I sometimes find myself looking at my parents, thinking on just how much life they had lived before I came into the picture. Not only in terms of our family — I’m the youngest child by ten years, meaning my family existed for an entire decade before deciding to add me to the mix — but in the experiences they had and obstacles they overcame before they were even twenty years old. It’s hilarious, terrifying and supremely humbling to hear their stories.
You see, my parents are the children of a revolution — the Iranian Revolution, to be exact. The Iran that my parents grew up in is very different than the one that exists now. They lived in monarchical times, when the Shah (king) held sovereign power and Iran had relatively comfortable relations with the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. It was only after my parents made their way to America that the supporters of an Islamic regime solidified their revolutionary fight, eventually overthrowing the Shah’s dynasty and instating the Islamic republic that still endures today. But, unlike many others, my parents’ initial reasons for coming to America came about quite independently of the Revolution.
My father, Mehran Arhamsadr, first set foot on American soil at age 16. His aunt and uncle, already having established a life in Orange County, had secured him a spot at Troy High School in Fullerton. After getting into some trouble over a mischievous prank at his secondary school in Iran, he approached his parents with the idea of moving to America to finish his education.
“Like everyone else, I was infatuated with the idea of coming to the U.S.,” he said. “My dad didn’t like the idea, but mom saw it as a great opportunity. She saw me as a spoiled child and thought I could gain a lot of independence from coming to America.”
The only son of an affluent and prominent actor, the trip from Isfahan, Iran to Orange County was easily financed by his family. He began his senior year at Troy, living in his own apartment and enjoying all the spoils that life as a teenager in America had to offer. The money coming in from his parents in Iran bought him a white BMW 320i.
My mother’s journey was quite different. Najla Modirpour was 18 and engaged to be married, despite her mother’s wishes for her to focus on pursuing a college education. As a last-ditch effort, my grandmother arranged a travel visa for my mom to spend a month in America visiting her younger brother, who was living with relatives and attending Troy. She arrived in America on Jan. 4, 1979. Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 16, Shah Reza Pahlavi left Iran and, after years of political tension, the Revolution was truly underway.
“My mother called me and said, ‘find a lawyer, get a student visa, enroll in school and start a life in America,’” she said of that day. “I called her every night and cried, telling her I wanted to come back, but she said that the university I was planning to attend had been burned down and that I wouldn’t have anywhere to go if I went back home.”
In order to attain a student visa, she had to attend a specific school for international students in Los Angeles for two months. She lived in a YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) building, the safest place she could find in the neighborhood of La Brea.
“I didn’t realize how dangerous it was there,” she said. “I would walk the streets at night in the same neighborhoods where there were drive-by shootings by day, and had no one to tell me that it wasn’t safe.”
Eventually, she received her student visa, and moved into a Fullerton apartment with her younger brother, Homayoun. It was here that she met my father.
“She came into the picture as the older sister of my best friend, someone we had to behave in front of,” my father said. Part of a large group of young Iranian-American friends, they all fell into a rhythm of companionship, serving as family for each other in a land foreign to them.
That year saw a turning point for Iranian-American relations. On Nov. 4, 1979, a group of Iranian revolutionaries took 66 American diplomats and citizens hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the nation’s capital. The shockwaves of this crisis affected the lives of Iranians living in America drastically.
“The banks were closed, our parents weren’t able to send us money anymore,” said my mother. “At one point, I had four dollars in my bank account, and your father had to vacate his apartment that same week because he couldn’t afford rent anymore.”
My mother was working three part-time jobs while also taking 18 units at CSU Fullerton; my dad was working odd hours washing dishes at a JC Penney cafeteria (and still driving his BMW to work) while studying business and finance at Chapman University. During these times of financial burden, my father often stayed with my mother and her roommate and they grew close.
“I liked her and I knew about her fiancé, but since I’m the kind of guy who gets what I want, that didn’t really matter,” said my father, my mother rolling her eyes from beside him.
He didn’t have much to worry about: my mother’s engagement had all but dissolved at that point, with my grandmother intercepting my mother’s letters home to her fiancé, making him believe that she had forgotten about him.
“When I found out about it, I was upset, but she knew what she was doing,” she said, laughing. “I guess I’m pretty glad she did that, after all.”
My parents began seeing each other secretly and my dad even helped my mom write a breakup letter to her fiancé (“the only one my mother ever actually gave him!”). Eventually, they began to pursue their plan to get married.
“We were broke, so we couldn’t really afford a wedding,” my mom said. “We got married at the courthouse, and went to a mollah (Islamic religious leader) in L.A. so our union would be valid in Iran. Our American friend threw a party for us at his house. Our main dish was a 6-foot submarine sandwich, just so you get a sense of how fancy this party was. Since Persians don’t really get started partying until late, all of our friends showed up at 10 p.m. His parents started to get upset, so we picked up our sandwich and our rental chairs and went back to my apartment to party until 4 a.m.!”
But married life wasn’t all partying; just two years later, at age 24, my mother gave birth to my older sister, Taraneh.
“We were shopping for a new car,” my dad said. “When we came home from the dealership, your mom sat down and said, ‘With all of the money we spend on that car, we can have a baby instead!’ … So yeah, having a baby was her idea.”
When I asked my mother why she wanted to have children when she was so young, the expression on her face became thoughtful.
“Forcefully, we had to make this place our home,” she said. “You don’t understand because you’ve lived your whole life here, but making a life here was different. I wanted to make it home.”
This is the part of their story that sticks with me the most; they went from visitors to refugees, and still managed to make a life here and raise three children in a strong and loving home. This year, they celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary and the first birthday of their first grandchild.
It’s easy to forget where my parents came from in our day-to-day lives, to overlook their experiences and the sacrifices they made in order to make a better life for our family. Every so often, though, I like to ask them about their first years in America, and watch their faces light up as they reminisce.