We would exchange gifts, we would have songs, especially when reading Megillat Esther.
My father has a beautiful scroll that was handwritten by his maternal uncle, who dedicated it in memory of my dad’s sister who had passed on when she was 12 or 13. That megillah would go from one home to the other, would go to the temple. The entire community would be in the synagogue from the day before. We had the greatest time. Thank G-d I was not there after the Revolution to see the subdued version of celebration. But we have fond memories. I guess for us, it was, and will remain, our homeland.