“Ana Surya,” said Maryam, a girl no older than ten, with her hand out.
It was night in Taksim Square, Istanbul, as she guided me while holding my hand to her widowed mother, who was breastfeeding her newborn child on the streets. They were a Syrian Kurdish family that had fled Khobani. The mother told me about how they fled when ISIS invaded their neighborhood, were separated from the father, and are now stuck here in the urban streets Istanbul with no shelter, food or water.
I was saddened and empathized with this Syrian family’s story, not just as a human, not just as a Jew, but also as an Iranian-American Jew. When I connected their story to my family’s story coming to America during the Iranian Revolution (1977-1979) I realized that had slightly different things occurred, I very well could have been Maryam, the Syrian girl, growing up in the streets of Istanbul.
We Iranian Jews in America are also refugees. About 30,000 Iranian Jews fled to America slightly before, during or after the Iranian Revolution not knowing what the after effects might be. However, in retrospect my family was fortunate to leave when they did and get accepted. Many Iranians, including one of our family friends, got stuck in Iran and had to leave by crossing the Turkish border “with little more than the clothes on their back.” Even today, many Iranians who fled at the wrong time are struggling today in America. ‘“I have to work all the time, it is very difficult,’ said Edna Hakaian, who arrived nearly penniless in Los Angeles in 1983 with her two daughters after an arduous overland exodus from Iran by way of Turkey.”
Since my experience abroad, I have felt obligated to fight for the US acceptance of Syrian refugees. I feel fortunate to live a good life in America as a first generation from Iran and I will fight to allow Syrian families to come here and have the opportunity to work hard and build a good life here in America for their children as my parents did for me. Of course, fighting for another people through empathy is not unique in the American Jewish community.
Many American Jewish organizations are fighting for the admission of Syrian refugees because they empathize with the Syrians after their flight during WWII. American Jews can connect their grandparents’ narrative of when they fled from Europe during WWII to the Syrians’ exodus today. When seeking refuge in America with the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazi Germany in Europe, many Jews were denied entry in America because they were seen as “spies.” Had the US let them in, many lives may have been spared.
On Sunday February 12, I attended the HIAS’ Jewish Rally for Refugees in New York. I was further inspired by the powerful speeches people were giving, especially those that emphasized the similarities in narrative between refugees and the Jewish people. City Comptroller Scott Stringer said, “At a different time in a different era, our people, grandparents and great-grandparents, were turned away from this country. And we who are here today, the sons and daughters of a previous generation, we say to our refugees: come one, come all.”
The HIAS rally and the many other campaigns initiated by American Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, are evidence of how well the American Jewish society is responding to the refugee crisis. However, the same may not be said about the Iranian-American Jewish community.
Based on my experience, the Iranian Jews in America, many of them the refugees themselves, are more hardline if not opposed to the admission of Syrian refugees. Often when the subject came up over Persian rice during Shabbat dinners, I felt they would rationalize on why they should not come to America. I was disheartened to see my close friends and family being opposed to helping people who were in their precise situation about 35 years ago.
Of course, coming from an Iranian Jewish background, this fear is certainly understandable. Iranian Jews have complex relations and mixed feelings towards the Muslim world. Many of them grew up as friends with Muslims in Iran, but at the same time many Jews were persecuted as a religious minority there. Additionally, with many Iranian Jews supporting Israel, they are also, understandably, fearful of the rise of radical Islamism.
Nevertheless, we cannot forget our narrative, as Iranian-American Jews, nor can we remain apathetic towards the suffering of Syrian refugees because at the end of the day we have backgrounds and inherent features that make us inseparable to the Syrian people.
Our narratives are almost exactly identical: Middle Eastern people fleeing away from a chaotic situation and are facing obstacles for refugee because of our perceived alliance. Just as Iranian could have been, and many probably were, perceived to be “agents” or “spies” for Khomeini’s government, many average Syrian families are perceived as ISIS fighters. For instance, just like Iranians of all faiths in America, my parents, and many other Iranian Jews said how they would often lie about being Egyptian in America during the embassy hostage crisis in Iran.
Moreover, just as many Syrians are fleeing across borders and are finding themselves homeless in the urban streets of Istanbul, Amman and Beirut, so too were the Iranian Jews when they crossed the Turkish border. Again, as mentioned before, considering that many Iranians had to cross the Turkish border after the revolution, had things gone slightly different for my parents, I very well could have grown up homeless in the urban streets of Istanbul just like Maryam and many other Syrian refugees are.
There are also interpersonal similarities between us Iranian-American Jews and Syrians. Growing up in an American Jewish day school, I was always the elephant in the room with the color of my skin. I was almost always screened at the airport – even when I went on Birthright. I have experienced the challenges many Mizrahis face in American and experienced the identity crisis, asking myself, am I a person of color?
Just as many American Jews are not forgetting their grandparents’ stories during WWII and are now fighting for Syrians, we Iranian-American Jews must do the same. We cannot forget our narrative and must step up and fight a people who are now in a situation we were in not too long ago.
__Jewish history is one long story of seeking refuge. From Hitler’s Berlin to Soviet Moscow, from fundamentalist Teheran to chaos-ridden Addis-Ababa — read more of Jewish refugees’ stories here._
This story "Why Iranian-American Jews Must Fight for Syrian Refugees" was written by Jonah Naghi.