I found Masoomeh’s story incredibly interesting. While I was playing street cricket with neighbours in middle class Ormond, Masoomeh was escaping jail in Iran during the 1979 Revolution. It was such a privilege to sit and listen to Masoomeh over a cup of tea (of course!) and some home-made treats. Meet Masoomeh…
I was born in Tehran, Iran to a Turkish family. My parents were Muslim and I grew up bilingual. Turkish was the first language, I started talking in Farsi because I didn’t want to have a Turkish accent as kids would make fun of people with a Turkish accent. I had a very loving family, gorgeous parents, the best I could have had, they’re in my heart every day. I’ve got 3 brothers and 1 sister and I was the youngest daughter. Girls were my dad’s favourite. Girls couldn’t do anything wrong so I was quite spoilt growing up. My parents weren’t educated but they were a hard working family. My dad was a policeman and they both came from villages west of Tehran but they had established in Tehran which was the capital at the time.
My dad came from a very poor background. His father was a Farmer and my grandfather on my mum’s side was a landowner, very educated. His father (my great grand father) – this is what I’ve heard, whether we can verify it or not, we haven’t – was one of the key lawyers of the Reza Shah. So they came from educated background and my grandmother on my mum’s side was one of the last granddaughters of the Ghajar kingdom, so they were royalty and Khans and fairly financially well off than most. My mother defied my grandfather’s directive to marry the next Khan’s son so they can unite the lands and ran away in the middle of the night on a horse and therefore my grandfather lost face and he married her off to the first guy that came knocking on the door which happened to be my dad who had gone back from the city to the village to acquire a wife.
So my mum left all the privilege and she went through a very rough time but she’s really one of my idols. Everything that I’ve got good in me is really taken from her, I have the greatest respect for my mum. She was very intelligent and single-minded on what she wanted. In a family where education wasn’t a big part of their lives, both of them wanted us to be educated. I studied Arabic with my grandmother, I studied Koran, I can read and write Arabic. I went to private school, they really sacrificed a lot to give us the best education.
I was a good student leading up to the Revolution. I managed to get into pre-med at the university and in 1979 got engaged with the group that was supporting the Revolution but opposing the Islamic rule. As part of the opposition group I was identified and arrested during an anti-government demonstration, thrown into jail and that was the turning point where they started executing people. The Revolution went from peaceful and open to dark where Islamic rule started. So I was close to a week in prison. My parents didn’t know where I was. They pulled everything that they knew to track me down. Some of my best friends were executed. I had to escape. I left Iran via Pakistan. I had to marry to leave Iran and married a photographer who was a student at the same university. I don’t know if it was really love but it was a mutual respect. I think he wanted to save me, we got married, we left together, we were both very young. We got to Spain, spent seven months there, he got an assignment in Israel, we went there for a short time, then we went to the UK. By then I was just getting anxious to get back into my studies. So I started doing A Levels in the UK and got into a good university. I didn’t know if I wanted to do medicine so I started with biochemistry.
I lived in London from 1983 until around 1988. It was obvious that we were good friends but we weren’t really in love with each other. He had an affair. It was very sad, it wasn’t easy and I left for the US. I got a job offer from a company in the mid west to set up an R & D and Quality Control lab for a manufacturing firm in Centralia Illinois. I had just finished my biochemistry and was just starting to look into a PhD program but my heart wasn’t into it.
I moved to Centralia, Illinois from London and that was a culture shock I have to say, because I thought “oh mid west, cowboys” and it has nothing to do with cowboys. It was cornfield after cornfield! I moved to Bluford Illinois with a population, I think, of 180. They were fabulous people. The guy that took me under his wing, Tony, he became like a father that I didn’t have at the time and he was a gorgeous guy. If you look at their profile now, politically it’s the opposite of where I am. I’ve had the most interesting interactions with various ideologies from Israelis to various political and religious beliefs. When I left Iran I decided I was going to be a spiritual person. I don’t believe in religions because I find them to be more dividers than unifiers. I just don’t believe in anything that tells you my way is the right and only way.
I’ve had quite a few traumas in my life but I’d shut it down and I’d get on with it but I think at some point it catches up with you and I was at the point of a nervous breakdown.
