For Iranians in the Diaspora, This Is the Most Important Moment of Our Lives – Jewish Journal

Posted By on October 15, 2022

Something remarkable perhaps even miraculous is happening halfway around the world. For over 43 years, post-revolutionary Iran has been forbidden to millions who escaped from the country. But today, due to the unbelievable courage and sacrifice of thousands of Iranian protestors, the prospect of the regime actually crumbling has Iranians in the diaspora bursting with anxious anticipation, wondering if theyll be able to return to a free Iran.

Theres so much at stake. In the words of one Iranian American friend: Im afraid to let myself think it [regime change] could actually happen, because weve been waiting and praying for it for so long.

The unprecedented rage of citizens against the regimes oppression renders todays protests uniquely historic, because this time, there may be no turning back. Theres so much on the line a free Iran and a more stable Middle East that the consequences are nearly heart-pounding. And if youre an Iranian in the diaspora, you get it.

Still, there are those who scratch their heads at the concept of never being able to return to a place that once was called home. I love Americans, but in my experience many of them believe that an immigrant (or even a refugee) arrives in the United States seeking a better life, but is free to visit his or her former country from time to time.

This probably explains why, over the course of 16 years since I first began speaking about Iran and the Middle East, Americans have asked me dozens of times if Ive ever been back to Iran or have any plans to visit the country again.

The answer is always the same: No, I havent been back because after my escape, Iran became forbidden to me (and millions of others). And what happens to those of us, the simultaneously blessed and pained, for whom there is no going back to our former homelands?

Were blessed because we were redeemed in new countries that are compassionate democracies; were pained because were outcasts from our former homelands, where our ancestors lived for millennia, still haunted by the traumas from a land that was supposed to nurture us, but cast us out, leaving us to connect to it from the loneliness of the periphery, or to abandon any semblance of connection altogether.

Today, were witnessing an all-or-nothing moment for Iranians inside Iran and in the diaspora. And if youre an Iranian Jew, its complicated.

Today, were witnessing an all-or-nothing moment for Iranians inside Iran and in the diaspora. And if youre an Iranian Jew, its complicated.

A few months ago, it was easier for me to believe that moshiach would arrive this year than to think there might be regime change in Iran. Thats how powerful the regime is, and how hard it would be to untie its stranglehold over the Middle East and beyond.

Iranian Jews outside of Iran live in two diasporas: one Jewish and the other Iranian. Many of us live by the words of the 12th-century Spanish-Jewish philosopher, Yehuda Halevi, who wrote, My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west. Yet for us, this poem signals a cry of the heart toward Jerusalem and Israel, but also toward Iran. Isnt that complicated?

I once met a Jew who escaped the former USSR and now lives in Los Angeles. We soon realized that as child refugees, we had both lived in an Italian refugee processing city at the same time in the late eighties. After the fall of Communism, she was able to visit Kyiv, her former city, and even say hello to old neighbors. Ill admit I was overtaken with envy. My friend was able to drink tea with old neighbors in a newly-free country, but I still wasnt able to visit the graves of my paternal grandparents, whom I never saw again after escaping Iran, because Irans Iron Curtain, or Irans hijab, if you will, still hadnt fallen.

Ive met young writers whove taken advantage of powerful Jewish heritage trips to countries such as Poland, and young professionals whove enjoyed charming tours titled Inside Jewish Morocco and Inside Jewish Cuba (both hosted by JDC Entwine). When will it be time to sign up for Inside Jewish Iran? After all, the country is home to the second-largest population of Jews in the Middle East after Israel.

I know regime change is still a dream, and at this time Im concerned exclusively about the safety of innocent Iranians (nearly 200 have been killed and thousands arrested during recent protests). But the thought of regime change is such a deep yearning that Iranians in the diaspora need to hold space for both the pain of protestors sacrifices and the joy of a potentially free Iran.

So in the spirit of optimism and daring to dream, I approached elderly Jews in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles and asked what they would do if they were able to return to a free Iran this year, if only for a temporary visit. Their generation is one that has especially strong ties to Iran (and lost everything when they escaped).

One mans words humbled me: Do you really want to hear my answer? he asked in Persian. Its a modest wish, but I would walk down the street and read every sign, and speak with everyone fluently in my mother tongue. Id feel like a king.

One elderly woman declared, I would kiss the earth [of Iran]. I really would. I kissed the earth of Israel when I first visited during the time of the Shah, and I would kiss the ground of my original land now.

Another man indulged in two fantasies: I would go to my old synagogue and complete the minyan, because I hear they have so few attendees these days. But first, I would hug my brother for days, because I havent seen him in 41 years.

And then, there was the simple wish of one elderly woman: I would just go back to my old house, she said. I still have the keys. I know its someone elses home now, but I would knock on the door and ask if they would let me stand in my old kitchen and sit with a cup of tea in my old living room.

In truth, if any exiled Iranians in the diaspora are ever able to visit a free Iran, itll be due to the incredible courage and unspeakable sacrifices of protestors who are being killed, injured, tortured or arrested today, as well the thousands whove risen against the regime for decades. I hope they know and feel the support and gratitude of millions worldwide, beginning in the greater Middle East, where every single Israeli, Saudi and Afghan (especially Afghan women) would owe these protestors an enormous debt of gratitude. Hezbollah and Hamas, on the other hand, would be utterly horrified (and bankrupt) if the mullahs lose power.

Of course, even if there was regime change, no one would expect Iran to morph into a secular democracy overnight.

Of course, even if there was regime change, no one would expect Iran to morph into a secular democracy overnight. But still, isnt it wonderful to imagine a free, stable Iran, an Iran in which there are dozens of flights to America at Tehrans airport each day? Or delegations of Israeli water management experts working with Iranian scientists and farmers to tackle devastating droughts? Or my ultimate fantasy for a free Iran: a female president who eradicates compulsory hijab and legislates compulsory education.

Ive repeatedly read that only months before the Berlin Wall fell, few in East Berlin thought they would ever gain freedom again. Maybe its too painful to imagine something so beautiful and so fragile.

Yes, its the regime that has the weapons, but even if these protests end today, I dont see how the mullahs could keep demanding that Iranians citizens continue to agree to their own oppression. And even if the regime abolishes the hated modesty police (who killed 22-year-old Mahsa Amini and so many others), but keeps other forms of oppression intact, the whole tyrannical system would quickly unravel. Simply put, itll be impossible to ask Iranians to now compromise and agree to 50% oppression.

Will these incredible protests lead to historic regime change? Ill answer that with another critical question: At this point, is there any going back?

Tabby Refael is an award-winning LA-based writer, speaker and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael

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For Iranians in the Diaspora, This Is the Most Important Moment of Our Lives - Jewish Journal

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