Editor-in-chief for SF State’s Golden Gate Xpress. LA native, SF transplant. Journalism and German majors, polisci minor. Interested in national politics,...
‘The girl in the bubble’ Resilience through limitations
March 21, 2021
The return of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from Paris to Iran for the first time in 15 years in February 1979 is a memory Reza Esmaili, who was four years old at the time, remembers well.
Reza watched Khomeni’s plane land at Mehrabad International Airport on the rabbit-ear antenna TV sitting on the corner of the counter at a local bakery. He was with his father, and the two were getting pastries and delicacies in preparation for Norooz, also referred to as the Persian New Year.
“I just remember vividly that day, my father was like, ‘With the arrival of that guy’s airplane and his party, this country and our lives will change forever,’” Reza said. “And by the following Norooz, we were literally escaping our home and trying to get visas to leave everything behind.”
Political upheaval, protests and mass unemployment in the country led to a general feeling of uncertainty of the future of Iran and its government, which in part prompted the return of Khomeini and a total of an estimated 4.5 million Iranians to flee their country, including the Esmailis.
In their migration to the U.S., Reza relied on the console and guidance of his mother, Mehrbanoo Esmaili. Through moments including a middle-of-the-night travel to the airport, in which they were met at various checkpoints by men with machine guns, Mehrbanoo acted as her son’s rock, reassuring him with the false notion that many who make up the Iranian diaspora, including Mehrbanoo, believed in: that they would one day return to Iran.
According to Reza, it’s what gave her the strength to walk away from her career, life, and everything she knew for a nation she was hardly familiar with.
Before immigrating to the U.S., Mehrbanoo lived in a four- to five-story, estate-like home. She lived with Reza, her older son Ali, and her husband. He was a businessman, while she was a lawyer with an interest in children’s rights.
In fact, Mehrbanoo was the 13th woman ever licensed to practice law in Iran. She studied law along the ranks of Shirin Ebadi, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, at the University of Tehrān — both were trailblazers for women in the country. (Ebadi went on to become one of the first woman judges in the country.)
The two never developed a relationship during their studies, as Ebadi was in the graduating class above Mehrbanoo. She said the only time they’d ever met was later in life in San Francisco, and Ebadi didn’t recognize Mehrbanoo.
Contrary to any superstition surrounding the number 13, Mehrbanoo dismisses the thought of it being unlucky to her. She recalled her father trying to steer her away from the practice – not out of malice, but rather concern that her male counterparts would not take her seriously, and that she would struggle to find work.
“I love challenging, you know? That was challenging, that time,” Mehrbanoo said.
The Esmailis, who started in the U.S. in a two-bedroom apartment, make up only one family of the Iranian Bay Area diaspora. The Bay Area is believed to be home to over 100,000 Iranians, and California nearly 1.5 million, the largest Iranian population outside of Iran itself. Persis Karim, chair of SF State’s Center for Iranian Diasporas Studies, described the Bay Area’s Iranian population as influential and hands-on in engaging with the community, specifically noting contributions in the tech industry, arts and social justice.
“[One Iranian American] was involved in some of the left-wing movements like the San Francisco State ethnic studies strike, some of them passed through activities where they supported the Black Panthers,” Karim said. “So I see the Bay Area as this rich place where Iranians have the opportunity to interact culturally and politically with the Bay Area, and to innovate on some of those essential characteristics [of] what we think of as what makes the Bay Area an interesting place.”
While Mehrbanoo had family already in the Bay Area to help her adjust, she adapted to play both mother and father roles for Reza and Ali when they arrived in the U.S. Her husband stayed back in Iran; after arriving in the U.S., he was diagnosed with hip cancer and died within five years of his diagnosis.
“[It was a] very hard time,” Merhbanoo said. “Very emotional, and [we] also lost everything. But my two children, both of them started working from a very, very young age, and I’m proud of them.”
