In 1979, Iran’s monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Along with numerous other American traits, Iran was loose on the religions practiced in the country.
With a desire to get back to their former traditional ways, riots and protests arose; very quickly the revolution caused the government to change to a republic. Immediately after the new government grabbed their foothold, things started to change.
Islam was the religion chosen by the republic and quickly, any Iranian against it was pushed out of the country or else they were “taken care of” by the government. After the initial transition period, common belief was that the repercussions of the revolution were over.
Fifteen years later, people were still disappearing.
Khalandi’s father was never an overly religious person, but he didn’t want to hide his beliefs from the government. This refusal was not tolerated–Iran wanted him out. He was left with no choice; he had to flee the country that his family had called home for generations.
He snuck out of the country to go to Turkey with the hope that the United Nations would accept him. If not, he would be forced to stay in Iran. The United Nations accepted his application and several months later, the Khalandis got the OK to relocate to Turkey.
Only 12 years old at the time, Khalandi didn’t pick up on what was happening.
“We were just told, that we were going to start a better life, and move to a better country,” Khalandi said. “That was all I needed to know and at that time, I didn’t ask any questions. We just did it.”
The Khalandis were forced to start a new life, even though they were just a country away from their home. Everything was temporary because at any moment the UN could reassign them to their permanent location; it could have been the next day, month or year.
As time passed, the family became accustomed to life in Turkey. They picked up enough of the language to make due and they made friends with the neighbors next door by playing games with them, just like they would with their friends left back in Iran.
Two years later they got the call; their time had come to start their new life in America. Everything the Khalandis could put their name to lay in one suitcase. They were set to live in the confines of a two bedroom apartment in Missouri.
“All I knew of America was that Michael Jackson lives in America,” Khalandi said. “Coming to America, I would talk to [my half-brother] on the phone and say, ‘You know, I’m here where Michael Jackson is.”
Right away, Khalandi was placed into high school as a freshman without knowing any English and having no idea about what she was about to encounter. She cried out to her father, pleading to not make her go to school that day.
Her father had his way, and as soon as she entered school, Khalandi experienced a culture shock. It was there that she realized how difficult her assimilation to American culture would be, unlike Turkey. American life had zero similarities to her old life in Iran.
In Iran, schools, along with many other facets of life, were segregated and in public there was never even a slight sign of affection towards another.
During her first walk down the hallway, Khalandi saw some things that she never anticipated and never thought possible. Her eyes caught glimpses of numerous pregnant students walking the halls, along with the frequent sight of couples making out in public sight. For her first year in high school, Khalandi was mainly an observer. Trying to grasp the American way of life, and how to survive through high school.
“I loved school in Iran and was always a straight A student,” Khalandi said. “If you can imagine going to class every single day where you can’t understand what the teacher is saying, what the students are saying, what everyone is doing. I would have no idea what was going on; I would just sit quietly in my little chair.”
Early on, Khalandi struggled and she would frequently tell her father that she was finished with school and that she never wanted to go back. But her father would always remind her of her future and how she needed to have a degree.
Khalandi was enrolled in three standard classes to go along with four classes in the ESL program. These classes were intended to help her learn English and get acclimated to American life. Another benefit of the program was that these second language students could meet people to whom they could relate; although they may be coming from countries on opposite sides of the world, they are both completely in a new element.
Almost immediately, Khalandi became friends with her fellow students in the ESL program. Just like her, they were learning little pieces of the language, step-by-step. Together, they had someone with whom they could relate, eat lunch and hang out.
The program required dedication from the students. What would be one homework assignment turned into three for Khalandi, since she had to translate every assignment to Iranian, do the work and then translate it back to English.
“It was really hard but I think if you are put in that situation you either quit or you learn how to survive,” Khalandi said.
After two years in the ESL program, Khalandi went through a normal high school schedule. Not only did she graduate, but she also finished in the top 10 percent of her class.
The process to become “American” was one fueled mainly by her father. Khalandi’s father was driven to succeed in his new country, and he wanted to make sure his children had all of the opportunities they needed. He kept them focused on the ultimate goal, and to Khalandi, he led by example. Whenever her father wasn’t working, he would pick up one of the numerous dictionaries lying around his house and would translate books, newspapers and magazines just for practice. His goal was to be a business owner, and to get there, he worked as a porter in a casino. After only six months, he started his own transportation business.
Khalandi was inspired by her former ESL teacher, Sarah Boyd.
“She was so passionate and she loved her job and she just loved all of her students and she did her best to do her job,” Khalandi said. “That to me was an eye-opening experience. I just wanted to be someone like her, who made a difference because she made a difference in my life. I just wanted to do the same thing for kids in the future.”
Sixteen years after she had left her home country, Khalandi is now married. Although she can only make it back to see her family around once a year, Facebook has helped bridge that gap.
“I’m an Iranian-American,” Khalandi said. “I have been away from that culture and tradition for so long but I can’t say I’m fully an American, so I’m an Iranian-American and that’s awesome.”