The story I am about to tell is one of a personal odyssey… a mission of mercy that would not have been possible if not for the generosity of many.
I am an expatriate Iranian, now an American citizen living a fairly comfortable life, married with a family and a burgeoning career as an architectural designer, but I cannot get the plight of my fellow countrymen out of my mind. How can I, just one-person make a difference in the midst of this tragedy?
Bam, which lies over a series of active geological plates, has been hit with quakes before, but none with the intensity of this latest trembler. You see this time the epicenter was directly underneath the city… but this city is made from mud, clay and straw. In America we call this “adobe,” but here we realize its lack of integrity as an earthquake proof method of construction, not that they don’t in Iran, but nothing has ever been done to bring this cultural and architectural gem up to modern standards. Bam, a city that includes such architectural treasures as the Citadel, has stood for nearly 2,500 years. The city itself traces back its history for over 6,000… it was a jewel in the history of Persian culture. Today it is destroyed, a broken sea of rubble, ruin and human misery… a sight of untold wreckage and destruction.
About a week after the quake I began to get my arms around the magnitude of the havoc. This realization mirrored the rising death toll, which began at 5,000 then rose daily to the current number pegged north of 60,000. Over 30,000 were deemed homeless and a like number injured. Elsewhere in the news were stories of the children, thousands and thousands orphaned in one swift blow. Then I hear from an Iranian architect associate of mine who tells me the story of a busload of orphaned girls who disappear. Disappear, a whole bus disappears! Yes in the chaos of post earthquake Iran, fifty innocent girls, aged nine to fourteen disappear! One can only have nightmares as to what happened to them. It is this final cruel and unsettling issue that set my emotional compass on course and drove me to find a way to help. Besides, I figured, if I can create beautiful interiors in the homes of Los Angeles, I can at least create some joy in the broken homes of my homeland.
My first course of action is to enlist the help of those I knew I could count on; the faculty and parents at my daughters’ schools, Lycee Francais, Colburn School of Performing Arts and a select group of friends. Specifically the request was for children’s clothing. They all came through with extraordinary speed, and the clothing started to arrive and pile up in my garage – which no longer would be a place for my car, or anything else for that matter. This grass roots effort literally took off! My sister Firouzeh, brother in law, Farouk and my mother, who we affectionately call “Mamajoun,” helped to straighten, fold and box the clothing – so it would be as presentable as possible delivered to the destitute families in Iran. Also each piece of clothing needed to be packed according to age, gender and category. This process took nearly two weeks, but ultimately gathered over 5,000 pieces of clothing. Above and beyond the clothing, many medicines were also donated, which were included in the mercy shipment – which brings me to the next part of my story.
Meanwhile, I started scouting around for a way to get this precious cargo shipped to Bam. A call to the Red Cross helped put me in touch with Razi Health Foundation. It turned out that they were planning a cargo charter – a 747 at that, coordinated by Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based disaster relief and development agency. Once I connected with them I found a willing partner to take on this important cargo and get it to the right hands in Bam that would insure its proper distribution. Red Crescent – the Iranian partner of the Red Cross, guaranteed this distribution. In this case the plan was to fly the cargo through Tehran to the province of Kerman – in which resides Bam. Parallel to this I booked a flight from LA to Tehran, passage through Rome.
When I arrived in Tehran, friends and relatives questioned why I should travel southbound to Bam. Aftershocks, disease, lack of expected creature comforts, were all reasons for keeping me in Tehran and not to oversee the Red Crescent hand off – but I really felt drawn to the actual place. I had to see these children, hold their faces, look into their eyes and show them that, yes, there are people from other countries who care for them. But first, I was invited to visit with earthquake victims who were now being treated for their injuries in major hospitals in Tehran.
Leave it to my father to help set this up… through a medical connection I am summoned to the Firoozgar Hospital in Tehran. Among the victims I meet are patients with severe spinal cord injuries, amputations and broken pelvis. Yes these physical injuries are difficult for these victims to deal with, but all of them must deal with the fact that many of their closest relatives are now dead. Their lives will be totally changed. In a way, the pain they now feel is a distraction from the pain they will eventually feel in their hearts.
And so the southbound trip began… the flight to Kerman is probably one of the most memorable of my life. Kerman is a large southern region of Iran in which Bam is located; Iran Air is the only carrier to get you there. Many of the passengers boarding the plane, an Airbus, were earthquake victims returning home. Among a mix of foreign aid workers are dozens of passengers with canes, casts, neck braces and so on. Most of these displaced victims heading home are wearing black clothing, and their faces tell silently their heaviness of heart. Their eyes are filled with sorrow; there is a strange sense of silence in the plane as the Iran airhostesses try to make everyone comfortable – this definitely is not America!
The flight south is two hours. The landing is perfect – due to some of the extreme and dangerous landing conditions throughout Iran; Iran Air pilots are world famous for their level of expertise. As we disembark our airplane I see that Charlie Moed and Neil Frame, the two extraordinary and dedicated Operation USA board and staff member are waiting for me. They wanted to know if I could travel with them straight to Bam – but because of a prior commitment to meet Reza Bahrami one of the leading citizens of the region, who was to help me complete my journey to Bam, I declined their offer. Also, I had been warned in advance of the perilous road conditions leading to Bam, and I did not want to take any undue chances in order to complete my mission on behalf of so many in Los Angeles who had donated their effort was paramount in my mind.
The baggage carousel at the airport in Kerman is another of the continuing moments that is so telling as to what has happened to the people of this region. Time and time again as you look around, all are wearing black – and as friends and relatives greet the arrivals, there isn’t a display of joy and expectation. Even in this post 9/11 world it is common practice to celebrate that airport experience as families and friends reunite – but not so here… these encounters are; simply put, emotional trauma. Painful, agonizing and cathartic. Personal experiences; of the deepest kind as families try to reconcile that not just one or two of them have been killed but dozens… sometimes more than fifty or sixty! Unbelievable as it may seem, some complete families have been wiped out, off this earth forever. In some cases there are perhaps one solitary survivor, or two or three who have to continue on with nothing but their memories of loved ones to give them guidance as to what the past really is.
I am moved to tears as I survey this scene. At this point, could only imagine what it would be like to live in this situation. A tap on my shoulder brought me back to the here and now. It was Reza Bahrami. Despite my Iranian looks, he somehow knew whom I am and that I am the woman from America on a mission. He too, it should be noted, was also dressed in black and on first blush was indistinguishable from the others at the airport. He grabbed my luggage and hauled the overweight articles outside… these too were filled with clothing and medicine donated by local Los Angeles doctors. Reza quickly escorted me to a waiting car, where he announces that he and his wife demand that I stay at their home. I immediately accept, though I was expecting to stay at the hotel he owns in Kerman. You should note that at this point I was an emotional wreck… and having the prospect of a families’ warmth and affection was unbelievably comforting. It’s important to put this need in context here… this is not because of the weariness of travelling. Not because I missed my family back in Los Angeles… both of which are true… but because the emotional weight of these peoples’ suffering literally is exhausting me.
