A desperate Iranian leaves his homeland for freedom and liberty in America
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about a community member who fled his home in Tehran in 2021 because of religious persecution and the fear of being jailed, harmed or worse. This part details his upbringing in Iran, his career as a hospital lead nurse and the events that drove him away, through Mexico, before being dumped by smugglers at the U.S. border. Part 2, to be published on Nov. 4, tells the story of his lengthy incarceration in a southern Arizona detention camp, how he is rebuilding his life, and the great outpouring of love and support from his new community. Because most of his family was left behind in Iran and is presumed to remain in danger, Wrangler News is concealing his identity.
As an unprecedented global pandemic raged, the young nurse was in a life-and-death situation like no other. Shaking with fear, his heart pounding, he dialed his mother and siblings to share his circumstances. “You have to leave from Iran,” they responded. “If they found you, they will kill you.” Six months later, he landed in Mexico. The fourth of five children, the subject of our story was born in Isfahan, 285 miles south of Tehran. He loved soccer, taekwondo and ping pong, and he studied a lot, especially physics. He practiced the violin and Islam, although his family was not very religious. He studied nursing at Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, acing his tests, and graduating with a bachelor’s degree.
“I fell in love with nursing, being connected with patients, seeing the value in hospitals to society and community,” he said. “It became the thing I would love to do.” He enrolled in 2011 in a master’s program in nursing at Tehran University of Medical Sciences, where the words spoken by a professor stuck. “You are chosen by God for nursing. This is not something all people can do.”
The degree helped him advance his career, and for nearly nine years, he worked at two hospitals in Tehran, primarily in intensive and cardiac care units. He lived alone, but enjoyed camping and dining out with friends. He also loved a challenge, trying something new, and he started providing home care to patients while keeping his hospital job. He eventually had a dozen patients, one a Christian man who began to share his faith as their friendship grew.
“I started being curious, asking more questions, because, generally in Iran, people don’t know about Christianity,” said the nurse, who believes many Iranians are not devoted to Islam, but are afraid to leave it. “I was always looking for something that made sense to me.” Stories in the Bible made sense.
“I felt something in myself, and I got called to God,” he said. “I prayed and decided to share my story with my friends. But I was pretty private about it.” However, arriving at his Christian patient’s home one morning, the caregiver said he had been taken away without explanation. As he drove to the hospital, his supervisor called to say two security people were asking questions about him. Once there, a coworker with whom he’d had an argument admitted turning him in over his new faith.
Fearful for his life, he went to the home of a friend who offered to keep him hidden, and he called his family. They were devastated, but united in telling him to leave. He stayed mostly hidden for six months, in Tehran, during which time his mom was visited by strangers asking questions and threatening her if she was lying.
“I was really afraid, shaking, frightened because I didn’t know what would happen,” he said. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I had bad dreams. I prayed a lot.” (A side note: Two years ago, Iran’s Supreme Court ruled that practicing Christianity at home is not a national security threat prosecutable under Iranian law. However, according to a 2022 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the government continues making “egregious violations” of religious freedom.
It regularly persecutes religious minorities, the report found, including Baha’is, Muslim minorities and Jews. Christians in Iran, particularly converts from Islam, have been arrested and given excessive prison sentences.) He connected with a person who claimed to be a lawyer and could help him legally emigrate to Canada. A friend paid the “lawyer” about $20,000 for his “safe, legal passage,” and armed with a travel visa, he went to the airport on Feb. 7, 2021. He never saw his family again, nor was he able to tell them goodbye. “It was something I had to do,” he said in tears. “There weren’t any choices.”
At the airport, he saw a familiar face, an ICU nurse who worked in different departments, but at the same hospitals as he. She, too, was escaping religious persecution with her sister and brother-in-law. They flew to Mexico, briefly staying in Cancun and Tijuana, before being relocated to Mexicali on the Mexico/California border. During those seven months in Mexico, they feared for their security and future, and repeatedly tried to reach the “lawyer.: He was told they had to stay put because of COVID19, but no explanation of Title 42, which enabled the U.S. Border Patrol to turn away millions of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border between 2020 and 2023, was given. The silver lining of the two nurses’ time in Mexico, however, was they had the chance to get to know — and love — each other. They became engaged in December 2021.
“We took turns preparing food, and we talked about our families, our jobs,” he said. “I felt like I found a new family for myself. I didn’t have anyone else.” On Aug. 28, 2021, the “lawyer,” actually a smuggler, said they would be taken to the airport the next day for their flight to Canada. Instead, they were robbed of their belongings — clothes, money, cellphones, everything — and dumped at a riverbank. The temperature was high, and they had no water, no coverings, no way to know where they were. They crossed the river, walked 15 minutes in the desert heat, and were arrested by the Border Patrol. “He saw that we were afraid,” he said. “He spoke mostly Spanish, but then in English, he said, “Don’t worry, USA. USA.”
Part 2 will be available in our next issue!