Reza, who was 16 when his father died, said he never saw his mother break down, something that was calming and needed as he also grieved. He attributes this to the fact that they had time to brace themselves and mourn before his father died; once he was gone, Reza said, the healing could begin for them all.
She didn’t lose her direct drive or her convictions. She just persevered right through it, and pulled us through it as well.”
— Reza Esmaili
“She didn’t lose her direct drive or her convictions. She just persevered right through it, and pulled us through it as well,” he said.
Part of their tight bond was created through their “currency of love,” as Reza described: food. A self-proclaimed “chubby kid,” he said his mom would cook Iranian and American meals as a way of rewarding or consoling her children when needed. That, and quick-witted jokes and teasing – reminding each other of embarrassing moments.
“[Reza] told me something very interesting, maybe he didn’t want me to tell you, but he told me, ‘I tell everybody I have two loves of my life: my mother and my wife!” Mehrbanoo said, laughing.
One of the observations Mehrbanoo made upon moving to the U.S. was the increasing fear of Iranians embracing and owning their identities, which also manifested in people opting to speak English over Farsi, elders included. Karim said this self-suppression of Iranian culture was a widespread act, the result of American perceptions of Iran and the Iranian hostage crisis.
Mehrbanoo and her sons were not immune to this discrimination and racism. While Reza recalled learning English quickly as a way to stand up for himself against school bullies, he said his mother and older brother had it worse. While his mother took ESL courses at Marin Community College, Reza said she mostly picked up the language through him and Ali.
“[Immigrants] found a lot of anti-Iranian sentiment here. So people didn’t publicly want to say, ‘Hey, I’m an Iranian,’ because there was so much bad press about Iran for almost a decade,” Karim said. “So one of the ways people subverted identifying as Iranian was to say, ‘Oh, I’m Persian,’ or they just didn’t say, period. I would say that it’s more of a traumatic response than anything else.”
While Mehrbanoo may have experienced aggressions like this, they did little to steer her away from Iranian culture – in fact, it encouraged her to share it. She said that this “hurt me and it changed my life, changed my way.”
In 1983, she began teaching not only in Marin, but community centers and libraries in Palo Alto and Santa Rosa – locations, she said that were convenient for parents to drop students off and pick them up. She said her classes would reach up to 20 students, ages ranging 3-45; over time, she said students and former students would bring their own children to learn Farsi. To Reza, this newfound passion also marked her submission to the idea that they would not be returning to Iran.
“I try not to only teach Farsi – I try to make them Iranian, to know the culture,” Mehrbanoo said.
Unlike languages today such as Spanish or French, according to Karim, first-generation Iranians were not afforded the opportunity for integration and acculturation – rather, assimilation was forced on many as means of survival. Programming and learning opportunities like Mehrbanoo’s were typically done under the radar and with little support.
Human beings are all members of one body, they are created from the same essence. When one member is in pain, the others cannot rest. If you do not care about the pain of others, you do not deserve to be called a human being.”
LISTEN: One of Mehrbanoo’s favorite quotes at the moment is by Sa’adi, an Iranian poet of the 13th century. The quote can also be found at the entrance of the United Nations building in Manhattan. She recites the quote twice — once in English (left), and once in Farsi (right).
Nazy Kaviani, program assistant at SF State’s center and founder of the nonprofit Diaspora Arts Connection, said that the poeticness of Farsi is derived out of necessity for artistic expression in the country. She noted current laws in Iran that do not allow women to remove hijabs on film, forcing filmmakers and artists alike to master the art of “veiled references.” Kaviani highlighted “Rusari Abi,” in which the act of sex is symbolized by the male protagonist jumping over a puddle of water every time he visits his lover’s home.
“In a way, it restricts the artists, but it also frees the artists to imagine and to say things like that,” Kavianai said. “Because when you’re dealing with censorship, you say it beautifully, you have to think clever, be clever, you have to be more creative in how you say it.”