Reza Bahrami takes me immediately to his home where I am introduced to, among others, his wife and brother in law, Jallil a leading pharmacist in the region. Jallil’s personal story mirrors the devastation of many in Bam. He has literally lost forty members of his family in the quake… and only by a weird twist of fate were he and his wife not in Bam that fateful night. They have a babysitter who cancelled at the last moment to thank for their lives.
Back at Reza Bahrami’s home they help me to connect with the Governor of Kerman’s office. I need their help to gain access to the United Nations’ refugee camps in Bam. Fortunately my request is processed immediately, and, they even offer to supply a car and driver to take me there! So I make an additional request, can I gain access to the orphanages in Bam? My whole mission was a little surprising to the Governor’s office – an American woman, albeit of Iranian descent, travelling this distance, and under these conditions… but to their credit they did the best to help me with my mission.
The orphans of Bam, an unofficial count places the number just fewer than 10,000; have been dispersed around the country. But in Kerman many children are housed in makeshift orphanages… some of the venues are actually buildings donated by concerned citizens of Kerman. The Governor sent an official from the Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Esmaeili, to escort me to a few of the orphanages. The drive there was one that mixed anticipation with dread… compassion with sorrow… I pictured them as angels. God’s gift to us… creatures of joy who survived despite the carnage around them. As we approach the building I cannot help but crying. If you look at the accompanying pictures you will see me in sunglasses. The reason? I want these children who have been ripped asunder by the calamities of disaster to be presented with a figure of confidence.
Mr. Esmaeili rang the doorbell of the recently converted office building. Moments later a steely-eyed woman clad head to foot in a black chador opens the door and ushers us upstairs. Past several rooms we pass, six to eight beds a room – each bed covered with a Red Crescent blanket. As we climb up and up the stairs of the building my heart beats faster and faster, my mission to connect with these children is upon me. I pray to God that I be up to the task.
As I arrive at the reception room, I am literally bowled over by a dozens of extraordinary children… embracing me around my legs, waist and chest simultaneously. “Khaleh Joon!” Which in English means, “Auntie Dear…”
Yes, 12,000 miles later, I am indeed their “Auntie.” My time with this extraordinary group of children will be one of the highlights of my life… I pray to God that I create an effect on their lives too.
So at last these children, the Bambini of Bam as I like to call them, are around me. Their unfettered enthusiasm for life despite the calamities that have befallen them are an inspiration for all of us. Yet some of those in the room are shy and a few are sullen… in some cases these are the children that are the most interesting. I try my best to connect with all of them.
There was Marjan, eleven years old, who grabbed me around the legs so tight I couldn’t move… the cutest of girls, a non-stop chatterbox who didn’t want to share me with anyone. Think Annie with a headscarf! As she pulls me here and there to introduce me to her friends she whispers into my ear her story. It seems that she was pulled out of the rubble after the quake but her best friend, who was sleeping next to her, was dead. Think of the scar left with this gorgeous young girl… Then there was a six-year-old boy named Ehsan. The only boy there. This particular orphanage is only for girls, but by necessity of space for the time being Ehsan was staying at the dormitory. Having no family left to speak of, Ehsan’s eye was definitely on the future. He announced that he wanted to be a policeman when he grew up, and even asked if I could send him a pair of policeman boots from America.
All of the girls had stories for me. They all wanted to whisper them to me… you see they are painfully shy to share their tragedies in front of the others – because instinctively they know that they should not reveal their pain. Many are distant and cold, until they speak to you alone and one on one. Consider this closely. All of these precious young minds swallowing and hiding their pain. How will this affect them in the future… especially without the comfort and support of their families to help? How much psychological trauma can they endure? Who will be around to help these true “Angels” as they move forward in this cruel world? To me this is the crucial dilemma facing those of us who want to help them.
For the moment I try to be as happy and optimistic as I can with them. Engage them and show them hope the women who run the orphanage tell me, and so I do. Poetry is a cultural pastime in Bam, one of the most ancient and artistically significant places in Iran. So I ask our young angels for poetry… and with tears streaming down my face they respond. The girls sing and recite… many creating the saddest of songs about their life, their lack of home and family. Yes they continue to be tormented about their situation – but their minds are no longer in the moment.
It is eight in the evening and time for me to leave. I don’t want to, but I must. The next leg of my journey awaits me and despite my attachment to these angels, and they to me I must move on. I am acutely aware that each of these girls has severe issues with loosing people in their lives… but I finally realize that I am just a passing chapter – an emissary of sorts, and that is an abandonment they can accept. But getting out the door is not so easy! The younger ones hold onto my feet and legs. Others are stuffing their afternoon snacks with beautiful and innocent hands into my purse; a hodgepodge of cucumbers, chocolate and cheese puffs. These goodies, which include oranges and other candy, are the currency of their lives right now. The fact that they wish to give them up to me practically brings me to tears once again. I put on a “game face” and usher my way out. The hours here are exhausting, but it is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. Their honesty and love, something that they shared so freely with me is a moving testament to the strength and character of these children… but dear God, how can we help them? I kissed them all good-bye… embraced them and promised I’d be back. This promise becomes a cross that I will bear, to the point that it will test my very soul.
I am exhausted. That evening I return to Mr. Bahrami’s home where I am served a wonderful meal and a warm bed… as they say in Atlanta… tomorrow will be another day. The next morning Mr. Esmaeili and his driver sent from the Governor’s office comes to Mr. Bahrami’s house to pick me up. The aforementioned Jalil and Mehrara come along with us, adding an additional level of insight into the trip. Also given their loss during the earthquake their inclusion brings an emotional and personal perspective to the Bam tour that will last for the rest of my life. The great irony of this trip is that Jahlil, a pharmacist brings a significant amount of medications to distribute in Bam – yet he will never be able to medicate the pain of what happened to his family that fateful night.
