June 14, 2001
Jews Free Muslim
David Tabari's evening on April 29 started out as just another post-Shabbat night on the town. He and his wife were dining at a Malibu restaurant with 14 other Persian Jewish couples, among them Moize Benjamin.
Benjamin told the group about Dariush Farshidian, an Iranian immigrant who had been imprisoned in Los Angeles for four years before the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) decided not to deport him. Now Farshidian was free, but he did not have the financial means for his release.
Tabari and his friends decided to help this total stranger on the spot.
"Before we knew it," Tabari said, "we had $5,000 within two minutes."
By that Friday, May 4, Tabari was downtown at the INS office, waiting to post Farshidian's bail.
"I promised myself that I had to do this before Shabbat," said the businessman, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit underneath his clothes. What gives this gesture an interesting wrinkle is the fact that the detained Farshidian, unlike his Jewish champions, is Muslim.
That Farshidian's plight reached Tabari's dinner party can be credited to the Iranian-American Jewish Association, also known by the acronym for the group's Farsi name, the SIAMAK Organization. That same day, SIAMAK Public Affairs Director Pooya Dayanim launched a media blitzkrieg, contacting KRSI Radio Sedaye Iran and Sobhe Iran, a newspaper which Dayanim said has portrayed Israel and Jews in a negative light.
"I called up the editor," Dayanim recalled, "and I said, 'Listen, why don't we try to change the climate a little. Why don't we get together and free this guy.'"
SIAMAK was one of the Iranian institutions that received a copy of a letter Farshidian had sent out. Since 1979, the nonprofit organization has offered outreach services and published the monthly Iranian Jewish Chronicle (which Dayanim edits). SIAMAK's publicity efforts helped secure an outpouring of donations. Only three of 57 donors have been non-Jewish, which Dayanim attributed to a lack of organization in the larger Iranian American community.
Farshidian's situation has roots in his mid-1980's desertion from Iran's air force at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. He fled Iran with his family and arrived in San Jose in 1987 before relocating to Laguna Hills. There, Farshidian established himself as an electrician attaining a car and a home.
That's when things fell apart. Shortly before his 1991 divorce, Farshidian was arrested following a domestic dispute that he claimed was the result of a cultural misunderstanding. Regardless, the incident complicated his mid-1990's efforts to file for asylum. The INS threatened to deport him to Iran, where Farshidian conceivably could be executed for going AWOL.
In 1996, California immigration laws were drastically changed.
"People ordered removed under current U.S. law can be kept in detention indefinitely," according to Dayanim, an attorney. and that's what happened to Farshidian. Because their detention center was overcrowded, the INS moved Farshidian to the county jail in Bakersfield, where he spent 10 months among criminals before being sent to San Pedro's Terminal Island INS facility.
Meanwhile, the INS pressured Farshidian to leave the States. Despite the inherent danger, Farshidian cooperated with the agency's will to deport him. Then, the unexpected happened.
"He got lucky," Dayanim said. "Iran didn't want him back. After four years, the INS determined that he was no danger to the community and could be released."
Using his limited English, Farshidian told The Journal how, upon his May release, "everything had changed." He learned to his sorrow that his father had passed away the week before. He had lost his house, his car, and everything else he owned. But material possessions became irrelevant to Farshidian, who never gave up hope: "My dream for many years was to go beyond the wall of my cell."
Initially Farshidian didn't know that his benefactors were Jewish. But religion was never an issue, neither for Farshidian nor for his supporters.
"We all pray to one god, no matter what religion," Farshidian said.
"Obviously people always try to create divisions, but as a Jew, you're supposed to help people in need," Dayanim said.
The fact that Farshidian was Muslim didn't give Tabari's group pause. But concern was raised regarding the nature of his incarceration.
"I had to go through many channels to find more information, to make sure that his arrest was not criminal or drug related," Tabari said.
"He's a hardworking, nice guy who will go about immediately putting his life back together," said Dayanim, who, with SIAMAK, has secured temporary housing for Farshidian at a Costa Mesa motel. Upon Farshidian's release, Tabari offered pocket money, but Farshidian declined, because he didn't want to impose. Farshidian's priority is to find work so that he can remain in the country.
As for Tabari, he remains modest regarding his random act of kindness, crediting Benjamin and other dinner companions -- including Arsalan Gozini, Bijan Rood, and Miark Pinhasian -- for expediting Farshidian's release.
"We did it as a mitzvah, not for publicity," Tabari said.
To contact Dariush Farshidian with an offer of work, contact SIAMAK at (310) 843-9846.
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