“You Are an American Dream”: An Iranian Woman’s Journey to America

By Grace Bydalek

Tahmineh Dehbozorgi thought that her childhood home in Tehran, Iran, was a safe haven for her curious mind. Her parents, a middle-class telecom engineer and a stay-at-home mom, taught her English from a young age. “My father [was] fascinated with literature since he was very young, and so was my mom,” Dehbozorgi recalled. “They really wanted me to learn about the world.”

The family’s single, contraband satellite TV provided a portal to the outside world, where political tensions were roiling. It was 2002. President Bush had just referred to Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” as the country pursued weapons of mass destruction. Student-led protests against the hard-line clerical establishment that had taken control of Parliament were breaking out across the city.

“As I grew older, I realized that there were absolutely no freedoms,” Dehbozorgi said. One such example was her home country’s strict Islamic dress codes. At just eight years old, she began wearing a mandatory scarf outside the home. 

“If I did not cover my body, I would be beaten by the police. Even as a child, they would take me to prison.” 

The way in which she was allowed to present herself physically was one matter, but her mind was suppressed by the regime as well. As a lover of linguistics, the suppression of speech limited her career opportunities. “I could never be an author, a journalist, a lawyer. My work would be censored no matter what.”

“It was harsh,” she continued, “because I already knew English well. I could understand American movies, and I could see the distinction, the contrast between where I lived and how the world outside looked. I knew my childhood was not normal. But I did not have a choice.”

Her parents had lived through Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi who had pro-Western values. Dehbozorgi said they watched helplessly as their country continued to regress from a cultural hub to an authoritarian theocracy. 

“My mom used to tell me about rockets flying from Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded,” Dehbozorgi said. “Many of their neighbors died in the war. The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded, and Sharia law was enshrined in its legal code.

Then, the quality of educational opportunities rapidly diminished—especially for women. Schools were segregated by sex. Female teachers were fired. In spite of discriminatory sex-based quotas instituted in the college admissions process (which Dehbozorgi noted as similar to affirmative action), both of her parents graduated and began to “build their life from scratch.”

After the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, however, Iran suffered a major economic downturn. Universities in Iran began expelling students for speaking out against the government. When Dehbozorgi was 17 years old, her family made the difficult and expensive decision to leave their homeland.

“They didn’t come from means. They had to work really hard to get where they were—and then, they had to leave it all behind,” Dehbozorgi said. “Imagine going through all this, graduating college, struggling through economic hardships and uncertainty, having a child, and then when you’ve finally reached security, leaving it behind so your daughter could have a future.”

Her family settled in Los Angeles, California, in 2015, far from any family or friends. Dehbozorgi recalled difficulties adjusting to this new culture: “I didn’t know what a credit card was. I didn’t know what a Social Security number was or where I should even get one. It was like being born again.”

While taking classes at a local community college, Dehbozorgi was introduced to American history. Stark differences between her birth country and her new home began to add up. Where the Iranian judicial system was based on civil law, the United States exercised common law. Where the Islamic Penal Code of Iran defined a woman’s worth as “half that of a man,” the American founding documents enshrined freedom and equality for all people.

Yet Dehbozorgi said she still saw disparities between the values that America was founded upon and the values that institutions demonstrated, such as free speech violations on campus and in the media. 

“This country has that foundation,” she explained, “but these are just words on a paper if people aren’t actively defending and protecting them.” Dehbogorgi said that was when her dreams of being a lawyer—dead in her home country—were resurrected in the United States.

“I wanted to make sure my parents’ sacrifice meant something,” she said. “They gave me freedom. I wanted to appreciate it, make the most out of it.”

Dehbozorgi started law school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., with the goal of becoming a civil liberties defendant. Now, through her work with the New Civil Liberties Alliance, she has been able to participate in constitutional law litigation, the results of which can be seen in the Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce case at the Supreme Court.

“This is my best-case scenario,” she said. “Maybe even better than what I thought was possible as a child in Iran.” 

Dehbozorgi said that she wants young people to take their education seriously—especially in civics and American history. 

“Our foundational principles are the essence of our country, our national identity,” she explained. “They make us different from the rest of the world.” 

In order to defend them, she said, one must first learn about and appreciate them.

“As Justice Gorsuch once told me: ‘Being an American is a gift. You know this because you have seen the other side. Make sure you remind the next generation of the gift that they have,’” she said.

Now, as a speaker for the Dissident Project, Dehbozorgi does just that, visiting high schools and institutions across the country to share her family’s story. 

“I want everyone to remember that their great-grandmother was probably in my shoes. You are someone’s American dream, a culmination of generations of sacrifice.”

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