As we leave the Bahrami’s house, Mahtabe (Mr. Bahrami’s wife) rushed to the car to give me a glass of sherbet and her special compound of herbs that promise to relax and balance me. She is terribly concerned that the scene that I am about to witness will disturb me…
The road to Bam is crowded with many Red Crescent trucks, SUV’s and various transport container vehicles from relief organizations. Our driver, a very aggressive type, manages to move forward, truck by truck, overtake by overtake, but not without making this one scary drive. As we approach this ancient and extraordinary part of Iran, it becomes noticeable how dry this place is. It is sunny, but cold and arid. This is important to note that it pertains to how the people in Bam deal with their personal tragedies. The outskirts to Bam are very memorable… it is the flattest place I have ever seen! The earth is a strange swirl of light and dark earth… a characteristic exhibited since an earthquake tore apart this extraordinary place several thousand years ago. Jallil tells me that after the earthquake hit so many thousands of years ago the people who lived here moved the city thirty miles to the south, and started building what is today’s Bam. So here I am thinking to myself that as we approach Bam, ninety percent of this city was destroyed this Christmas, but the same thing happened twenty five hundred years ago, and now what was rebuilt so many years ago must be rebuilt again. The irony is apparent.
We reach the outskirts of the city and I notice the green/gray tents of various relief agencies. The roads contain a sight of unbelievable decimation. Every home is basically a pile of gray and dusty rubble, with various parts of the structure remaining just to give it enough sense of architecture to illustrate that it was once a home. But in front of every house is a tent… and this is where one realizes the extent of the damage…a vibrant, extraordinary community of people now live in tents… and, each and every one of them have lost members of their family, their friends and others. This is a place where high winds are commonplace; so during the night these people must deal with the prospect of losing their temporary home… every night is another potential disaster.
The relief agencies are all located on the outskirts of Bam… ironically on the very killing floor of the earthquake so many thousands of years ago. The air here is dusty and windy, it permeates every corner of your clothing, hair and mouth. All the foreign relief agencies are here, UN, American, Malaysian, the Japanese Peace Wind and others. Their tents are set up in a compound in a fairly organized manner. For access to the compound you must have special documentation. It was not luck that we had documentation… Mr. Esmaili had made sure that I could get into these camps as part of our mission. And in we got!
Our first encounter is a very long line waiting to receive food from the UN mission. The children in the line are extraordinary. These gorgeous little angels stand in line, then lose patience, wander around for a little while, and then get back in line. Their actions are symptomatic of people who are not used to this kind of life – a shared feeling of unease and impatience. Still, it is impossible not to think of the extraordinary wealth that surrounds us back home, fast food on every corner… yet these children must line up for a simple meal. The concept of fairness has always been a difficult one for me to grasp — the differences between the “haves and have-nots” in this world are legion. But never are those differences so stark as they are this day in Bam as these gorgeous children stand in line with their big white bowls awaiting a meal.
As I begin video taping the kids I notice that they hide their bowls behind their backs. Their shyness is not of the camera, per say, it is an embarrassment at the state of their lives… they’re not too young to understand the shame of a handout. One of the kids breaks the silence and rushes forward to me, I asked her what is for lunch? She jumps in front of the camera and shouts “accaroni!” I told her I love macaroni … and slowly some of the other kids began to circle around. After I sat on the ground to talk with this young girl, Bahareh, others came over and sat on my lap. One of them is kissing me and holding my hand so tight that it hurt. Her name is Zahra and is four years old. She begs me to stay the night with her in her tent. She then ran off to get her tent number and was back in a hurry to give it to me. Zahra is very olive skinned and petite, but with bright white teeth and flashing eyes – but so filled with joy despite her circumstances. I promised her that I would return to see her again, I wrote down her tent number.
Then Bahareh whispers her story into my ear. It seems that her father and mother were both killed along with her sister and brother. “Who are you with now,” I ask. “With Bibi,” she says, “But I need to take care of Bibi because she can’t walk.” (Bibi means Grandmother in Farsi.) I don’t ask why… because I know the answer… she no longer has any legs! This girl is only ten, but already has accepted such great responsibility in her life.
We leave the refugee camp and drive toward the center of town, or at least what is left of it! As we get to city center, the devastation is unbelievable, and though I am writing this for you, practically indescribable. Buildings are flattened into simple piles of broken clay. Palm trees fallen and uprooted; now drying in the sun. Everything is collapsed, office buildings, markets, schools, hospitals…
At this point I notice that Jallil and his wife are crying softly. Jallil is holding his head against the car window not wanting us to see him, and not wanting himself to see the ruins… Every house is basically a pile of ruins, and, each house has a tent in front of it. On some of them sit a family member, not wanting to move. These are survivors who don’t want to abandon their loved ones who are buried and presumably dead below.
Jallil and Mehrara, along with the driver, take us on a tour of the devastated city. We now witness all of the homes where her friends and relatives lived… literally, as far as she is concerned the killing floor of Bam. Jallil is now driven by his memory, of friends, relatives and life itself. Mehrara and I sift through the rubble finding fragments of pictures, pottery and peoples’ lives! Also we discover books, broken at the spine, journals crushed and discolored by the earth, and even homework assignments that will never be completed. At the pile of rubble that was Jallil’s aunt’s house, Mehrara digs through the rubble and makes an unbelievable discovery… a picture of her and Jallil’s daughter in a twisted, broken ornate frame! This picture, plus many others in the family sat on the mantle of the fireplace – this one was the only one left… life imitating life.
We travel the major boulevard to Arg-e-Bam – the Citadel – one of the most beautiful buildings of the Ashkanian era. Before the quake hit the walls surrounding this extraordinary fort were nearly sixty feet high; and had only one entrance – now it lies in ruins. Its ramparts can be scaled now from dozens of places. Since it was built, over 2,500 years ago, in times of war the cities’ population would retreat behind these walls for cover. But now the walls no longer exist, only piles of broken clay. The fortress itself is still a massive structure built against the side of a large hill… yet it is clearly is a ruined monument. The greatest architectural gem of Iran was utterly destroyed in seventeen seconds…
I so desperately wanted to go inside and experience this extraordinary place but guards are everywhere to stop people from entering the structure. This place is very dangerous. Every day more pieces of the historic edifice collapse. The full extent of the damage has not yet been written… only an estimate that is temporary and undervalued. The experience of seeing this place stuns me. I have spent so much of my adult life seeing the western world and touring the great cities of Europe… visiting churches, parliaments and historic ruins. Yet in the heart of my own country I never saw this place… until it was ruined. This proud and epic place is now a disturbing image I cannot erase… as the sun sets on what was left of the Citadel I can no longer control my emotions and I weep openly.
On my last day in Kerman I return to the orphanages I visited earlier. I bring gifts for the girls… but they were not there, they are off attending school. I leave packages for each and every one of them. The caretaker told me I could return later, but I had a flight to catch, one that would take me back to the warmth and security of home. The images of these girls (and that one boy) would be with me forever. The flight from Kerman is uneventful, but for one instance on the ground as we await our departure… one of the final of 350 aftershocks rattles us as we sit waiting to board the plane. It is commonplace for everyone there… but for me it is terrifying.
