Beverly Hills High School

Persian students recall own past, sympathize with Syrian refugees in present

Four million, five hundred ninety-seven thousand, four hundred and thirty-six people. That is the latest tally of registered refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The estimate, which excludes the 813,599 Syrians officially seeking asylum while they take shelter in the train stations of Europe and the thousands more who are living unregistered around the world, is merely the statistical residue of a growing humanitarian crisis that fills news airwaves. While students at Beverly may not be directly affected by the wave of humans currently flooding out of the Middle East, many Normans have already been touched by the immigrant experience. 36 years later, the historic events of 1979 and the subsequent journey undertaken by the Persian community of Beverly Hills now shape the opinions of descendants amid a familiar time of strife.

The overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, in January of 1979 spurred an exodus of 40,000 Persian Jews, with 30,000 settling in or around Beverly Hills, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Daniel Zadeh, now an Advanced Placement Statistics teacher, graduated from Beverly in 1990 when the foundations of neither the science building, nor the Persian community, had been fully formed.

“My family had assimilated well before the revolution, [so] Beverly Hills was not my family’s starting point. My father moved here in the late 1950s, married my mother in Iran, and brought her in 1965 [to pursue] freedom and opportunity, with very little coming from Iran. We moved to Pomona and later Studio City, [and] did not move to Beverly Hills until the mid 1980s. We wanted to live in Beverly Hills because of the low crime and true sense of community, but most of all because of the schools in Beverly Hills Unified School District. [Immigration after 1979] brought not all, but a lot of Persians to Beverly Hills,” Zadeh said.

Despite possessing an ordinary source of roots for a child in this city, Zadeh faced extraordinary obstacles in his Beverly Hills upbringing.

“I was in a bad place when I moved to Beverly Hills. My father passed away at that time, I took a lot personally and I was coming from a private school in Beverly Hills where kids were expected to be nice no matter what. Most of my hardships did not align with my Persian peers. Language, culture and food were all things that I was raised with, both Persian and American styles,” Zadeh said.

Aaron Shahmaram and Sean Taghdis, both currently seniors, are the products of four immigrants who fled Iran at very different times in its history.

“My dad came in 1978. He was worried he would get put into the military so he saw an opportunity in America and his parents sent him to it. My mom came in the late 1980s. [In Iran] she had no freedom, she was a minority. She had to wear a hijab, and she just wanted total freedom,” Shahmaram, the son of Jews, said.

After detours in Brooklyn, N.Y. and the San Fernando Valley, Shahmaram’s parents settled in Beverly Hills, where they would be able to thrive.

“Persians have been successful in West LA because we have good habits. We invest in real estate and we value education. We open up new places for business and entertainment, and new comedy clubs and hookah bars. We also have a lot of inheritance money,” Shahmaram said.

Zadeh, who personally experienced the development of Tehrangeles, as Google Maps calls it, agreed with Shahmaram’s analysis.

“Persians have good business sense and strong motivation, especially the first generation Persians. When I went to Beverly we made up less than one-third of the school, yet we [had] over 60 percent of the top 20 percent of the GPAs at BHHS,” Zadeh said.

Shahmaram, whose parents have experienced more subtle forms of xenophobia, is not phased when he encounters it firsthand.

“My mom’s accent, the first thing [people] go after is that it sounds really foreign because it’s Persian. She had a hard time getting a job, but my dad doesn’t take that stuff from anybody. People say Persians are [jerks], or are annoying, but that kind of stuff doesn’t bother me as much. Personally, I think if you’re judging based on ethnicity then you’re just a stupid person,” Shahmaram said.

Beverly’s first generation Americans have expanded their already-open arms in order to include the Syrian refugees, who were recently accused of concealing members of ISIS among their fleeing ranks by Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.

Alex Alcalde, a fellow senior whose father survived a left-wing dictatorship in Peru during its rise and whose mother fled the Soviet Union during its fall, shared Shahmaram’s disdain for anti-Persian slurs.

“My dad remembers the crazy communists on the streets of Peru chanting about a revolution. This is a nation of immigrants and the free. Whether the people who want to deny the Syrians like it or not, America is the world’s superpower and we are pretty much involved in everything,” Alcalde said.

Zadeh similarly drew a comparison with his own experience with immigration, saying, “Anyone who is willing to come here and make a start without being a burden on society will be an asset, [so] we need to start appreciating our differences rather than using them to divide us. I am disappointed [in] the fear of the unknown [of the Syrians]. Iran is not perfect, but most Iranians do not hate Americans. They love and respect us and our culture,” Zadeh said.

Focusing on the morality of the situation, Shahmaram insists that allowing Syrians to safely immigrate should be a priority.

“It isn’t even an immigrant thing, it’s just the humane thing to do. Persians [in 1979] just wanted to live a good life, the Syrians just want to live. They have an immediate threat, so they should get priority, but we don’t need to take all of them,” Shahmaram said.

Taghdis concurred with Shahmaram’s humanitarian viewpoint, saying, “It’s wrong to deny them entry, we should let people be safe. In a way, we are responsible for what is going on in there.”