By Shahla Bourbour
Our stories in our own words is a compelling conversation starter. My young grandchildren are first-generation U.S. citizens. While we share our roots in Iran, their experiences are far different from mine when I was their age. I hope that by sharing some of my past, they will continue to appreciate their roots, however distant, and their history, whatever shadows it casts.
In reflecting about the past, there are many cherished memories that shaped my thinking about who I wanted to be. A major theme that comes to mind is that of social justice and how I experienced it in Iran and the U.S.
In the late ‘50s, when I was 19 years old, my twin sister, younger brother, and I came to the U.S. to complete our final years of high school in preparation for college. My parents, who were progressive thinkers, put us on a plane with $600 travel money for each of us. The plan was to be meet our hosts, missionary friends we had met in Hamadan (my hometown in Iran) at, what is now, JFK Airport in New York. They would take us sightseeing and then put us on a bus to Johnson City, Tennessee. Lo and behold, our flight was delayed, and they didn’t receive the telegram. (Remember, this was before cell phones and text messaging!) We were distraught and utterly helpless, but the airline crew came to our rescue and put us on the bus. They also asked the driver to look after us, as we spoke next to no English. The warm welcome we received from them made the lush scenery from New York to Tennessee, along the green rolling hills, even more breathtaking.
Being in the U.S., and especially in Tennessee, was a great opportunity. We studied and made friends, but unbeknownst to me, we were in the Jim Crow South. I hadn’t learned about that in Iran, until one day my housemother told me that my new, black friend wasn’t welcome at our house.
“You can’t bring colored girls here,” she said.
What?! My shock turned to anger and shame. “What did the color of my friend’s skin have to do with anything?” I asked myself.
Years later, I moved to Georgia for a summer to work as a camp counselor. It was heartening to see that the white family I lived with took home-cooked, delicious dinners to poor local black families every Sunday after church.
These contrasting experiences reminded me of the acts of injustice and kindness I had witnessed in Iran. In Iran, class stratification affected access to resources, in ways that were both different to and the same as the way race blocked access to resources in the U.S.
Against this backdrop, my parents felt it was their duty to care for the needy and unfortunate. They had designated a room at the local hospital accordingly and covered medical expenses for those who couldn’t pay for medical care.
I recall my father’s daily trips with his chauffeur to the inn (“karvansarah”) where people from remote and isolated areas temporarily stayed, either to receive medical care or find work. My father had one of the first cars in the city —a bright Jeep—and every morning, he and his chauffeur would pick up and take those in need of medical care to that hospital. His chauffeur would jokingly say, “That’s my job now, karvansarah to the hospital and back.”
When I think of acts of kindness, I am proud and reminded of an ancient Zoroastrian teaching that I hold close to my heart: “Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.” I instill in my children and grandchildren that acts of kindness transcend color, class, creed, and certainly nationality.