Jahangir Javaheri lived a full life in Iran as a pharmaceutical retailer, complete with a nice car, large house and the esteem and satisfaction that came with being a leader within the nation's small but cohesive Jewish community. Yet he wanted something more for his family, especially his children, so he left behind nearly everything for the dream of going to America.
His family's odyssey took him to Vienna for seven months and finally to Los Angeles, where he, his wife, Mahvash, and their two teenage sons have adjusted to a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Pico-Robertson area. The 56-year-old immigrant and his wife are taking English lessons. And, for the first time, he's had to rely on the kindness of friends, relations and support organizations to get by.
"It's not been easy. People like us who have just immigrated to this country must start over with almost nothing," said Javaheri, speaking in Persian. "We left Iran, because our entire family had left Iran, and we decided there were more opportunities for our sons here."
For centuries, Iran was home to one of the world's oldest Jewish populations. However, the downfall of the shah of Iran in 1979 sparked a mass exodus over the next decade. The pace has since declined, and entering the United States has become more difficult due to post-Sept. 11 immigration restrictions.
But Jews such as the Javaheri family continue to flee Iran's Islamic fundamentalist regime, seeking religious freedom and better economic opportunities. More than 15,000 Jews still live in Iran, compared to an estimated 30,000 Iranian Jews residing in Southern California. About half of these are post-Revolution immigrants.
Last year, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helped 225 Iranian Jews to resettle in the United States. Of those, 163 reside in Los Angeles.
The path for many led through Vienna, said Leonard Glickman, president of HIAS. His group has helped Iranian Jews obtain transit visas to Austria and complete U.S. immigration applications. The organization also provides educational and social services to Jews while they wait in Vienna for permission to enter the United States. Austria is one of the only countries that currently allows lengthy stopovers by Iranian Jews seeking ultimate haven in America.
"We feel we have been very successful in keeping the Vienna pipeline open for Jews and other Iranian religious minorities through a very challenging period for the U.S. refugee program," Glickman said.
Still, for many on the journey, Austria proves a difficult layover.
"We were lucky enough to live with friends in Vienna and live off our savings," said Javaheri's wife, Mahvash. "Most Iranian Jewish families are living with four to five people in one-bedroom apartments, with little money to live off. Their children can't go to school, and they can't work, because of Austrian laws while they're waiting for their visas."
Once families reach the United States, various organizations are waiting to help, including the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), Jewish Family Service and other agencies affiliated with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. JVS has aided about 250 immigrants locate suitable work over the last four years, said Elham Yaghoubian, one of the agency's four Persian language-speaking counselors.
"We refer them to appropriate English as a second language classes and vocational training," Yaghoubian said. "We also train our clients in job-search techniques and provide job referrals."
One of his success stories involves two middle-aged women who didn't speak English. It didn't help that their husbands did not want them to work. After developing the women's skills and evolving the husbands' attitudes, one woman became the manager of a retail store, while the other started a certified nurse assistant training program and works at a Jewish seniors facility.
Local Iranian Jewish groups also have helped out, including the Torat Hayim Center, the Eretz-SIAMAK Center and the Hope Foundation. These groups have collaborated to create the Caring Committee, which will temporarily help with rent, groceries, medical and legal bills, transportation and school tuition.
Sometimes, immigrants also need counseling to get through depression, said Manizheh Yomtoubian, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK Center in Tarzana. One immigrant in her 20s "was so depressed, because she didn't have anyone here, that she wanted to return back to Iran," Yomtoubian said.
Adults older than 35 sometimes become overly dependent on their children to communicate, Yomtoubian said, adding that the Caring Committee needs additional help finding housing and work for new arrivals.
"More than money, we need people who can give these new immigrants good-paying jobs or rent a guest house or room to them during a short period," Yomtoubian said.
Javaheri remains optimistic about the future.
"My hope is that my children will be able to get a proper college education and have better lives here," said Javaheri, who frequently took on the role of organizing Jewish youth gatherings in Iran. "I know that I'll be able to find work soon, but my wish is to be able to take part in volunteer community work here, just as I'd done back in Iran.