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Iranian immigrants in the US. `Exiles of circumstance' work hard to fit in

Through sheer strength of will, support from friends and relatives, and a deep commitment to her children, Homa has managed to build a life for herself and her family here in the United States. Hers is a classic immigrant success story, with one difference. Homa is Iranian, and Americans have grown used to viewing Iran in a negative light - from the hostage seizure in Tehran seven years ago to the current Iran-Contra scandal.

``I woke up one day with four children in a new country,'' says Homa. ``I didn't know English. I had no money, and I had never worked. I had grown up in an aristocratic family and it was very difficult for me to turn to welfare. I thought of my children and started working. I took a housekeeping job and worked 100 hours a week. It was a big change in my life.''

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A tall, striking woman in her early 40s, Homa came to America in 1978 to admit her older son to school. Then the Shah left Iran and her husband decided it was best for her to stay on here. He went back to Iran, remarried, and stopped supporting her. She belongs to the Bahai sect, a persecuted religious minority in Iran.

Like an estimated one million Iranians who live in the US, most of whom fled after the collapse of the Shah's regime, Homa's life has been a series of roller coaster rides in trying to adjust to a new culture. But despite the tumultuous upheaval they have experienced, most Iranian exiles have found the US welcoming. They have not been overt targets of discrimination and racism, in spite of the acrimonious relationship between the two countries in the last decade. Their experiences are much like those of other immigrants, easier for some, harder for others - though often tinged with the poignancy of loss because of the nature of their exile, an exile of circumstance, not of choice.

``I've seen tough times, but people were always understanding,'' recalls Homa, talking softly in her rent-controlled Brookline apartment, which is filled with pictures of the Shah and his family. ``My boss helped, friends helped, my nephews helped. Life has really turned around for me. In Iran, we had maids and servants. Here my boss asked if I will work in the kitchen and I said, `Why not? I'll try anything.' So I make knishes in the shop where I work 60 hours a week. In this country I have no money but I am happy. Here people are safe, they are free, they can work.''

Her daughter Shabnam, who is 18 and is studying business management, says her experience in school has been very positive.

``Even during the worst days of the hostage crisis no one ever put us down,'' she says. ``We were never given a hard time in school, never insulted.''

One of their friends was not so fortunate. He owned a restaurant in Oregon. During the hostage crisis it was smashed to bits one night and he closed and left. A wealthy man in Iran, where he owned a big estate and several cars, he now drives a cab in Boston, 13 hours a day, seven days a week.

While a substantial core of the educated middle class have integrated comfortably into American society, for some Iranians the forced political exile has spawned a range of emotional crises. Many left Iran with a suitcase, leaving behind the memories and possessions of a lifetime. Many left under harrowing circumstances and lost relatives and friends in the tumult that followed the Shah's departure. Many left at the peak of their careers. Here they were suddenly reduced to the status of ``nobodies,'' with the added handicaps of age and language.

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When Afsaneh Nahavandi and Ali Malekzadeh were graduate students at the University of Utah in 1979, Americans were taken hostage in Iran. The campus was shaken by demonstrations and walls were scrawled with slogans like ``nuke Iran.'' But neither of them was ever harmed.

``Friends offered refuge, the Mormon church offered help - we had a lot of support,'' recalls Mr. Malekzadeh, now a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. Afsaneh Nahavandi, a social psychologist, is now his wife, and he lives with her and their daughter, Parisa, in a ranch-style house in a Boston suburb.

Both intended to go back to Iran after graduation, but the departure of the Shah, with whom their families were closely aligned, prevented that. Their parents live in exile in Paris. They sought political asylum in the US.

``We like this country,'' says Malekzadeh. ``It is easy to feel like a foreigner in Paris. In France, all foreigners have red number plates on their cars, and one never really integrates. Here no one has ever asked me for an ID. It's been wonderful. This country has given us many privileges.''

Despite their easy adjustment and professional success, what upsets Ms. Nahavandi, an articulate woman who also teaches at Northeastern University, is the way the US media depicts Iranians.

``It is as if we are somehow different, as if ours is a culture of madmen and murder is part of that culture, so what Khomeini is doing is implicit in that culture. But every culture has its standards,'' she points out. ``Some standards are universal and a madman is a madman by any standards. That hurts very much.''

Both are bitter about recent disclosures about the Reagan administration's secret contacts with Iran, because they feel that by these overtures, the US is legitimizing the Khomeini government.

``It's as if America is saying, `Business is business.' We in exile hope to go back one day,'' says Nahavandi.

An economist who studied at Indiana University and went back to work for the Shah's government says he left Iran when he saw what was happening after the revolution.

``People were intent on destroying everything, on killing without pretext. People who came out during the Shah's regime still think they can go back. But I know there is nothing to go back to. Here I feel at home. Occasionally I do see less than ideal behavior, but I haven't noticed any anti-Iranian sentiment,'' he says. ``Most Iranians miss the emotional ties to their country. I keep mine alive by studying the literature and history of Iran. After all, I lived there for 30 years.''

For Nahavandi, who comes from a well-known family in Iran, the sense of loss is profound. ``We are caught in the middle. In a sense, we are marginal here,'' she says wistfully. ``We don't belong anywhere. Iran was home. We had a sense of belonging. We had a place in society. We went to the best schools. I guess my daughter has to be content going to the local high school.''

At an emotional level, Homa too is still tied to Iran. ``I feel proud I am Iranian. People are afraid to say that; I'm not,'' she says. ``I am happy here, but Iran is still my mother. I cannot forget my mother. The sky is always blue in Iran; any place you go it's blue. I miss that. But I understand that life changes, and I try never to think about my past.''

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