From the NEIGHBORHOOD FOLKS series
From Shiraz, Iran to Midwood, Brooklyn, NYC
You don’t know what I went through to get here
I met Ben at his jewelry shop on Newkirk Plaza in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, near where I live. While waiting for him to replace my watch battery, I noticed a mezuzah attached to his doorway. I asked him about it, & he told me he was a Persian Jew. “You have no idea what I went through to be here,” he told me. I asked him if I could come back to talk to him. Several months later, I managed to speak with him though the hole in the plexiglass wall that separates him from his customers. This is Ben’s story:
He came to New York in 1992 when he was a teen-ager to escape the purging of Jews during the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule in Iran. Ben says, “There are hardly any Jews left-there is no place to live.”
There used to be 100,000 Jews in Iran, now only 8,000. They are accused of spying for Israel. During the Iran/Iraq war he was kidnapped by military police on a police truck. The police typically stopped all teenage boys on the street, asking for ID confirmation that they went to the army. Luckily, he managed to escape by jumping off the truck, and going through a small road. He hitchhiked a ride home from a truck driver, and made his plans to leave the country. During the eight year war, 16-18 year old teenage boys were conscripted into the army. One and a half million of them were killed. Ben’s brother went, but by then the war was over.
One form of torture by the military police was to ask the boys to measure a street or area with a matchstick, and make them guess the measurement-if they were off by one matchstick; they would make them start all over again. When the Shah sent Khomeini out of the country to France, Ben escaped; he flew from Shiraz to Zahedan, a border town between Iran and Pakistan. Police apprehended him, as he did not resemble a Pakistani, blindfolded him, took him to a mountain underground prison and tortured him there. He was seventeen at the time. He was even asked which belt he preferred them to use to whip him. Ben told me he was “a human barbeque,” having been tied and roasted over a fire.
Miraculously, his parents managed to track him down, and bribed him out of the prison; they found a rabbi who issued Ben a passport to Vienna, where he stayed for six months. There his interview with the American consulate was approved for him to be sponsored by US Naona, an organization that helped Jews escape persecution.
Upon arriving in New York, his sponsors picked him up and drove him to a hotel on 28th street. Going up in the elevator to his room, he was held up at knifepoint for the ten dollars he had in his pocket. Ben laughs telling me this: “After all I went through; I came here to be held up like this!” That night, he rode the subway back and forth and finally slept. Eventually he hooked up with a rabbi who took him to the Gap to buy clothes. He rented a basement room from a Jewish family, and attended Touro College. He met the woman who is now is wife, and they have two sons and live near Kings Highway in Brooklyn.