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    News & Views

    Iranians make new lives in America but hope for return

    By Scott Hillis

    LOS ANGELES, Feb 5, 1999, (Reuters) - Hamid Rafatjoo was nine when militiamen raided his home.

    Several Iranian revolutionary guards searched the house in suburban Tehran and hauled his parents away for questioning.

    ``At that point my parents made the decision to leave,'' recalled Rafatjoo, now 28, whose father was a respected surgeon. ``If a doctor's home wasn't safe, what was?''

    Iran's Islamic revolution, which erupted 20 years ago under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, drove out an ancient pro-Western monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi that the fundamentalist cleric claimed had strayed from Moslem ideals.

    The upheaval, in which thousands of Iranians were executed, drove many of the wealthiest and best-educated to seek refuge in Europe or the United States. Two decades after Khomeini declared the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Persian diaspora have fashioned new lives as doctors, shopkeepers and scientists while clinging to dreams of a return to their homeland.

    An estimated three million now live outside the ancient country once known as Persia and half a million of them have flocked to southern California, drawn by the area's sunny climate and economic prospects.


    ``The main portion of those who left first were the very rich because they didn't like living in a country with problems,'' said Ali Limonadi, president of IRTV, a Persian television station based in Los Angeles.

    Intellectuals were not far behind as the new regime tightened its grip on academics and professionals. ``The main reason for people leaving was the freedom, which just wasn't there,'' Limonadi said.

    While many Iranians initially fled to Germany or France, the spectre of xenophobia there chased many to the shores of America, despite its own struggles with racism. ``In America they could feel at home -- not right away, of course, but it was better than Europe,'' Limonadi said.

    Los Angeles has sprouted thousands of Iranian businesses ranging from shops selling intricate hand-woven Persian carpets to music stores hawking the latest hits from Iranian pop stars.

    More than 70 Persian restaurants pepper the city, offering rich Middle Eastern fare such as marinated lamb kebabs and stews laced with walnuts and pomegranate juice.

    Persian culture is so prevalent in some parts of Los Angeles it is sometimes referred to as ``Tehrangeles.''

    But, despite this success, the road to acceptance has been hard for exiled Iranians. Many were hounded in their new country after Islamic radicals stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and took 62 Americans hostage.

    ``That has died down and there's an awareness now that the people who are here are not necessarily religious fundamentalists,'' Rafatjoo said.


    Some older Iranians have also been vexed by the language barrier. Rafatjoo initially fled to France with his mother and brother, gaining a command of French -- only to be uprooted two years later to come to the United States.

    ``The only English I knew was the theme song for 'Happy Days,''' Rafatjoo said, referring to the popular TV sitcom.

    Elham Gheytanchi, 26, said language problems forced her father to abandon his career as an agricultural engineer and he now works in a Los Angeles men's store run by her uncle.

    For her, a female Jewish Iranian who is now a U.S. citizen, even answering the question ``What nationality are you?'' sparked some serious soul-searching. ``For me, from the very beginning I had this real burdensome problem of identity,'' she said.

    Reaping the fruits of the traditional Persian emphasis on learning, younger Iranians are installing themselves in America's corporate towers as well as its ivory ones.

    Rafatjoo is an attorney with a law firm in Irvine, California. Gheytanchi is toiling on a doctorate in sociology at the University of California in Los Angeles.

    Even now, 20 years later, a large chunk of the Iranian community still hope they can one day return to their homeland.

    ``My goal is to keep Iranians here together until the day we can go back,'' Limonadi said.

    As with many other groups, the Internet has become the Iranians' favourite outlet for dissent, with dozens of human rights and reformist Web sites cropping up.

    The rise of a reformist faction in Tehran led by the moderate President Mohammad Khatami has fuelled hopes of a U.S.-Iranian thaw that could reunite friends and families.

    While some Iranians are able to return for visits, that is off-limits to people like Limonadi, who declare themselves the ``opposition'' of the Islamic government.

    ``I am blacklisted, they would kill me right away,'' Limonadi said.

    Gheytanchi welcomed any sign of rapprochement, saying: ``You need to know what happened in the past but not hold on to those ideas because then you're stuck in the past.''

    But Rafatjoo doubts many exiles would return for long, given Iran's economic woes and the higher standard of living enjoyed in the United States. ``During the Iranian New Year I remember my parentssaying 'Hopefully next year we will be in Iran,''' he said. ``You don't hear that much anymore.''


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