Even though she was 13 years old when she left, Maryam Mohammadkhani remembers very little about her childhood in Iran.
"My father was a general. He was a general for His Majesty. And my mother was educated—she was an inspector for the health department. So we led a very average life, but with advantages," she says.
She does recall one happy memory, though: She attended the American school in Tehran, and remembers playing the role of a turtledove in the Christmas play.
"I remember standing on stage, and it was at the big Hilton…and it was a grand event. And, I guess, those were the good memories. And then, everything changed overnight—the revolution of 1979. And we didn’t bode well," she recalls.
The Islamic revolution of 1979 meant anyone who had worked for the previous government--the Shah--was now considered a threat. In Mohammadkhani’s words, her father was a “true patriot,” and would not leave his country, despite the risk in staying.
"We stayed, and of course, within hours, he was arrested. And he was tried, and sentenced to five years," she says.
Comparatively, this was a light sentence. Other leaders in the Shah’s government either fled or were executed.
"Every Wednesday, I would go to visit my father in Evin. So there were two jails: there’s the jail for the common criminal—you know, murderers, rapists. And then there was Evin, which was the political prison. And all the prisoners there, the Islamic republic felt that these people were a danger," she says.
The next year, Iran went to war with Iraq. Mohammedkahni’s mother was needed in the hospitals, given her training as a health professional.
Mohammedkhani’s favorite memories from this era are, ironically, those of visiting her father in prison and hiding in storm shelters during air raids.
When the 'agires' came—those were the sirens—of course, it should have been a time of extreme stress. But there were these underground parking lots, and people would converge down there. And of course, what teenager wouldn’t love to stay up on a school night? And we had our packs that we had packed with cards and Backgammon. For us, it was a time of gathering, and fun, actually," she says.
The government announced it was lowering the age of mandatory military service to fourteen—the age of her brother.
"We left Iran. My mother and I and my brother. And I think in some ways, it was probably always in the cards for us to leave. Education was always important to my parents, and I carried my father’s name. So, forever, that door was closed to me, and that background followed my brother and I. So we knew at some point, we would have to leave to pursue our education," she says.
They came with virtually nothing. Mohammedkhani went from having a driver and nice house to riding a big orange school bus and sharing a room with her mother and brother. They came in on tourist visas, with the intention of dropping off her brother and going right back. But after they got here, they didn’t want to leave.
"And so we hired an attorney, and things were easier. This was pre-9/11. This was the 1980s. Things were much more different. We were able to obtain permanent residency—a green card—and after you have your green card for five years, you can apply for citizenship," she says.
Within a week of arriving in California, her mother had found a job as a tailor. "And we all worked. I worked as a 13 year old. I had several newspaper routes and I sold newspapers door-to-door, and there was fast food…we all worked."
She could see that America was a land of the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and she was definitely a “have-not.” But it hadn’t been that long since she had been on the other side of society, so she set her mind on getting back there.
"I don’t want to get too melodramatic about it, but America really was a fabulous host, and I felt like I owed it to be a good citizen. I was really given the opportunity, so the scholarships were there. If you did well enough, you got into any school. So I took out loans—partly loans, lots of scholarships. And I was in a hurry to get there. I was in a big hurry to get there," she says.
She went into a field that, to her, represented security: medicine. After medical school, she did her residency at one of Harvard University’s hospitals, and met her husband-to-be in Boston. Several years later, they moved to Springfield, and now have three children.
Sound: Slides under a microscope, Dr. Mohammadkhani: "Brain, left frontal tumor comma, excision, colon, mark..."
Today, Dr. Mohammedkhani dictates as she looks at tiny samples of human tissue under a microscope. She’s a pathologist, and spends a good portion of her time identifying whether a patient’s tissue or organ is diseased.
She says she’s proof that the American dream is still alive. I ask her why her mother chose the United States of America—why not Germany or the UK, where she had relatives?
"Because America is the land of opportunity," she answers. "I mean, everybody dreams of going to America. And I think a lot of people who go to other countries, it’s because they end up staying there on their way to America. People go to America in search of a better life."
Mohammedkhani never returned to Iran. And yet, she longs to just see the land she once called home."I mean, I still sit here and I dream of going back, to visit. And it’s difficult, because I didn’t marry an Iranian. And I can’t be separated from my children. And so I would have to take them all back. And I don’t think I could do it right now, because you just never know what’s going to happen in that part of the world," she says.
She says when she does go back, however, she will make it a point to drive through the county, and stop at every little roadside cafe to sip Iranian "chai," or tea, just as her parents used to do.
For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Moore.