The next leg of my journey was from Tehran to London, then through to Los Angeles. All along I cannot get the images of what I have seen, the children I have met and those who are giving their courage to help them out of my mind. I can’t help but feel that my mission is not yet accomplished. Perhaps what I have just done is the simply the beginning… a commitment to helping these young angels of Bam. With the Persian New Year approaching, this could be another opportunity to bring solace and inspiration to the girls in these orphanages.
When I finally got through customs my husband was awaiting me; the long wait had annoyed him. From first blush, he knew that I had reached some kind of epiphany in terms of my outreach to Bam. In the nights after arriving home from Iran I would awake in a sweat with images of the destruction, but most importantly the faces of those children. I then told him my idea… return to Iran, specifically Bam for the New Year. I specifically want to find that young Zahra – the littlest one from the refugee camp in Bam – I had the number to her tent.
To educate our American readers, Persian New Year is huge! It’s like Christmas, the 4th of July and New Years rolled into one… and, it is by and large a secular celebration. To make it relevant to Bam, I needed to take gifts to the children… that is our tradition. So here is what I set about to do with the help of family and some close friends. I generate new clothing. Knowing the exact sizes of the kids I met (and video taped) in the orphanages allowed me to, literally, tailor make outfits for these kids. Plus we created packages of clothing for other kids and adults; those that I was sure were waiting in Bam.
That being said, it is only a matter of time before I am making plans to return. This plan gelled quickly, I will return for Persian New Year, March 20th, (spring equinox), and the purpose will be to spread New Year’s wishes to the children of this devastated area. Telling my husband, Mark, and our daughter Persia is the hardest part – at least at the time. He is worried, that travelling to that part of the country would be dangerous – even more so than before. A news junkie, he has read about the food riots that inflicted the area, and that it is sandstorm season. Next, I have to deal with Persia and tell her I am going off for another ten days. The last time I went to Bam she was listless in class, and one teacher actually commented on how overwhelmed with sadness she was. Not the greatest circumstances under which to plan another trip, but I am determined to help these poor children so many miles away.
Persia’s birthday is the 10th of March – just ten days before our New Year. After picking her up from school, I tell her the news that I had booked a ticket to Iran to return to the orphanages of Kerman and Bam. She put her head down and started shaking, then looked out the window sorrowfully. With her eyes filled with tears, she tells me how she worries that there will be another earthquake when I am there and that I will get hurt or killed. Little does she know of what the real dangers are. I try to reassure her that because of the love that I have for both she and her daddy, that I will be extra careful. This incident continues a theme of sorts that I had been grappling with since planning my first trip to Bam, how to justify the needs of my own daughter and family and those of these poor children in this far off place that I cannot get out of my mind.
The weeks between my first and second trip to Bam were spent with the assistance of some close friends gathering money and the most upscale articles of clothing, clothing that is brand new, or next to brand new that I could assemble. Next, with the help of my mother, we individually color coordinated styles, sizes and sexes of clothing into outfits, then hand wrapped each one… so it would be a perfect New Year gift. My mother and I assembled and wrap over 150 children’s gifts, plus many adult gifts too… each one with a special dedication. The orphans who I met on this trip all get a personalized greeting attached to their package.
Another requisite of Persian New Year is the giving of “newly minted money” to those younger than you and to people in need. Among family and friends plus from our own funds I gather enough to make the gifts meaningful. My plan is to exchange the dollars for newly minted Tomans in Iran, then give this money to the orphans and people in need… we call it “aidee.”
I make my flight arrangements with Lufthansa – it being one of the few airlines that flies to Tehran that you can get a nonstop flight on through Europe out of Los Angeles. Lufthansa also promises to ship my extra baggage, containing all the presents for free – this creates more “aidee,” newly minted money for the children. In total I have four extremely large and overstuffed suitcases.
The 15th of March arrives. I now have to say good-bye to my daughter. After breakfast, as she does most mornings, Persia picks up her violin to practice… she plays my favorite first, Judas Maccabeaus. It’s melody haunts me and will stay in my head for the entire trip and bring inspiration… how a few can have an effect on so many… I tell her that I will miss her very much, but I have very important mission to accomplish for the children in Bam. Her little triangle face is pale with fear, and tears well up in her eyes. I ask her what can I bring her back and she replies, “nothing, don’t spend time shopping – please come home as soon as you can.” I hugged her and promised I will, and then off she goes to class. As I watch her dragging that oversized backpack full of books through the gates I fight the urge to cut and run, to cancel the flight and stay in the comfort of Los Angeles with my loved ones. This dilemma of putting aside responsibility to those who are closest to you verses helping strangers, children albeit, on the other side of the globe is a powerful internal battle. I stay on course and head for the airport.
The flight to and arrival at Frankfurt Airport is uneventful except that I have to wait 10 hours for the connection to Tehran – a caveat I accept for the non-stop to Europe advantage, plus Lufthansa’s willingness to take care of my extra luggage. I find a vacant corner in Terminal B, down two Tylenol in an attempt to cure a splitting headache, sit back and close my eyes. Whether from lack of sleep, angst from leaving my family, anxiety associated with my mission ahead – or a combination thereof – I fall into a fitful haze of half sleep and half rumination of my life since leaving Iran as a young girl twenty-six years ago. A quarter century that began for me in design school in Dijon France as the Shah’s government was wrested from control by a revolution that seemed to be aided by policy driven by a naïve American Presidency under Jimmy Carter. As the Shah’s regime fell, and the ugliness of what replaced it became apparent, we Iranians all felt scared, worried and afraid. We worried about our families back in Iran and daily were bombarded by the images on French television showing riots and mayhem in the streets of Tehran.
The janitor, Turkish I believe, wakes me from my fitful sleep. I move to another corner of Terminal B. My ruminations continued, through my emigration to America and to school in California as the Iran-Iraq war raged. I recalled how I could not reach my parents or any other of my family by telephone as Iraqi bombs rained down on Tehran. The sheer feeling of terror of not knowing how your loved ones are coping is something that I will never forget. Then I could see my younger brother who was inducted against his will into the Iranian army to wage war against Iraq and knowing that chemical weapons had been discharged against my country, weapons of mass destruction – but nobody cared, at least at this time! As the war rages I continue my studies and begin to work in Los Angeles and I am involved in a serious car accident that will slice open my forehead and create a concussion so great it will impact my pancreas.
As the night drags on I put my feet up and doze off again in a half daze of memories… my first jobs as an architectural designer, meeting my husband Mark, English, though raised in Canada… and the birth of our daughter, Persia, soon after the calamitous earthquake in the winter of 1994. I can vividly see the stone wall we built around our house and the stone and brick pond we so adore so much in our back yard. The beautiful stone that my husband and I so painstakingly had rebuilt around the perimeter of our house takes my mind’s eye to the broken stone and the shattered mud bricks of Bam, and the terrible suffering that continues there to this day.