Most of Mehrbanoo’s work since 1997 has been through the nonprofit Vivalon, formerly known as Whistestop. She volunteered 394 hours through its Persian Group in 2019, all for free. According to Jennifer Golbus, Vivalon’s director of Marketing & Communications, Mehrbanoo turned down a paid position when offered at the group’s inception.
“Who does that? She turned it down because she felt that volunteering her services would be the best for everyone. She’s just all about giving back,” Golbus said.
The 394 hours — approximately eight hours a week, broken down into two four-hour days, which equates to roughly $11,426, had she been paid— only documents the recorded volunteer hours, Golbus noted.
In addition to her regularly scheduled hours, Vivalon estimated in 2019 that she spent an additional 10 hours a week of her own time, helping up to 400 Persians since starting with the nonprofit with paperwork and making phone calls to help then receive citizenship. She’s also helped in making phone calls for those insecure in their English; provided legal expertise; assistance in securing SSI and Medical; and drove friends, family, students and others in need to any appointments, sporting a grey 2009 Chevy Spark – all free of charge.
“Imagine you’re from a small village in Iran … ‘If you are going to Marin you must call Mrs. Esmaili! She will help you,’” reads Esmaili’s application entry for the 27th Heart of Marin awards, presented by the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership. She received the “Volunteer of the Year” award in 2019; according to Golbus, her driving reason for wanting the reward wasn’t for the personal accolade, but for Vivalon to receive the $5,000 stipend.
“[Ali] told me, ‘Okay, let’s move from here. Let’s go to Sacramento,’ Mehrbanoo recalled. “But I said no. I have [enough] around here … and I’m related to everybody like a family. I don’t want to leave them until the end.”
In the virtual reality of the COVID-19 era, Mehrbanoo isn’t able to interact with as many students. She now teaches three students as opposed to teaching in a group setting, which is more effective given the one-on-one nature of Zoom. She’s become “the girl in the bubble,” as Reza describes.
The limitations of Zoom haven’t stopped her; Zoom has allowed her to now teach students based in Florida and Los Angeles. Reza laughed about her enthusiasm for the platform, saying, “What a plug for Zoom — 2021 brand ambassador!”
“I never get tired of seeing the kids, Iranian people and working with them. That is my goal and my life. I want to keep the culture, language,” Mehrbanoo said. “When I am on the Zoom, I feel young, I feel energy. I feel good.”
The spread of the novel coronavirus forced Mehrbanoo to cancel her annual in-person festivities for Norooz last year, where roughly 200 individuals — a mix of family, friends, community members and students — would participate in reciting poetry dedicated to Mehrbanoo, dancing and acting performances at the Corte Madera Community Center.
This year, the celebrations were hled virtually on March 18 — about 25 participants logged onto Mehrbanoo’s personal Zoom meeting room to watch a prerecorded video of poetry recitation and dancing.
“It’s sort of an opportunity to reflect on the old year and greet the new year,” Karim said. “And it’s in tandem with blossoms on trees and baby birds being born and green grass. And so a lot of the rituals for new year are tied into those same ideas about spring renewal.”
She celebrated her 82nd birthday on Feb. 21, and received her first dose of the vaccine against COVID-19 the following day — “It’s that survivor-slash-champion mentality … nothing has broken her,” Reza said.
Mehrbanoo said that once pandemic restrictions are lessened and travel is safe, she would like to visit Iran with her sons. Reza compared the waiting game of the pandemic to the false promise of returning to Iran, saying, “That’s kind of like what many of us felt last March in April … ‘This is only temporary. Like, it’s fine. We’ll be back to normal in no time.’”
In the meantime, she’ll continue to do what she does best and loves to do — cultivate relationships with both her personal and “extended” family.
“I feel very good. That is my life, that is my love,” Mehrbanoo said. “I have no other things, only this. I’m proud of this, doing this and helping people.”