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Behind the Headlines Problems of Iranian Jewish Students in the United States

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There are many hundreds, perhaps thousands of Iranian Jewish students in America as part of a larger general group of Iranian students, most of them in schools in the Southwest. Because of the upheaval in Iran, many of these students, including the Jews, are suffering from financial and psychological problems. Behzod Khajehzadeh, an Iranian Jewish graduate student who lives here with his wife, Libby Jochnowitz, discussed with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the unique problems that the Jewish students are facing.

Although the students may need help, Khajehzadeh said, they will not seek out the American Jewish community. “They consider themselves more Iranian than Jewish,” he said. “No Jew who comes from a country where it is a disadvantage to be a Jew will declare himself a Jew when he arrives in the United States,” he explained. “Iranian Jews don’t think of American Jews as Jews, but as Americans. After all of the years when they lived in fear because they were part of a minority, they’re afraid to identify with a minority group here.”

Since they’re “embarrassed” to reach out to the Jewish community, Khajehzadeh stressed the importance of the community reaching out to them. “This will have to be an active effort,” he said, “because otherwise they won’t admit that they’re Jews. They have to be told that diversity is okay in America and that American Jews are their friends.”

COMMUNITY EFFORTS TO AID STUDENTS

A Jewish official in Oklahoma told the JTA about some of the problems he has confronted in dealing with the 75 Iranian Jewish students in the state, and his descriptions echoed Khajehzadeh’s. The Oklahoma City Jewish Community Council, along with the Tulsa Jewish Federation and the University of Oklahoma Hillel at Norman, is coordinating efforts to deal with the students financial and psychological problems.

Despite their enormous difficulties, the official said, the Iranians aren’t willing to trust American Jews. A counselor who specializes in the problems of foreign students has volunteered to work with the Iranians on an individual basis and evaluate each student’s needs.

Financing is a serious problem for same, because banks in Iran have been closed intermittently during the upheaval. Without funds, students cannot pay tuition fees and then can lose their student visas. In Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the Jewish communities are setting up an apparatus to deal with financial old.

More difficult to handle, however, is the students’ anxiety about problems at home. “Each one of the 75 is an individual case,” the official said. “They find it very difficult to deal with us and to trust us. They’ll be illegal here after they finish their educations and they may not want to return to Iran, so we’re trying to encourage aliya. They generally don’t want to go to Israel, though.”

Khajehzadeh confirmed that most Iranian Jews don’t want to go to Israel. “The poor have already gone there,” he said, “but the middle class has learned to cooperate with the Iranians. They are nationalistic and they feel Iranian. For the past 25 years they’ve had political and economic rights, under the Shah. They’re not interested in immigration, but in preserving the unique Jewish community that has lived in Iran for 2500 years.”

PROCURING THE NECESSARY FORMS

Asked why Iranian students have gravitated toward the “sunbelt” in the U.S. the official said that they come to Texas, Oklahoma, California, Arkansas and other Southwestern states because of the climate and the availability of oil technology studies. He also said that in Oklahoma City, an Iranian Moslem receives a commission from local schools for bringing them students.

The official and others in Oklahoma are now engaged in procuring 1-20 forms from schools for Iranian Jewish students of high school age, so that these youngsters can stay in the U.S. In Florida and California, he said, foreign students are accepted in public schools. Efforts are also being made to have Hebrew day schools accept these minor students, with faster home care.

Khajehzadeh, a graduate student at the State University of New York here and an instructor in Economics at St. Lawrence University, Canton, N.Y., and his wife, a law student, are also involved with the legalities of 1-20 forms from schools and 1-24 student visa forms. His brother and sister are already here studying, and a cousin has recently arrived from Iran. As soon as the proper papers are in order, his 13-year-old brother will also be joining the couple in Albany.

Because he is both a nationalist and a Jew, Khajehzadeh said; he has mixed feelings about Ayatollah Ruhollah Khoumeini’s return to Iran. “I wasn’t satisfied under the Shah’s government,” he said, “and I support the revolution as a nationalist. But I’m afraid that the minorities will lose the rights they’ve gained. Khoumeini now has to recognize that there were other groups that wanted the Shah out.”

This revolution could be the greatest event in Persian history, Khajehzadeh said, but not if it leads to discrimination against minorities. Whether or not the Shah was really a friend of the Jews, he explained, he was the first Persian ruler in 2500 years to let the Jews out of the ghettoes.

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