As the airliner heads southeast to Iran over Greece and Turkey an uneasy feeling of dread creeps into my consciousness. Despite the fact that I had successfully delivered all the clothing just five weeks earlier, I couldn’t shake the feeling of an impending crisis. Once over Tehran, you could see the extra lights that adorned the streets for Norooz (our New Year), a murmur of pleasure passes over the passengers in the plane. The man in the seat next to me comments that I looked pale and sick… I tell him that my blood pressure always drops when I fly, but inside I was fighting an ominous feeling… “You’ve been to Bam once already. Why return?” he asks. “For the children, for the children,” I tell him. “Dear lady, he says, everyone else in Iran is going on vacation – you are going to Bam!” In a flash I got it… not only had the rest of the world forgotten about the children in Bam, so had Iran, and Iranians! What a shame. On the ground I stand in the now familiar line for the airport police who check passports. I can literally hear my heart beating once I get closer to the officer. He demands to know why I am wearing sunglasses. I apologize and take them off… after a stern glare that seems hours he stamps my passport with a whomp.
An elderly baggage porter helps me load the four huge suitcases on a cart, which I proceed to push toward one of the customs officers. Me, standing five foot two push my overloaded cart to the nearest officer who looks at me with disdain. He sports, besides a unibrow, a full black beard and a starched shirt, without a collar, that is buttoned up tight – the sign of a government hard liner. As I push my cart up to his kiosk I am aware of the glare of several other officers on the sidelines. My feeling of dread is confirmed. The customs officer opens up my passport and immediately seizes upon the fact that I have recently visited Iran. “Why are you here again? You were here six weeks ago!” he demands. “I have been helping the children, the victims in Bam.” I tell him. He continues to glare at me like I am a criminal. “Over there,” he points. I am now escorted to a table where customs agents are opening baggage. My fears are now confirmed.
Now comes the hard part, unfortunately not the first with this journey. I am immediately questioned as to how many bags that I have with me, despite the fact that they are ever present on a cart in front of me. “Four.” “Why so much?” I tell them that I am bringing gifts for the children of Bam. “Don’t you realize that you have too much luggage?” I say yes, but that I have no other way of getting presents for Norooz to the children of Bam. He looks at me suspiciously and I suggest that he can open the bags and all the presents one by one to check that indeed these are what they are; gifts for the children of Bam. I point out to him that each present is personally wrapped by age and gender with a personal dedication. He cares not. Quite frankly he is looking at me like I am a drug dealer. The officers meet in their office to discuss my circumstance gazing furtively at me – the feeling is very uncomfortable. It was now I who was feeling like an orphan.
Meanwhile other passengers whose bags have been opened are being ushered through, and it is more than obvious to all that I am some kind of problem case. My stomach is in horrible pain, and given the stress of the moment, I do not realize that I am crying. Meanwhile after searching through all of my baggage, all they can find are the beautifully wrapped gifts – extra luggage or not this is all I have. By now, a little more than three hours have passed, and one of the bearded customs men comes forward with a proposal; that I pay a penalty of 3,000,000 Tomans (about $2000.00+), or, leave all four suitcases of gifts with the customs office for them to distribute. I hit the roof! “Pay a penalty for what?” I demand, “for trying to help the children of my country? No, damn it! I won’t give you a penny… give me my bags back, I’d rather leave. I’ll take the next Lufthansa flight out of here! I’ll take my bags and those presents with me, thank you very much!” The Lufthansa flights I am assuming are never completely booked to and from Tehran.
True I called their bluff, but I did not do it on purpose – my bluster was from pure frustration and exhaustion. A few moments later, one of the customs men tore the “penalty ticket” in half and let me pass, along with my treasured luggage. What a monumental waste of time, and, as the rough and tumble taxi careened through the streets of Tehran taking me to my father’s house, I tried to take stock of the events that had just occurred. Why were the customs officers filled with such animosity, what of the goodwill I was bringing, and, why grandstand like that for $2000.00? Although the trauma of the customs line is over, that ominous feeling of impending doom does not go away.
I arrive at my father’s at the unholy hour of five in the morning. Although he is not in the greatest of health, he is like a rock as he greets me at the door and, I cry like a schoolgirl on his shoulder. Moments later I have a lovely warm glass of tea in my hand and a shard of sugar. Despite the snow on the ground outside, my father’s home is warm and full of comfort. It occurs to me that what I am experiencing here in my father’s house is exactly what those poor children in Bam do not have… the warmth and commune of a home, the shoulder of a loved one to wet with your tears. These extraordinary and proud people have been reduced to living in tents above the rubble of their homes, and children forced to grow up without any parents … and I’m beginning to wonder who cares for any of them.
Before leaving Los Angeles Mr. Esmaili informed me that the most needed clothing commodity in the Bam is underwear. So the next day, my father and I visit the wholesale district of Tehran and purchase a large quantity of men’s and women’s underwear of varying sizes paying in US cash, and getting a good deal. The streets of Tehran are crowded, as I have never seen before, with New Year just two days away, it seems everybody is shopping. The next project that my dad helps me tackle is creating “fresh money” from my American cash. Off to a money changer, my father and I put the crisp new Iranian bills (each worth $100, $200, $300, and some more) into individual envelopes ready to distribute as “aidee” once I get to Bam.
The next day I’m dropped by family friends at the domestic airport of Tehran readying for a flight to Kerman, this you’ll recall is the province of Bam. The flight, I learn is going to be two hours late taking off… again, this is not going well. The night before, Mr. Esmaili informed me that he would be spending the holiday with family in Tehran, and would not be there to help me organize my mission. He did, though, give me a half-dozen numbers of people who apparently would help me. But I am frustrated by having to wait in airports instead of being able to get to the orphans and those who need help in Bam.
This flight is quite different from the last time I flew to Kerman. Last time everyone was dressed in black, there were many injured but ambulatory passengers returning with a hushed and somewhat painful atmosphere – today by contrast feels festive. The situation is the same on the ground in the airport. Lots of people dressed up in festive colors, with many carrying huge bouquets of flowers, tulips, narcissus, and iris and so on as is custom at our New Year. This custom is carried through to greeting people at the airport with an armful of flowers and the like. I now wait for a lady doctor arranged by Mr. Esmaili to pick me up and take me to the orphanage. I can hardly contain my anxiousness to see these angels again. I want to hug them and kiss them, and give them their outfits one by one so they can try them on and model them for each other. I have gloss lipstick for them, so they can dress up, look fabulous and more importantly feel fabulous about themselves. I simply can’t wait to hear the talkative Masarjan who will lead me here and there by the hand, and beautiful Fatemeh who wanted a Cinderella outfit … I have it for her. I so much want to hear Marziyeh sing to me again, an angel with a heavenly voice. Once they’re dressed up and ready I plan on taking them all out to a restaurant.
