For Iranian Jewish Family That Fled to U.S., Trump's Ban Is a Fearful Reminder of Past

The passage from Tehran to Boston was arduous and risky, but Nooshin and her family found freedom and safety in U.S. But with dozens of other Jews seeking asylum now stranded in Iran, her faith in her new home was put to the test.

Amir, left, and Noah doing homework. The boys are in the same 10th grade class and often study together.
David Merfeld

“I spent my life in hiding,” says “Nooshin,” who was born in Tehran two years after the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in February 1979. As a woman, she hid her face behind a veil. As a Jew, she kept her faith a secret from neighbors, employers, even the other mothers at the school that her son, “Amir,” went to.

“Jewish kids don’t get to go to good schools,” she says. “Amir could never invite friends over because they might see something and get us in trouble.”

Nooshin knew that she and her husband, “Farzad,” could not have a Jewish wedding even though his Muslim family is not particularly observant.

“It’s a crime to convert out of Islam,” she says. “People get killed for that. In public they say it’s okay to be Jewish in Iran. There is a big synagogue in Tehran and even a Jewish member of parliament, but it’s all a show. We’re not treated equal.”

Nooshin (third from left) and Amir’s (far right) first Sukkot in the United States. Bonnie Friedman (second from left) wears as a pendant a gold coin that David's grandfather used on the black market when he was in hiding during World War II). Nooshin’s uncle Jacob (next to Amir) has been in Boston for over 30 years.
David Merfeld

Her parents, who immigrated to Israel before her wedding, shunned her for a time but they have reconciled. Farzad didn’t want to move to Israel, so they remained in Tehran. They barely scraped together a living and kept a low profile, under a regime that has jailed journalists, killed protesters and persecuted women and religious minorities.

As a dental hygienist, Nooshin earned around $60 a week. She hid her religion, for fear she would be arrested. “Jews are considered impure and are not allowed to touch Muslims, [including] cleaning their teeth,” she says. “We lived in constant fear and struggled to survive. Farzad was a driver so he also didn’t make a lot of money, but the cost of everything kept rising. We wanted Amir to go to college, but couldn’t afford it. We lost all hope.”

All that changed a year and a half ago, when Nooshin, Farzad and Amir landed at Boston’s Logan International Airport, ready to start a new life in a country that doesn’t discriminate by religion.

“It was the most liberating moment,” she says, recalling how she cast off her hijab and looked into her son’s eyes, daring to dream of his bright future.

Amir and Nooshin celebrating Shimhat Torah near Boston. Their faces were pixelated because they fear repercussions against the family of Farzad, still in Iran.
David Merfeld

But that faith in her new country was put to the test last Friday, when President Donald Trump banned the entry to the United States of travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries and all refugees.

'I don't feel safe now, with Trump'

“When I saw Iran was first on the list, I was shocked. I thought, Oh, no! Not again,” she says. “I don’t feel safe now, with Trump.”

Though many consider Trump’s executive order a Muslim ban, it also affects Jews struggling to get out of countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, and other religious minorities such as the Yazidi and the Baha’i.

Nooshin in the snow. “I feel so free, I love to wear pants.”
David Merfeld

“How could Trump say he will let Christians come here first?” she says. “Doesn’t he know that Jews also suffer, and Baha’i? Life is scary and dangerous for them. How can you call them terrorists and sentence them to die?”

Trump’s 120-day refugee immigration ban will immediately affect the 70 to 85 Iranian Jews that HIAS, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies that works with the U.S. State Department, had cleared for visas this fiscal year.

“About 26 have arrived so far,” HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield says. “But there are many more waiting to leave and they’re now in limbo. Some were turned away at airports while trying to enter. Others were told their tickets were canceled.”

That’s what happened to Nooshin’s friend “Samira,” who waited six years for her visa. Her parents and siblings moved to Los Angeles last year, but her husband was too ill from cancer to travel so she stayed behind with him. He died two months ago. She and her daughter were set to join her family in Los Angeles next month, but now they cannot come.

“She’s desperate to get out,” says Nooshin. “Her daughter is 16. She’s afraid and has no one left there to turn to.”

Last year HIAS, which was founded in New York in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, helped to resettle 3,884 refugees fleeing conflict zones such as Syria and Somalia. Of these, around 160 were Jews, 89 of them from Iran.

Though most of the country’s Jews left en masse in 1979, during Iran’s Islamic Revolution, between 10,000 and 20,000 remain, according to census reports. The true number is difficult to determine, because of the large number of crypto-Jews.

For Nooshin, the road to America was long, arduous and risky, involving smuggling documents from Tehran to Boston, where her uncle Jacob moved in 1984. The Iranian Jewish organization she initially approached five years ago referred her to HIAS and urged her to keep it under wraps. She never told her family and friends she was leaving and asked Haaretz to use pseudonyms for this report in order to protect her husband’s family back in Iran.

