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My Escape From Iran, From Oppression to Freedom

My Escape From Iran, From Oppression to Freedom

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As a child born and raised in Iran during the 1960s and `70s, I was taught to keep my head down and my mouth shut. I was free to be Jewish as long as I was discreet and silent. My father encouraged me to follow these dictates, which had supported the existence of Iran’s Jewish community for thousands of years. Every Iranian minority knew that the freedom to live and even flourish depended on remaining silent.

My mother told me that I could set my goals as high as I chose and that I could accomplish anything, but I knew that my freedom was limited: My sense of responsibility informed me that if II knew that my freedom was limited declared my freedom to act, I would face grave consequences. In essence, to be a Jew and a thinker in Iran of the late 1970s meant having to live as a slave in relative liberty, within the dictates of her masters. And this I could never accept.

In 1978, at the age of 13, I slipped out of my father’s house to join university students demonstrating against the brutalities of the Shah. I thought that by adding my voice to the cry of “Long Live Freedom!” I would help freedom come to my country. I was young, idealistic and naïve. As my ambitions were primarily academic, I truly believed that my desire to live a life without restraint could never harm me or bring harm to others.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini replaced the Shah, I saw that my desire for freedom had been co-opted by the unscrupulous. One tyrant was replaced with another. Nonetheless, I continued to follow the dictates of my heart and spoke out whenever I saw people bullied or in danger.

The beginning of my demise, which eventually led to my fleeing the country, began when I intervened in a schoolyard quarrel. I attended a nondenominational private girls’ school where Jews, Muslims, Christians and Baha’is were united. Yet, as the turmoil began to settle in my hometown of Shiraz, the voices of the radical Islamism began to emerge. Social unrest became the norm, and the minority began to suffer. Homes, especially those in the Baha’i community, were set ablaze.

My Baha’i classmate was distraught; to distract her, I suggested a volleyball game during recess. As we were playing, a classmate who was a Hezbollah supporter (and supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini) taunted her, by shouting: “Too bad they did not burn your house! They should have burned your house, too.”

I jumped into the fray. I faced the ringleader, drawing upon my knowledge of Islam I proclaimed: “You call yourself a Muslim! What does the name of your prophet Muhammad mean?” I shouted back: “It means peace and tolerance! Where is peace and tolerance in burning innocents’ homes? You are like a parrot, repeating words without understanding the meaning.” Humiliated, she ran to the principal, seeking revenge.

I was suspended from school for a “lack of respect towards the majority,” while the bully was not reprimanded. I accepted the punishment in deed, if not in spirit. I knew I had defended my friend against injustice. My mother affirmed my actions, yet pleaded that I should never put myself in harm’s way again. She was prescient; I did not know that years later, the Muslim classmate that I confronted would use her Hezbollah connections to put my name on a government blacklist that sought to have people disappear. To ensure my survival, I was required to leave school and go into hiding for more than a year, prior to eventually being forced to flee Iran.

Had I known that my outburst would one day impel my flight into the most dangerous desert in the world—the Kavir e lut—and my difficult journey to Pakistan, would I still have been so free with my words? I believe so.

When I look back at my life in Shiraz, I remember the Passover Seders of my youth, where we gathered at my grandfather’s house, heard the men recite words from the Haggadah, ate the fresh seasonal fruit and savored the matzah prepared by my father and grandfather at the kosher bakery organized by the Jewish community. We Iranian Jews were proud to be members of a community that had been part of Iranian life and Persian culture for nearly 3,000 years.

In my memoir, Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran, I write about the life-threatening circumstances that compelled me to flee my country. I was a simple girl from a middle-class family. The last time I celebrated Passover in the warm, richI remain nostalgic tradition of my large Iranian family, I was 13—young enough to believe that the future held possibilities, yet old enough to be aware that we lived in dangerous times.

When I think about my life as a child in my father’s house, I remain nostalgic. Yet there is nothing that can match the pride I feel to know that now in Canada, I can thrive as a woman, a Jew and a professional. I am free to discuss and share my beliefs in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance. The laws declare that I am free. My religion tells me I am free. And I will go to the ends of the earth to protect this fragile right.