Embracing people in whatever they believe is a lot easier for me because I think that becomes part of your survival tools, you adapt and having seen so much you realise there’s no right or wrong way. At this point they believe this is their reality and I think I became a lot more accepting therefore I could become really good friends with people that have the opposite ideology to what I have and that skill has served me really well. Since then I have come across a lot of Iranians, they get a bad reputation because of what’s happening with the country but some of the most admired people that I have come across are actually Iranians that are surviving in a world that they don’t belong and yet they make themselves fit and not only they make themselves fit, they become productive members of society and they truly deliver that unifying harmonious world that can co-exist because of what they’ve been through.
I was in Illinois for close to two years. I’ve had quite a few traumas in my life but I’d shut it down and I’d get on with it but I think at some point it catches up with you and I was at the point of a nervous breakdown. I quit my job, said goodbye to Tony – one of my loves in life, he’s passed away now – and went to Houston. I then packed my bag and said I need to just be. So I got into my car and I drove around the US for a month or so. And then reality set in, I was broke and I had to get a job. I had Visa restrictions so I went back to London in 1990 where Thatcher had introduced the poll tax. It was December, it was just a miserable time and everything looked dark and again by love of god, a head hunter tracked me down from the US and called me in London to offer me a job in New Jersey and that started a fabulous phase in my life where I connected with the friends that I’ve been friends with for so many years.
Unilever was a fabulous company. I ended up working for a guy that was a little bit of a control freak but I think in my hunger to re-establish myself I was working really hard and I managed to establish credibility fairly fast. The company gave me loads of opportunities, they paid for my MBA. A year after I joined the company, my boss ended up reporting to me, so I moved up really fast.
And then the offer to move into sales and marketing came. I ended up switching from adhesive technology to the personal care division, global marketing. I travelled the world and met a lot of interesting people, interacting with major brands in the world: the L’Oréals and Estee Lauders of the world. I’d be in Paris and next thing you know I’d be in Rio.
I loved it, I absolutely loved every bit of it. I had no problem meeting people of various nationalities until David, my current husband. He came for an expat assignment to the US. My co-worker’s biological clock was ticking, she spotted David and wanted to get to know him. She dragged me along so I guess she wouldn’t be too obvious, so I was just sitting in a group, she’s talking to David and I’m talking to other people and had no designs on him.
The first time I saw David in the hallway at work – he’s a very aloof guy – usually I can tease something out of anyone, I had no boundaries and I could entice people, but this one? He was really, really uptight! Then one time I’m talking to somebody else sitting next to me – this was before I started my MBA, I said “you know what, I’m in this marketing position and I have no idea what a profit and loss statement is”. David across the table said “oh I can teach you”. We set up a time and at the time I was going to go in, I was pulled in to another meeting. I apologised and I set up another time. Second time the same thing happened, third time same thing happened. He was living close to Manhattan which was an hour commute and he had stayed out late so we could have the meeting so I invited him to dinner as that way there’d be no interruptions. I ordered Rioja which is a Spanish wine. So the accent, the location, the wine… I always tease him “I won you over a bottle of Spanish wine”.
The last thing we talked about was P & L, we still haven’t talked about P & L. We talked late into the night and he was just a gorgeous guy to talk to and you could just see that he’d been through pain as well and we just connected. He had an hour commute and it was 12 midnight before we were done and I said “look my house is 3 miles away from here, if you have a change of clothes, you’re more than welcome to sleep on the couch”. I wanted to make sure because I really had no designs on him!!
The next day we were presenting to him and his boss. His boss was a terror to present to because he undermines you in front of people. I was a nervous wreck. I did my presentation, it was just David and his boss, all giving our strategy for the next year. When I was done we took a lunch break and David came around and he says “dinner?” My friend was across the table but by then she had moved onto somebody else because David wasn’t showing any interest.
The third date was in Switzerland. I was going to the south of France for a conference, I was catching up with my friends in Zurich and I walked in to David’s office to talk about numbers about one of the products and he told me that one of his friends who was travelling to Tuscany said her American boyfriend didn’t want to go because there was a football game or something going on. He said “if it was me I would go in a heartbeat”. And I said “oh well, I’m going to…” and then I realised I’d only met this guy a couple of times and here I am going “come along with me!” which is my attitude by the way.