The cell phone that I have been provided with rings, and it is the lady doctor for whom I’ve been waiting. She tells me she is on her way and will be there in fifteen minutes. A half-hour later, it is now one o’clock in the afternoon, the lady doctor arrives. Her first comment is about my luggage – they will not fit in her car she says. I suggest we get a taxi for the luggage and she counters that it being New Years, a taxi will be difficult to procure. The difficult flights, the waiting finally snaps my temper, but she has a very diplomatic attitude and it calms me down. She suggests we go to lunch, then we can come back to the airport and solve the luggage problem. I tell her that I have flown over 11,000 miles and a dozen time zones with a particular purpose in mind, to deliver presents to a group of orphans and to distribute “aidee” among some earthquake victims. I reminded her that she told me on the phone yesterday that she would meet me and take me directly to the orphans. She tells me that there is a little change in plan, and would explain it over lunch. She being the host, I agree to lunch, but again that nagging feeling of altered fate is with me… what kind of change of plan does she mean?
We leave the baggage in the care of Iran Air. As we head through the pouring rain to a nearby restaurant I ruminate on the notion that my fate, and that of the gifts that I have taken so much trouble to acquire, are in the hands of this one pushy doctor. The streets are flooding from the downpour. Kerman is noted for having a rather poor sewer system since it is situated in the middle of the desert – I hope that all this is not a metaphor related to my mission. The restaurant was nice, but I was not in the mood to enjoy it. The doctor began to tell me about her life and her medical career and her wish to create a day care and dormitory system for orphans in the region. She, it seems, has permission from the government to collect financial aid from people to develop this business. To my ear, she sounded like a self-promoter. She asked me what do I have for the kids? I told her, gifts of clothing and some money. Then she dropped the bombshell. “You cannot see the children today. I can arrange for you to be taken to Bam so you arrive before nightfall and then you can drop off your gifts and money at the Governor’s tent for distribution.”
I put my fork down and stop eating. I remind her that I made these arrangements weeks ago to be here to see the Orphans on this specific date and to travel to Bam tomorrow. Relaxed and calm she tells me I cannot see the orphans today. “But why not?” “They are not in Kerman today. They’ve been sent to live with various families for the holidays.” She insists we travel to Bam tonight and stay at one of the Governor’s tents and hand over my gifts and money to them for distribution. I felt stonewalled. The sinking feeling I have had for so many days hits the bottom of the well with a thud. Last time I was helped so ably by Mr. Esmaili, this time I do not have the benefit of his counsel – but I do have the phone numbers that he gave me. My plan at this time was to be as conciliatory as possible and return to the airport. Meanwhile I light a cigarette and wipe away my tears – I am so disappointed that my plans have gone awry. Then the doctor’s phone rings. It sounds like she is receiving important instructions from somebody. “Of course, she says, I’ll be right there.” Now she announces that she cannot even take me to Bam! She takes me back to the airport where I have to retrieve my luggage before three in the afternoon. On the way back I am trying to figure out just what this lady doctor really is, an operator, a game player or a flake, or maybe a little of all three.
I retrieve my luggage then roll my cart up next to the windows and survey outside the pouring rain. The streets are starting to empty, as was the airport. I flip open my agenda and search for numbers. First, Mrs. Bahrami – you’ll remember that they put me up at their home on my last trip to Kerman. Once again they open their hearts to me and ask me to come over for the New Years… it warms me to know I have a place to go if I need it. Next, I call Dr. Shamsinia who I had met at the orphanage last time and who through the goodness of his heart had recently opened a clinic/hospital to care for patients with life threatening diseases such as renal failure, diabetes and the like. I know that he had accomplished this on a shoestring budget and was an extraordinary man, and, would be able to advise me on how to achieve what I wanted in Bam.
Dr. Shamsinia answers his phone immediately, but tells me that he is in another city, and to call his colleague Dr. Arasteh. Dr. Asrasteh couldn’t have jumped into the fray any quicker. He promises to send an ambulance (the only available transportation they have) to pick me up immediately – and pledges that I can use it to go wherever I need. He also confirmed that the children I so wished to see were not at the orphanage, but are off with distant family members for New Years celebrations – he had no idea when they would be returning.
Suddenly an ambulance pulls up in front of the waiting area at the terminal. But not just any ambulance – this one is vintage – probably circa the 1950’s, and, I’m not quite sure how it remains running. Out jumps a teenager, dressed in baggy pants and bandoleer that is the custom of some nomadic tribes that frequent the area. He bows low with respect to me, and introduces himself as, Zahir, then loads my suitcases into the back of the ambulance. Apologizing for the broken seat that I must sit on he cranks the engine over and over in attempting to restart this antique. Finally with a screech and a few loud backfires the ambulance jumps to life, then, with grinding gears we are off. It is still raining hard, and Zahir generats a real sense of helpfulness, things are getting better. As we plow through the rain swept streets he occasionally uses the siren to speed up our journey, it makes me laugh with joy, which is why I believe he does it.
Once at the hospital Zahir produces a large umbrella and takes me, then my baggage inside. As I enter the makeshift hospital I recall why I have returned, there are such wonderful, kind and generous people here. I give Zahir an envelope with “aidee,” and he smiles with satisfaction. I am told to have a seat and wait, and once one of the better and newer ambulances is ready they will take me down to Bam. It is now six in the evening. My cell phone rings and it is Mr. Bahrami insisting that I come to his home and rest, then, as soon as an ambulance is ready they will take me to Bam. A better ambulance arrives with another driver who takes me through the rain to the Baharami’s wonderful home.
After orange juice and tea with the Bahrami’s they demand that I get some sleep. Themselves they are going to a New Year function but are assured that the Dr. Arasteh will call when the ambulance is on the way. I fall into a deep and needed sleep. At nine sharp my cell phone rings. Expecting Dr. Varasteh, I’m surprised when I hear the voice of the lady doctor who so let me down this afternoon. She wants to know if I have obtained transportation to Bam, and, if so can she get a ride with me. Of course you can I say. A half an hour later she shows up with her husband, but only to apologize that she cannot go to Bam with me, because of her husband’s New Year plans. Wow, this woman is all over the place. Despite all her promises and bluster, I have never heard from her again. As I get my bags ready to leave, Dr. Arasteh arrives with the ambulance, but he looks at me closely, examining like a doctor, and demands that I rest for the night. He says the ambulance will return for me at four forty-five in the morning.