Dr. Sima Goel, born in Iran, is an author, inspirational speaker, freelance writer, and chiropractor. She has dedicated her life to promoting the importance and fragility of freedom, and is the author of Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous April 2, 2017

Reading your article I noticed that at some level I am still uncomfortable being seen without a hijab or a niqab even though living elsewhere for several decades now. It is interesting what stays. Perhaps the subtle social anxiety stems from that history. This new awareness helps. It is also good to see that had I remained there I would not have progressed this far. Reply

Pat North Carolina April 12, 2017

Thank you, Dr Goel, for your heartfelt words. Your mention of the hardships that the Baha'is faced along with you brings bittersweet thoughts and tears: sweet thoughts because it gives my soul a great lift to hear that someone helped stand up for the Baha'is who have been continuously persecuted in Iran and other predominantly Muslim countries and where many have been imprisoned just for the "crime" of teaching school or admitting to being a Baha'i. Bitter with tears because of the amount of religious intolerance there is in the world today. It is sometimes very disheartening, but I, as a Baha'i, have faith that one day the world will live as one country with all people as brothers and sisters of one family. Bless you and thank you again. Reply

Dr. Sima Goel Montreal April 19, 2017
in response to Pat:

Thank you for your kind words. No matter how darkness try to frighten us and no matter how hard evil try to win, the light of few courageous will shine brightly on the darkness.

There are far more goodness in the world than we know. I was blessed to help at one point as well as be the recipient of generosity of others when I was desperate need for help.

We all belong to human family, sisters and brothers, and until we realize that there is us versus them.

I witness the suffering Baha'i endured then and know that is still going on.

I love to hear your thought about my book.

Much gratitude, Reply

Valerie Singh Simi Valley, Ca. via chabadsimi.org April 10, 2017

I was an American Jewish woman living in Shiraz, Iran 1972-1975. I attended Nemezee Hospital School of Nursing and feel I had a very excellent nursing education as well as a complete cultural experience. I lived in the student nurses' dormitory and mixed well with all my classmates. There were Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Bahai nursing students. It was a wonderful opportunity to share our religious beliefs, and cultures. I found my classmates extremely different in how they were raised and they were quite curious about how I was raised in the United.States. I now see my classmates in the United.States/ California working as nurses and we can get together socially.
Valerie Singh Reply

Dr. Sima Goel Montreal April 19, 2017
in response to Valerie Singh:

Dear Valerie,

Thank you for writing . Wow, You were in Iran during the upheaval, it must have been scary.

But you witnessed something that I am sure, left strong impression on you.

I met another lady who was in Iran during that period and she cried the entire time I was presenting my stroy.

Iranians are hospitable and kind and I feel bad for them because they do not have the freedom to live their lives as they would like to.

Please let me know what you think of my book if you decide to read it.

Best wishes, Reply

Rita Forbes April 6, 2017

Such an inspirational story that at the age of 13 you were willing to fight and risk your life for justice in a country, although the home of your birth, where you are a minority. This is symbolic of Moses fighting for justice on behalf of his people the Jews. It is here that we find meaning, the willingness to lose our life that others may gain theirs. This is what the true meaning of love and sacrifice.

Thank you! Reply

Dr. Sima Goel Montreal April 6, 2017
in response to Rita Forbes:

Dear Rita, Thank you for your inspiring words. You are so right, in every generation we have to fight to preserve our freedom. Most important freedom, is to see ourselves as free man and woman and do our best to embody that.
I hope you enjoy reading my stroy in details and looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it.
Wishing you and yours a Happy Passover, Reply

jim dallas April 4, 2017

Thanks a million Dr. Goel, i thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures, G-d be with you, a good Pesach to you and thanks for the reply! Reply

jim dallas April 3, 2017

dr. goel has been amazing as a child and dealing with unholy mean circumstances...i am sure from reading her that she is as exceptional today...thanks for an inspirational slant on what public institutions can become and our responsibility under their heavy hands.
and, again, exceptional story art to herald the forces faced and to glorify the overcoming of them...sefira is a wonderful artist and surely an insightful human being!
G-d be with both of you ladies! Reply

Dr. Sima Goel Montreal April 4, 2017
in response to jim:

Thank you for your support. We all face evil in our lives, but there are more goodness than we can imagine. The best way to overcome evil to see the good, to do good deeds and to be good. That is when G-d is helping us become more of whom we were supposed to become. I was blessed to have been where I was and where I am today. May we all release the shackles that hold us hostage and seek freedom to be the better version of ourselves. Reply

Anonymous April 2, 2017

Everything you post is inspiring. Dr. Sima Goel's story of her life gives me strength. Thank you Dr. Goel for sharing it with us. Wishing you a rich Pesach. Reply

Dr. Sima Goel Montreal April 3, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Thank you, I am grateful for your kind words. Wishing you a happy Pesach.
- Dr. Sima Goel Reply

Elizabeth Crawford Madison April 3, 2017
in response to Dr. Sima Goel:

Thank you Dr. Goel. Reply

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