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America

Miracle on 55th Street
When you first arrive as a refugee in America...

December 24, 2003
The Iranian

I just recorded a shorter version of this as a holiday commentary for WSHU, an NPR station in Connecticut (listen here). Here's the complete version.

On a December day in 1985, my mother and I finally parted. Two Jewish refugees from Iran, we had arrived in the United States six months earlier and for fear of getting lost in New York, we had gone everywhere together. And now, she had to go home to Brooklyn to prepare the holiday dinner, while I had to stay for a job interview in the city.

I remember being so worried that I deposited a token, past the stiles and put her on a Brooklyn bound B. Speaking like the mother to my mother, I told her to stay on till 55th Street. "Remember Mother: 55th Street is your stop!" I kept repeating to her, exactly the way she had once told me not to forget to brush. And during those last seconds, when the train doors were still open, I gave further instructions: "If you can't hear the announcements, just go to the conductor."

" Stand clear of the closing doors!" And what nineteen years had not done, the shutting of the subway doors did at last --my mother and I separated. She waved and tried to smile reassuringly as her train took off. I stood wondering, her face still in sight, if I had done the right thing to let her go on her own, when a voice on the intercom announced: This B train is now running on the R Line. Attention: the Brooklyn bound B will be running on the R Queens line.

When you first arrive as a refugee in America, those relatives who have come before you assume themselves authorities on all matters. First there's the barrage of metaphors to set you on the right track with the help of apt imagery: "You're a bird now. You migrated to where the weather is better." Or, "You're a plant and this is good earth for your roots at last." Being perfectly disoriented, my mother and I were convinced that if only we dress our minds in the right metaphor, our dizziness would end.

Then came the unsolicited advice, mostly contradictory. Some insisted "Mind your own business!" Others said: "If you don't know everyone's business, you're being cheated." But they were all unanimous about one thing: "Beware of the blacks!"

Standing at the station, knowing that my mother was on the wrong train, I knew then we were neither birds nor plants for they would never be lost as my mother was at that moment.

I took the next train home. At the local police station, I stopped to report, in my broken English, that my mother missing, but was told nothing would be done sooner than 48 hours. So I rushed home to call my brothers. Our first holiday in America was on the verge of becoming a disaster.

The sun had nearly set and my brothers and I were about to leave home to look for our mother, when the doorbell rang. There at the threshold, my mother stood, jubilant, her arm looped around the arm of an African American woman in a New York Transit Authority uniform. When Mother stepped into the house, tears began rolling down her cheeks.

ollowing the stream of tears were the words: After more than an hour, all passengers had got off and there she was the only one still on the train. Then turning her wet face to her companion, she said in Persian: "This woman, right here, saved me!"

"Hey, I was just doing my job!" the woman, surmising my mother's meaning through the tears, told her in English. Then she said to us that seeing how anxious my mother was and how little English she spoke, she thought it was best to bring her home after her shift had ended.

That night in our living-room, my mother lit the Hannukah candles, shut her eyes and prayed for the safety and well being of Gloria, her new found friend, and all her family on the eve of Christmas and would not let poor Gloria go home to tend to her baked ham unless she had tried my mother's tarragon veal balls first.

Watching Gloria try my mother's cooking, and ooh and aah to every bite, I realized that as new immigrants, we were not birds or plants but used cars that had to reset their odometers to zero and discover the American road, without anyone's instructions, all on our own.

For WSHU, I am Roya Hakakian >>> listen here

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