I Was an American Refugee

 

By Franklin T. Burroughs

The unfortunate situation involving refugees and asylum seekers, especially from the Middle East and Central America, continues to make headlines and spark questions about what can be done. The recent Navy’s suggestion of placing a detainment camp at the Naval Weapons Station in Concord has brought the issue close to home.  Even closer for me, as it has brought back dark memories when I became a refuge in America.

Because so few of the individuals writing about the refugees have actually experienced the physical and emotional problems involved, they tend to generalize and speculate about the effects of refugee status, but as an American citizen, I became a refugee shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and suffered from the effects for many years.

In the early 1960s, my Iranian wife and I decided to visit Iran for one year so that I could become better acquainted with her culture and family.  One year became ten. We enjoyed Iran, our lifestyle, and made many friends.  We became residents in Iran without relinquishing our U.S. citizenship or allegiance to America.

We constructed a lovely home in North Tehran, purchased a reasonable vacation home, and operated a middle school for both Iranian and international students.  Our net worth grew rapidly.

In the summer of 1978, a theater in the southern part of Iran had been burned by Iranian rebels.

Conditions in Iran grew worse, and by early 1979 the situation had become chaotic.  The Shah fled Iran on the 16th of January, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the country.

Revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy on November 4th and took Americans prisoner, fifty-two of whom were held hostage for 444 days.

The office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce overlooked the U.S. Embassy, and as Executive Director of the Chamber, I was targeted to be taken into custody by the dissidents and either held hostage in the embassy or placed in the notorious Evin Prison.  I went immediately into hiding until my exit visa could be arranged through connections between the chamber secretary and the Iranian Prime Ministry.

Life became more uncertain and dangerous for my family and me.  Only limiting conversations and my proficiency in Farsi prevented me from being imprisoned.

While in hiding, I discovered that I was on a wanted list by the revolutionaries to arrest.  My wife and I often faced gunshots not aimed at us but possibly fatal for us in the crossfire.  A mob of unknown revolutionaries attacked and destroyed our retreat home.  We sold our Tehran home but ran into difficulties in our attempt to transfer the funds out of Iran. The Department of Education revoked the license for the middle school we had established.  With my wife and I my under threat, we pondered what might happen to our daughters if we remained in Iran.  To take me into custody, two armed revolutionaries forced my older daughter under her bed while they searched an apartment we had rented.  Fortunately, I had escaped Iran two days prior to the revolutionaries’ visit.

Because of the Islamic Revolution, my family and I became virtual refugees.  We were forced to leave Iran, fearing political oppression and religious persecution.  We had to flee the conflict for our lives.  The lives of my wife and children could have been compromised because of my American citizenship as well as their dual citizenships.

We returned to the United States as refugees with little money, no jobs, and almost no professional connections. The financial losses we suffered included several hundred thousand dollars.  We became a displaced family with few supporters.  Only my older brother and his wife were kind enough to allow us to stay with them in their home for several months.

As we began to settle in after our forced return to America, we searched for empathetic groups to which we might be able to refer for advice and assistance but found little success.  Technically, we could not be considered refugees since my wife, two children and I were already US citizens and were not seeking entry into the United States from a third world because of persecution, even though our motivation for re-entry was for fear of persecution by the Islamic government. Our US citizenship denied us the possibility of being identified, vetted, and resettled as refugees. further, our citizenship did not permit the US government to offer us protection under the international humanitarian law.

We approached the U.S. Government for help in initiating a lawsuit against the Government of Iran for funds to sustain us until we could get resettled in the United States, but the response was very disappointing.

Government officials seemed to view us as migrants unworthy of much attention.  After considerable effort and persistence, we were awarded a minimal amount of money.  Our financial loss remained in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For several years following the Islamic Revolution, my family and I lived the lives of distraught refugees.  We continued to be concerned about our human rights and our poor economic situation.  We had experienced considerable trauma.  We knew we could not return to Iran.

My wife and I would often walk for hours to reduce our tension and fear for our future.  At times, desperation overwhelmed us.  It took several years for us to settle emotionally and accept that we had to begin again even though both of us were over forty years of age.

No one could really feel our pain brought about by the loss of everything for which we had worked so hard and our plunge into poverty.  Individuals and audiences loved to hear our story when I would be asked to speak at political gatherings or before service clubs, but empathy seemed to end with verbal expressions of regret such as “I enjoyed your presentation, I wish you well.”

Both my wife and I had graduate degrees from UCLA, but the degrees seemed to mean nothing to potential employers.   Her Master of Science degree in Hospital Administration and her years of experience as an administrator didn’t seem to impress employers, and my extensive background in international affairs and administration led nowhere.  Almost every response to an application would read something like this: “Thank you for applying.   We appreciate you taking the time to fill out the application, but your background doesn’t fit our needs.  We wish you luck in finding work.”  Each rejection left us more depressed.

Finally, we decided we needed to act independently.  I went without work for some five years before discovering a developer in Santa Rosa who had heard about our plight and was willing to take a chance on my ability to interact successfully with local government officials in applying for building permits and responding to building inspections.  He at first offered me a modest salary and gradually accepted me as a limited partner.

For more than five years, my wife performed menial tasks in a variety of retail establishments.  She eventually joined two other Iranians in a venture involving the establishment and administration of several coffee shops, including Il Fornaio Bakery, formerly on Main St. in Walnut Creek.

These two developments gave us hope and put us back on the road to success. My wife sold the business and eventually became a successful banker while I worked as a developer for a few years before entering academia.  I served as President of Armstrong University and later Assistant Dean of Notre Dame Denamur University in Belmont.   Today, I work as an Adjunct Professor at John F Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill.

Only individuals and families who have been displaced, faced a bleak future, and viewed as migrants can appreciate the intense and long-lasting effects of homelessness and the physical and psychological effects of being refugees. Even today, after more than thirty years, my experiences as a refugee at times haunt me.

I find it relatively easy to identify with current refugees, no matter their countries of origin.  They must address their personal and emotional problems resulting from their refugee status.  Only they can get on with life.  The major role of the countries and organizations volunteering to accept and work with refugees is to ensure a safe and supportive environment that encourages each refugee to re-enter society successfully and begin the self-healing process.

 

 

About Franklin Burroughs: Franklin Burroughs lives in Concord. He lived in Iran for 15 years and served as the Executive Director of U.S.-Iran Chamber of Commerce. Mohammed Reza Shah Pavli attempted to inform President Carter of his willingness to establish a constitutional monarchy.  (Diablo Gazette March 2018) Then after the Revolution, the Iranian military and Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari sought the assistance of the U.S. Government in initiating a coup against Khomeini and the Islamic Republic (Diablo Gazette, April 2018).  In both instances, Burroughs served as an intermediary, before escaping and returning to the United States.  Both articles can be found at www.diablogazette.com.

He is also one of eleven local authors participating in the just-released anthology of short stories, “Insight, Hindsight, and Flights of Fancy”. www.DiabloGazette.com.