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Jewish Journal

Oldest Jewish Immigrant From Iran Arrives in L.A.

by Karmel Melamed

March 25, 2009 | 4:45 am

<i>Heshmat Elyasian, nearly 103 years old, at Los Angeles International Airport, where she arrived with her son and his family. An Iranian Jewish client of HIAS, the international migration agency, Heshmat is the oldest refugee in HIAS records, which date back to 1909, and may be the oldest ever to arrive in the United States. Photo by HIAS</i><br />

Heshmat Elyasian, nearly 103 years old, at Los Angeles International Airport, where she arrived with her son and his family. An Iranian Jewish client of HIAS, the international migration agency, Heshmat is the oldest refugee in HIAS records, which date back to 1909, and may be the oldest ever to arrive in the United States. Photo by HIAS

After living in Iran for more than a century, witnessing the rise and fall of three kings and the upheaval of an Islamic revolution 30 years ago, 102-year-old Heshmat Elyasian arrived in Los Angeles two months ago with her immediate family to become the oldest Jewish immigrant from Iran to resettle in Los Angeles.

Because of an age-related mental decline, Elyasian was not fully aware that she had resettled in the United States. However, she said she was in good spirits during an interview with The Journal.

“I have some pain in my arms and legs from arthritis, but otherwise, thank God,” she said in her native Persian, while seated in a wheelchair and surrounded by family members at a relative’s home in the Valley.

Elyasian immigrated to the United States with her son, Manouchehr Tabari, and his family with the help of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). According to HIAS records, Elyasian is the oldest refugee they have helped.

“Making the transition to life in America is not easy for many reasons, especially since the Iranian currency is worth so much less when converted to dollars, but we’re grateful to be here,” said 68-year-old Tabari, who was a cinematographer and filmmaker in Iran.

Tabari said the decision for his immediate family to leave Iran was based on his desire to pursue better educational opportunities for his children in the United States. Since extended families typically live together in Iran for many years, it was only natural for Tabari to immigrate with his mother.

“The plane trip here was very difficult for all of us, especially for my mother, because it was for many hours, and they had seated all of us in different parts of the airplane,” said Tabari, who now lives at his niece’s Tarzana home. “We are still trying to get over the exhaustion of the trip and the shocks of this new environment.”

Elyasian’s long life in Iran has not been the easiest, her son explained. After her marriage, her husband, who was a butcher, lost his savings after livestock he had purchased and ritually slaughtered were not kosher due to some impurities. The couple and their six children barely survived while they lived in poor conditions in Tehran’s run-down Jewish ghetto. Her husband was forced to work small and low-paying odd jobs, while she raised their children and also earned a living helping other families with their cooking, sewing and hand-washing their laundry.

“I am the only person in my family that has had formal education, and my mother really sacrificed on my behalf so that I could get an education,” said Tabari, who produced documentary films for television networks in Iran after studying film and drama in New York during the 1960s. “I’ve taken care of her myself ever since my father suddenly died of a heart attack at age 62.”

Iranian Jewish historical scholars said they were excited about Elyasian’s arrival in the United States because of her life experience and the fact that her father was one of a few Jewish musicians to entertain the late Iranian king, Nasser-al-Din Shah Qajar, which could shed new light on how Jews were treated in the king’s court during the early 20th century.

“Life was not easy for Jews living in Iran during the time this woman was born,” said Daniel Tsadik, a professor of Iranian studies at Yeshiva University in New York. “They were typically living in poverty, faced persecution in various cities and their movement was restricted in the country, because they were considered ritually impure by the local Muslim leaders.”

Despite several mattresses and open suitcases stuffed with clothing laid out in her living room, Elyasian’s granddaughter, Soheyla Tabari, said she was excited to welcome her grandmother and uncle’s family to stay with her temporarily until they settle in their new lives in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been telling them to come here for the past 20 years, and we lost some valuable time that we could have really enjoyed together,” Soheyla Tabari said. “But it’s been a great experience for all of us to find each other again — four generations living under one roof.”

Elyasian and her family have already begun the slow process of resettlement with the help of local Jewish agencies. Once Iranian Jewish families reach the United States, the Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Family Service and other agencies affiliated with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles typically are among the first to help these new immigrants.

Local Iranian Jewish groups also have helped out, including the Torat Hayim Center, the SIAMAK organization and the Hope Foundation. These groups have collaborated to create the Caring Committee, which will temporarily help the family with rent, groceries, medical and legal bills, transportation and school tuition. The local Iranian American Jewish Federation has also been involved in helping these new immigrants.

The issue of Jewish immigration from Iran is particularly sensitive for local Iranian Jewish leaders. For the most part, the work of HIAS to help Jews emigrate from Iran since the 1980s has happened under the media radar in order not to embarrass the Iranian government. Community leaders have long feared that any publicity could potentially jeopardize the current flow of Jewish immigration out of Iran. The process of immigration varies for different Iranian Jews and can take anywhere from nine months to several years.

According to HIAS records, since 1979, the organization had aided more than 15,000 Iranian Jewish refugees in immigrating to the United States, nearly half of them to the Los Angeles area.

During 2007, the Chicago-based Christian Jewish nonprofit, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), along with the Jewish Agency in Israel, offered $10,000 per person to encourage Jews to leave Iran and immigrate to Israel. IFCJ officials reported that of the 20,000 Jews still living in Iran, only 125 accepted the offer and immigrated to Israel.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said despite the Iranian regime’s hostility toward Israel and treatment of Jews as second-class citizens, a substantial number of Jews continue to stay in Iran because they feel they will face economic and cultural challenges if they leave the country.

“Some successful and resourceful Jews [in Iran] have either a false sense of security or are willing to take risks, hoping to outlast the regime,” Nikbakht said. “Some have converted to Islam or other ‘safer’ religions, such as Christianity, to help them survive.”

For his part, Tabari said he still has a fondness for Iran and hopes to travel back there at a later date to visit with his other family members. Likewise, he said his wife is planning to care for his mother while he is looking for employment in Los Angeles’ film industry.

“I am a very optimistic man and believe strongly that God will help us,” Tabari said. “America is a land of opportunity, and we are hoping for the best here”.

For more about this story and local Iranian Jews, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: www.jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

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