A community united helps a new friend experience the American dream
Editor’s note: This is the second 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. Part 1, published on Oct, 21, chronicles his upbringing in Iran, career as a hospital lead nurse, and events that drove him away, through Mexico. This part is about his lengthy incarceration in an Arizona detention camp, and how he is rebuilding his life with the 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.
His first night in America was spent on a crowded bathroom floor of an immigrant detention center in southwestern Arizona. The room was freezing, a stark contrast to earlier that day, Aug. 28, 2021, when he and three others trudged under the broiling sun, across the white-hot sand of the Sonoran Desert, without water or knowledge of their location or fate. The man, with two women who were sisters and the husband of one of them, had fled their homeland for fear of being harmed for choosing Christianity over Islam.
He believed he was coming legally to Canada, but a smuggler sent him instead to Mexico. Six months later, the Iranians were robbed of their belongings and dumped by a river on the border. They crossed it, and soon were apprehended by the Border Patrol, then driven to Eloy, Ariz.
The man, formerly an accomplished nurse in Iran, was sent to a federal prison for people in custody of Immigration Customs and Enforcement. Due to Covid-19, he was confined to a small cell for 23 hours a day, allowed only into a hallway for the other hour. He learned Spanish by talking with the guards, and English by reading a prison Bible. He lost 50 pounds during a 94-day incarceration, but the nightmare ended after an immigration attorney persuaded authorities of his credible fear of being persecuted, tortured or ;killed, if sent back home. One goal had sustained him.
“I planned in my cell what I was going to do (in order) to make myself calm,” he said. “I would study English, go back to my joy.” Today, the 34-year-old man has a driver’s license, a job and is married to the other sister, an ICU nurse whom he barely knew back home but with whom he fell in love in Mexico. They have asylee status, and he recently passed the most difficult English proficiency exam offered in the U.S.
All of this took a village. And the village responded.
Two years ago this month, in shackles at the wrists, ankles and waist, the man was driven from Eloy to the Phoenix Welcome Center. Operated by the International Rescue Committee and its nonprofit partners, it provides humanitarian assistance to asylum-seeking families. He found his Iranian friends, noting, “It was kind of a miracle.”
The miracles continued, as people from Tempe and surrounding areas stepped up to provide shelter and other basic needs, friendship and love, English tutoring and legal assistance. A temporary apartment at Living Streams Church in Phoenix was their first home. It was arranged by Guadalupe Presbyterian Church’s retired pastor, Joe Keesecker, and his wife Selena, who operate a prison ministry in Eloy. The Iranians began to explore their city, and the man continued his English study, this time with YouTube.
When Living Streams needed the apartment for returning missionaries, the Keeseckers contacted Mesa resident Holly Herman who, in 2018, was drawn to the plight of desperate asylum seekers crossing the border. Herman started recruiting an army of volunteers at University Presbyterian Church in Tempe to help. Her team at UPC converted two classrooms at the church into apartments, and donated beds, appliances, furniture, linens and clothing.
One member loaned the man a violin to play after his own was damaged during shipment from Iran. Another paid to have that violin repaired. “With everybody chipping in and enfolding them, I’m hoping we helped overcome his first impression of the U.S., being thrown into detention,” Herman said. She helped the foursome enroll in Mesa Community College’s ESL classes, and the man tested out of all four levels immediately. Herman turned to recruiting tutors, among them Tempean Diane Hillyard, a retired teacher in the Kyrene School District and Mesa Public Schools.
Hillyard tutored him for more than a year, focusing primarily on writing, and their meetings increased as the test day approached last summer. He chose the International English Language Testing System exam, the most rigorous, because he wanted to have the best English possible to work in an American hospital.
“He was the ideal student,” she said. “He wanted to learn, he had a natural curiosity about things, he learned quickly, and he has a memory that’s unbelievable. He was a delight to work with.” The man passed, and the village celebrated.
“It was announced Sunday during church, and everybody stood up and cheered,” Herman said. “Everyone had just fallen in love with them. They’re our family.” At about the same time, armed with a work permit, he got a job in the employee dining room at Friendship Village in Tempe. He is grateful for the work and kind treatment, but the man has his sights set on returning to his medical career. He studies every free moment for the Arizona state nursing certification exam. UPC members once again teamed up to plan a special Sunday morning service in April, renting a white gown and a smart suit, and contributing flowers, food and decorations for the couple’s wedding.
UPC Pastor Eric Ledermann officiated, and Herman and her husband John, a retired pastor, gifted the couple her mother’s wedding ring and his grandfather’s ring. The couple’s next big moment, in May, was a 6-hour hearing in immigration court in Phoenix. Church members wrote stacks of support letters, and 15 of them came to court. His lawyer was successful, and asylum was granted, meaning the couple can live and work legally in the U.S., and will have the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residence and citizenship. When a third sister, her husband and their son arrived from Iran, UPC turned a third classroom into an apartment. All seven have since moved into a large home that was offered by friends of Herman’s who are out of state for a couple of years.
“That’s what churches are supposed to do,” Herman said. “UPC has shown that America is not the ugly, unwelcoming place some have made it out to be.” Most people want to help those in need, but they don’t know precisely how to offer their time and talents to make a difference. But this village came together, and their abilities fit like pieces in a puzzle. As a result, a remarkable start was given to this new family in a strange land. “They’ve added so much to my life, their sense of kindness, of always giving love, of smiling no matter the circumstances,” Hillyard said. “The’ve provided me with a model for traits that I’d like to develop.”