True to his word I am on the road to Bam in a relatively new ambulance by five in the morning. The sun is coming up after so many days of rain, and the huge billowy clouds in the clear sky hovering above such a flat horizon, it is one of the most beautiful scenes that I have ever witnessed. Colors of purple, gold, dark red and orange pass across the sky like a moving kaleidoscope of color. The roads have been washed clean by the rain and the drive is a delight. My ambulance driver, Mr. Mohamad Zadeh informs me that because this is the first New Year after the earthquake, many families will be visiting the cemetery there, and it will afford me a chance to distribute “aidee.” Mr. Mohamad Zadeh knows the route to Bam very well having driven back and forth four to five times daily in the aftermath of the earthquake retrieving its victims. We come to a two or three way fork in the road and he will take one without hesitation. Along the way we drink sweet tea and eat fruit – his politeness is unforgettable.
We arrive in Bam at about seven thirty in the morning, and the change in atmosphere in the six weeks I have been away is apparent immediately. The international presence of American, Turkish, Japanese, Italian and the like are gone. The devastation is still apparent, and there are just as many destitute people, but there are no aid workers. The main streets have been washed clean, but immediately beyond there remains the rubble of flattened shops and homes. It is a deeply disturbing sight. Mr. Mohamad Zadeh and I search for the Governor’s Camp, along the way we see many groups with placards asking for donations for their organizations to help the victims Choosing the right place to give my money is most important. There are many charlatans in the area trying to profit from the tragedy. Finally Mohamad Zadeh finds and introduces me to a wonderful humanitarian named, Mr. Farivar. For the past two months Mr. Farivar has dedicated his life to helping the victims of the earthquake. Along with his brother, a doctor based in Boston, they formed ERFO, the Earthquake Relief Fund for Orphans. So far they have raised $680,000.00 then opened bank accounts for six hundred orphaned children and put 500,000 Tomans ($600.00) in each account for them. Today, working from a list of two hundred names, he was going to start to track them down. He invited me to join him so on his search for the orphans where I could meet many victims in need. Mr. Mohamad Zadeh unload my baggage and transfer it to Mr. Farivar’s vehicle.
While waiting to leave the distribution center I noticed a young lady across the compound staring at me with eyes filled with pain and need. The intensity of her stare makes me shudder. Later I learn this is Mars, a young mother who literally witnessed her husband and children crushed to death in the quake. Every member of her family and her in-laws family was killed that night. She then survived a suicide attempt by burning herself inside her husband’s car. The entrance of several children who are brought to Mr. Farivar interferes with my interest in her. Mr. Farivar hands the children their bank account savings books, and I hand them packages of clothing. To some of the older children I also give an envelope of “aidee” money. Finally after all the difficulties of the trip I am doing what I came to do. Mr. Farivar draws my attention back to Mars, I now dwell on her comportment. She is wearing a large baggy raincoat and a colorful scarf. “Do you have any clothing that might fit her?” he asks. I do, so he calls her over. “Mars, come here…” She comes over to his small office and gingerly up the stairs. She tells me that she must wear clothing that is very large in size, she has many burns over her body and baggy clothing is more comfortable. I hand her packages of clothing and underwear, also an envelope of money. I kiss her cheek and she continues to look at me plaintively.
At eight thirty Mr. Farivar’s driver arrives and they load my gift packages into the back of the car. The streets are now beginning to fill with people fulfilling the custom of New Year by visiting one another. Many of these people are making their way to the cemetery. As our mission begins we are also headed in that direction. The scene is something that is burned into my memory. The rising sound of moaning rises in the distance and as the graves come into view I see that the ground of the cemetery is literally a flowing sea of black, with groups of people dressed in the color of mourning sitting on the flat gravestones. On the stones they have spread “haft sine,” the seven elements that represent the essence of Persian life that are displayed at New Year — wheat, silver, goldfish, various herbs, sweets, fruit and so on. These are all symbolic of the ancient virtues of our culture, representing fertility, and the regeneration and rebirth that happens each spring.
There are many iconic moments here at the cemetery, images frozen by this spectacle I am witnessing, the utter grief of these proud and ancient people. A grave simply decorated with nothing but a beautiful fishbowl with a single sparkling gold fish lazily swimming in circles. A teenage girl with a baby girl in her arms weeping at the gravesite of her whole family – this little niece is the only one she has in the entire world and she her… A man, who has covered the tomb of his wife and children with a bright red cloth, weeps with such uninhibited agony that it makes me bite my lip until it bleeds. A young man sits alone as if frozen on the gravestone with four pictures, his mother, father and two sisters – these two pictures are all he has left. Families of all sizes gathered around grave markers, holding one another and sharing sorrow, pain and, above all strength. A grave bearing a complete family of seven names – on the marker stone nothing but a simple bag of candy. The emotional impact of these scenes is overwhelming. Mr. Farivar and I are both crying uncontrollably – this from two people who have only known each other for less than an hour. All inhibitions have been thrown to the wind; even the burly driver is wiping his eyes. We take one last look at the huge field that contains the majority of the 60,000 people killed in the quake, and off we continue on our mission of mercy.
The driver and Mr. Farivar start combing the streets of Bam looking for specific orphans. Remember that most of the houses are flattened, but in front of each pile of rubble is a tent – the residents of the home that survived live in the tent. One of the first tents that we visit is that of a young woman named, Maheen, a young woman who lost her husband, two of her children and many other of her family members. As we enter her tent, she insists upon putting an extra blanket on the ground in addition to the thin one that exists to lessen the harshness of the ground, and offers us tea and sweets – custom for the New Year. I ask her if she is afraid living in a tent like this… only to discover that the whole notion of fear has become a different paradigm for these people. To have your whole life ripped asunder by such a catastrophe, to have your complete family massacred – then to have their broken and bloodied bodies pulled from the wreckage in front of her own eyes… fear is no longer an issue. The future is her issue, how will she cope given the overwhelming circumstances that face her. I press two envelopes of “aidee” into her hands, hug her and kiss her cheeks.
Nearby two children appear from behind a pile of rubble, they are curious and want to greet me, but I can see they hold themselves back not wanting to feel shame. They advance very slowly with shy smiles, and without a sound I gave each an envelope of “aidee.” The starkness of the exchange is so intense that I cannot control myself and I start to cry. Mr. Farivar pulls me toward the car, “you will see worse than this,” he warned. Our next stop finds us greeting a young mother with a two-month-old, beautiful bright-eyed baby girl, named Nilofar, wrapped in a white blanket with a white hat. The father and both grandparents were killed in the quake. The pride and satisfaction on the face of the mother, Azam, is inspiring, as are her words about her plans for the future. I give her two envelopes of “aidee,” and admiration all round.