A U.S. citizen seeking to sponsor relatives in Iran as refugees through HIAS must first prove to the organization that they are members of a religious minority, says Hetfield. HIAS then submits a visa request to the Austrian Embassy in Tehran, and prepares the case in Vienna. The refugee applications are interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security. If they pass the interview and all the security checks (which start while they are still in Iran), they are given refugee status and may then travel to the United States. They may apply for a “green card” after one year and for citizenship after five.

One suitcase, 25 days

When Nooshin got the phone call telling her she was approved for refugee status, she had just 25 days to sell all of her family’s belongings and to pack. To avoid suspicion, she took just one suitcase, and she did not tell the government that they were leaving.

They went first to Vienna, where HIAS runs the U.S.-government-funded Resettlement Support Center. There, they were immersed in classes in English and in cultural orientation. Nooshin’s parents flew from Israel to Austria to meet them. They brought Amir, who was then 14, to a synagogue so that he could say the blessing he had learned over the weekly Torah reading, to fulfill the religious commandment of becoming a bar mitzvah. His grandparents also gave him tefillin they had brought for him from Israel.

Amir’s second aliyah to the Torah would come a few weeks later, thanks to Bonnie Friedman and David Merfeld, “empty nesters” who saw the images of families embarking on perilous journeys to seek asylum from their war-torn homes, and felt compelled to do something.

Noah, left, and Amir sledding.
David Merfeld

“No parent sends their kids off to sea in a leaky boat unless they think it’s safer than staying home,” Merfeld says. “It makes you wonder how bad home must be if they’re willing to get on the boat knowing that many before them sank.”

Through their synagogue, Eitz Chayim, they formed a group dedicated to hosting refugees. They made initial inquiries but were told it could take months to “adopt” a Syrian family and that there were Jewish families in need right now.

“My father and his parents were Holocaust survivors who came here in 1949 thanks to HIAS,” Merfeld says. “We called [HIAS] and the next we knew, we got the call that an Iranian Jewish family was coming over.”

They added a self-sufficient studio apartment to their home, so that Nooshin and Farzad could live independently, and redecorated for Amir the old bedroom of one of their daughters’ bedrooms.

'Noah and Amir were instantly inseparable'

“We’re very close with our grandson Noah, who lives nearby and has breakfast with us every morning,” says Friedman. “So we asked him to stop by the day Amir arrived. They became instantly inseparable.”

Noah took Amir to Hebrew school with him that afternoon, and by the time Friedman returned to pick them up, the boys were fist-bumping and high-fiving each other.

“I had no idea what it felt like to be Jewish,” says Amir. “We couldn’t participate in any holidays.”

The first Jewish holiday they celebrated was Sukkot, a reminder of the vulnerability and wandering spirit of the Jewish people, who are often strangers in strange lands. The meaning wasn’t lost on either the guests or their hosts.

Then came Simhat Torah, which had both families dancing in the street with a Torah scroll, something Nooshin could never have imagined doing back home.

“It was beautiful,” says Nooshin, who is grateful that her son is thriving in school, has turned from a guarded child to someone bursting with joy and has such a good friend in Noah, whom he calls his brother. She has since found work, thanks to a connection of Friedman’s, with an Iranian woman dentist, as well as two other part-time jobs that have her working six days a week.

“Sometimes I go to bed so tired, but I’m so happy,” says Nooshin. “I’m independent now and can save for Amir’s college.”

Though Trump’s executive order has halted their plans to go to Israel this summer to see her parents — and for Noah and Amir to go on a teen tour sponsored by the local Jewish community center — they are all grateful for the gift of each other.

“We’re the ones who feel like we won the lottery,” says Friedman. “I could never have expected how profoundly they’ve enriched our lives. We started a scholarship for refugees in their honor. They are the most amazing people.”

Noah feels the same way.

David Merfeld (foreground left) with his sister, parents and three of his grandparents, in the early 1960s. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
Courtesy

“To a lot of my friends, Amir is proof that stereotypes are not true, that people from Iran are not terrorists,” he says. “He’s such a caring and good guy, it hurts me to think that anyone would judge him badly without ever having met him. He’s beloved by all – even kids at school who support Trump. I think of everything he’s been through and how far he’s come – he inspires me to be a better person and take care of others because we’re all one.”

'It's our turn to keep the door open'

Last weekend, Noah went to his first demonstration, protesting the refugee ban with his grandparents in Boston’s Copley Square. Merfeld’s sign read: “I am the son of refugees.”

“My dad is turning 90 tomorrow,” says Merfeld. “We’re here because America once welcomed him with open arms and we’ll be eternally grateful for this. Now it’s our turn to keep that door open for those who are less fortunate than we are, who are in the same boat our parents or grandparents were once in.”