Three years ago, Raymond P., a 28-year-old Iranian Jew, was a full-fledged member of a notorious Los Angeles street gang. He sold drugs and suggests that he may have participated in violent crimes. He doesn't want to talk about specifics but explains by saying he was desperate to pay for his drug habit.
Raymond P., who asked that his real name be withheld, is among an uncertain but significant and possibly growing number of Southern California Iranian Jews who have been using and selling illegal drugs. It's the sort of problem you wouldn't typically hear about within the Iranian Diaspora community, because the topic embodies cultural shame for family members. Experts say that silence has aided and abetted the problem.
However, now there are efforts under way both to end the silence and help these families.
"I came from a very good family, but I didn't care who I was hurting, as long as I was getting high," said Raymond P., who is now in recovery.
He told his story to nearly 200 Iranian Jews gathered recently at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana. The gathering late last year was the first of its kind for the community.
Since their arrival in great numbers in the United States more than 25 years ago, Iranian Jews -- numbering an estimated 30,000 in Southern California -- have become one of the more educated and financially successful Jewish communities. But this has not made them immune from a side effect of the American dream: drug abuse, especially among the young.
Leaders of the Eretz-SIAMAK center have decided it's time to shatter the long-standing taboo of not publicly discussing the drug abuse plaguing Iranian Jews. It began an open dialogue on the issue late last year by gathering a panel of experts to educate families about drug abuse.
"For years, we've been quietly helping addicts in the community to [recover from] their drug use," said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. "But we finally decided to go public and try to fix this problem when we noticed it has really become widespread among our young people."
The Eretz-SIAMAK leadership has made a mission of taking on serious and sometimes discomfiting issues within the Iranian Jewish community, including poverty, premarital sex and new Jewish immigration from Iran. It went forward with the drug-abuse awareness event after an anonymous donor provided funding. More seminars and other events are planned this summer after the same anonymous donor recently contributed $5,000 to Eretz-SIAMAK.
There's no official or reliable data on illegal drug use among Iranian Jews, but psychologist Iraj Shamsian, who specializes in treating addicts of Iranian heritage, said that nearly half of his Iranian patients are Iranian Jews. He and other specialists say they are convinced that, based on their own practices and anecdotal evidence, the problem is growing.
Yet some families are hesitant even to seek help.
"Our culture is the type that wants to keep everything secret and not talk about it, because it's embarrassing, and people put a label on you," said Dara Abai, a longtime youth mentor and community volunteer who helps Iranian Jewish drug addicts. "In Iran, I remember that if someone told you to go to a psychologist, they thought you were crazy and had a serious mental problem."
Cultural attitudes toward alcohol haven't helped either, he added.
"In our community, we have a lot of alcohol use," Abai said. "I go to parties and see married people half drunk. Their kids see this, and they think it's fun. So they try alcohol at a young age, and sometimes that leads them to try drugs."
Experts said, too, that young Iranian Jews, just like many other young people, experiment with different drugs out of peer pressure or to fit in with friends.
In working with young addicts, psychologist Shamsian draws on his own experience as an addict from 1983 to 1993.
"During those years, I never said no to any drugs I saw," Shamsian said. "I shot heroin. I used cocaine. I used different downers and uppers -- even tried acid and mushrooms."
Shamsian said his addiction was so intense that he wasted away his savings, as well as family funds brought over from Iran, ultimately ending up on the streets of downtown before finally seeking help.
After becoming drug free, Shamsian obtained professional credentials. Besides his private practice, he works as program coordinator for Creative Care, a respected drug treatment facility in Malibu. He also hosts "Ayeneh," a Persian-language television program, available on satellite systems, on which he seeks to educate Iranians about the dangers of drug use.
"We answer phone calls from Iranians around the world -- even in Iran," Shamsian said.
Three years ago, Shamsian, along with non-Jewish Iranians, helped found the Iranian Recovery Center (IRC) located in Westwood. The nonprofit offers seminars and education about substance abuse, as well as referrals to those seeking treatment.
"The services of the IRC are totally free and open to the public," Shamsian said. "We help Iranians of all different religions."
Other community resources include the Chabad Residential Treatment Center, a treatment facility run by the Chabad organization in the Miracle Mile area, where many Iranian Jews seek help for their addictions. It emphasizes Jewish values and spirituality.
However, the drug problem is not only among the young. Shamsian noted that a significant number of older Iranian Jewish men are using opium on a regular basis, because of their past use and familiarity with the drug from Iran.
Drug use frequently leads to legal difficulties, as well as financial, health and emotional problems, said Dariush Sameyah, an Iranian Jew and Los Angeles Police Department sergeant.
"I was in court recently with this person from a very prominent Iranian Jewish family, and she was heavily involved in credit card fraud to support her narcotics habit," said Sameyah, who works in internal affairs. "This issue is prevalent in our community. If you look at the court records every day and see the cases coming up, you will see Jewish Iranian names quite frequently."
"They get a very very rude awakening once the handcuffs go on," Sameyah said. "Back in the day if a very well-respected Iranian person got arrested in Iran, they wouldn't get handcuffed or strip searched the way they do here. It's such an insult and slap in the face for an Iranian person when they are told to bend over for a cavity search, but that's the law and public policy in the United States."
Sameyah said a joint investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Los Angeles police resulted in the arrests last summer of nearly a dozen Iranians in Southern California -- many of whom were Jews -- for allegedly selling and importing opium, as well as laundering money generated from the sale of opium.
Besides opium and marijuana, heroin has recently made a comeback, said Sameyah.
He added that it's almost never too soon for parents to begin discussing the drug issue with their children.
"If you want to start talking about narcotics to a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old, you're about 10 years behind the curve," Sameyah said. "Because that kid has spent the last 10 years in school with God knows who having glorified narcotics use for them. Education about narcotics starts at the age of 3 and 4."
He said parents should talk about "what drugs can do to you and what they look like."
But when children do stumble, make bad decisions and have problems, the taboos must be discarded to leave the path clear for recovery.
"We have to try not to judge people with drug addictions," said Shamsian. "We have to look at drug abuse as a disease and not from a moral point of view."