On the way to the next address, a sandstorm rises and whips our car. This is sandstorm season in Bam and this is the time of day when temperature change fuels the winds that carry the storms from the huge desert surrounding this place. When the storms billow up there is no escaping the fine particles of sand. It whips across our windscreen blinding us from the road and immediately you feel the effects of it on your face, in your hair and in your throat. We can see the tents being whipped by the wind in the distance. Mr. Farivar tells me how many of the people lose their tents in such weather, and how some have poorly protected fires in their tents, only to have them burn up, loosing what precious belongings they’ve been able to gather since the earthquake. It’s as if Mother Nature doesn’t want to leave these people alone.
We continue on stopping at various tents, each in front of the requisite rubble of a former dwelling, finding success in tracking down various kids on Mr. Farivar’s list. I continue distributing “aidee,” and packages of clothing with the help of his driver and young assistant who help us find our way through the rubble altered streets and lanes. At each stop they help pull my precious packages out of the trunk. It is now mid afternoon and it finds us tired and sticky with sand, I suggest taking the three of them to eat, which they readily accept.
We lunch at a traditional restaurant under ancient arches (still standing thank God). The two assistants refuse to order themselves and are only willing to eat what I request – so I order a large plate of kabob, which we all consume with delight. During lunch my cell phone rings, it is Jallil Massahi and his wife Mehrara – you’ll recall they were the couple who drove me to Bam on my first trip – we found the family diary in the rubble of their uncle’s home. They have heard that I am back for a second time and invite me to their uncle’s tent and offer to take me back to Kerman tonight or tomorrow. I’m thrilled they have found me, because I know their uncle is an important citizen in the region and will help me further in the distribution of my packages and “aidee.”
Mr. Farivar continues his search for orphans to match them with bank accounts then they take me to Jallil’s uncle’s tent. Uncle Massahi is a rather wealthy man who owns a date plantation. Unfortunately the earthquake has ruined the rather elaborate irrigation system of canals and pipes that has made part of this region so lush – the local authorities have not yet addressed when this will be rectified. Uncle Massahi is an educated and cultured man who also lost many family members including many of his children in the quake. Now like those who once worked for him, he too lives in a tent adjacent to the rubble of his home. After a quick respite of tea and sweets he takes me, as promised, to find some of the most needy in the area, those who he knows personally. The pride and self respect is these people is heart wrenching – some at first refuse the envelopes of “aidee,” but with a little coaxing from Uncle Masaahi accept it with resignation.
This night is extraordinarily clear, and a bright full moon casts a vivid glow through the palm trees reflecting in the pools of water around the rubble. The rubble casts irregular shadows across the road lending a three dimensional impression. The pungent smell of the mud is everywhere, its rawness and intensity is practically intoxicating. The mud itself takes on a clean, practically storybook quality. And so it should, this place, is the center of my country’s civilization famous for poets, philosophers and even Kings. Referred to as the “emerald of the desert” the raw beauty that exists here takes on a far different quality… its beauty is now defined by the stark edges of tragedy and pain.
The drive back to Kerman is eerily silent. I can’t get the sight of the children out of my mind. Their stories and words are repeating over and over in my head. As I look into the blackness beyond the dimly lit highway I can only see the faces of those angels staring back at me – they make me tremble. How more can I help them, what more can I do? This frustration is something that haunts me to this day… this feeling of inadequacy tortures me. I’m dropped off at the Bahrami residence at two in the morning and I am exhausted and fall into a deep sleep, once again filled with the images of the refugee tents.
Next morning I return by air to Tehran, with no customs to go through it was a breeze returning with my semi-depleted baggage. But I am still haunted by the faces of the many orphans who I have met… Zahra in particular, with her dark olive skin, bright eyes and exuberant personality. I so wish I could have met up with her again for some “acaroni!” In Tehran I meet up with Mr. Esmaili and his wife where I transfer to him all of the wrapped gifts that I had for the Bam orphans that I met on my first trip. He promises that he will distribute the gifts to the girls once they return to Kerman. Unfortunately because of the tent fires in Bam, I fear that Mr. Esmaili will not be able to identify and therefore get the gift to little Zahra.
My flight home is fairly uneventful, only this time my connection through Frankfurt is less than three hours, so it seems like I am back flying west over the Atlantic in no time. As I stare wearily out the window I think of little Zahra at the refugee camp in Bam; how she grabbed on to me so hard with those tiny little hands and wouldn’t let go, and with those bright almond eyes staring widely at me that hold so much promise for the future. Then my mind dwells on the fact that I could not meet up with her again despite my efforts, as it was with trying to deliver the personalized gifts to the girls in the orphanage in Kerman. In a way I feel like I have failed. Yes I set out to help these people, but the task is so enormous and the circumstances so overwhelming that I realize my efforts are so miniscule compared to the need at hand. As we wing over America I flip through USA Today, Time Magazine and the like, it seems that there is no mention, let alone understanding, of what happened to this very isolated place in the world. Yes, life goes on… but in Bam life is an utter hell and nobody seems to care.
It takes me a good week to recover from my trip once back in Los Angeles. The lack of sleep and its cumulative effect forces me to catch up on rest.
I revisit my videotapes in the process of making notes so my husband and I can write this article, and relive many of the moments from both trips. I’m searching for some kind of closure to this episode in my life, and it comes early one Sunday via a telephone call from Iran.
Mr. Esmaili calls to tell me he’ s delivered the gifts to the girls at the orphanage in Bam. The news thrills me… yes I wanted to be there, but the fact that the girls received what they wanted and that they know that my promise was fulfilled is very important to me. It’s important because I want them to know that there are people in this world, who care about them, love them for what they are, and most importantly give them the esteem they deserve. Mr. Esmaili tells me to check my email, which I do… the pictures and messages from the girls fill me with joy.
Now I try to pass this story, this personal odyssey of mine along to others – hoping to keep the plight of these people alive. I hope that the predicament of these people is kept alive, and that the USA will continue to reach out and help the people of Bam. I pray that the political differences (not of most Iranian or American citizens’ making) that divides this country with Iran get in the way of what is really meaningful – the brotherhood of man! I never did find little Zahra in the confusing mass of refugee tents during my second trip. And though the international presence is gone, for a faint glimmer I saw hope in a young girl’s face and that of people from across the globe who cared more for humanity than a politically manufactured ideal.
There are a few who need to be thanked for helping me accomplish both my missions to date, who were instrumental in gathering over 5,000 pieces of next to new children’s clothing for donation to these destitute kids. Lycee Francais, especially Madame Cole and Mr. Zalah and to many many Lycee parents and faculty. The Colburn School of Performing Arts, specifically Persia’s violin teacher, Ms. Rumi Shimasaki… who diligently, one by one created an avalanche of support. Plus those individuals gave from their wallets through their hearts, including but not limited to Robert O. Ahmanson,