I said “oh nothing, nothing” I realised it was inappropriate. But he pursued. He said “what were you going to say?” I don’t like playing games so I said “look I’m going to the South of France, I’m going to be in Switzerland, I was going to say if you want to come you could come along. We’re staying with friends so there’s just the cost of a ticket”. I liked him because he was very interesting guy but I wasn’t in love, I didn’t think I was in love. But he wrote this beautiful email that I just said “oh” and I was like “okay you can come!” And that was it. We had a fabulous time and when I came back from the south of France, he was at the airport and that was it. From then on we only had one night per week off from each other where we’d do our laundry and catch up with friends. Then we moved in together fairly quickly and he’s been there ever since. This was 1998.
We married in 2000. I was going to Barcelona for a trade show and he was going to come so we decided to get married, more I think because my parents were Muslim traditionally, you can’t really say “I’m living with a guy”. We had a very small wedding in our house which was on a gorgeous estate in New Jersey and we had only about 20 people, most of them Aussie expats and some of my American friends and some of my ex in-laws that I’m best of friends with. My ex sister-in-law is one of my best friends to this day.
We went to Spain for our honeymoon and a week later he had a job offer in England. When I left England in 1990 I said I never want to go back there again to live. It was just a dark period of my time and I said “no I’m not moving”. So he let them know we weren’t moving. They upped the offer to the point that we couldn’t refuse and we went to London. I moved to another company, a fragrance and flavour business. Great job, half of my job was in Paris and the Netherlands. And then after a couple of years, Sophie was born and we came back to the US. I didn’t want to be jetting off here and there with a child, so I started my own company. I develop personal care products – skin care products, shampoos, anything. From the concept – you come to me and say I want to start of a line of whatever, I can take that and convert it to an entire range, put it in front of you and say okay you can go and sell it.
When I met David, he said “one day I want to go back to Australia”. I couldn’t go back to Iran so I could relate to the fact that you have these gorgeous parents and you want to be close to them. It took six years after I left Iran before I saw my parents in Greece and then they came to the US and London. They’ve been everywhere but for the first six years I didn’t see them.
He lost his dad and that was fairly traumatic for him and you get tired of the corporate rat race; there’s this US east coast culture of run run run. I said I could run my company from anywhere and I have until now. I think I’m getting to the point I don’t want to do it anymore.
I did my MBA in New York and on September 11th some of my classmates were in the buildings. When it was happening, we were in London and I was pregnant with Sophie and I was really, really distraught. It really traumatised me as well as many millions of people. I used to gallivant all over the world and a plane ride was no big deal. From then on, to this day, as soon as I sit down I think “I wonder if I’m going to land”.
David came back to Melbourne for a month to job hunt, house hunt and get a car. He accomplished pretty much all three in a month. We had a budget but he’s a very capable and smart guy so he came in, he saw this house in Hampton. We’ve done little things like upgrading the lighting outside, doing some gardening, but the house was in great shape.
This refugee situation; people look at it as a charitable thing but they don’t realise the complexity of what’s taken away from them, what it takes to build oneself back up and I had to do that several times in my life.
As well as running my company, I cook, I do a lot of volunteer work. I was working with AWA – I became president of the American Women’s Association and I also do Board work the Children’s Bioethics Centre at the Royal Children’s Hospital. And also Sophie’s school. I paint, I’m still learning languages. I’m trying to learn to stop and meditate and be more in the moment. That’s one gift that I have since I moved here and that’s the gift of spirituality in Australia. Because of what I’ve been through I was looking for self-help and that turned me to some of the spirituality paths which I found fantastic. I research everything of course, I was struggling and depressed in the first year I got here. I looked within to see what the problem is because it wasn’t the location, it wasn’t the house, I have a gorgeous family. And yet there’s a huge sense of loss. Part of it is I think for me was the permanency of it, the fact that oh my god now I’m going to be living here for the rest of my life so it becomes a beautiful cage. And especially for somebody like me that has not had as much permanency in her life, where I thought for the longest time and I still do to some extent, that everything that’s good is going to be taken away from me. Because it has.
This refugee situation; people look at it as a charitable thing but they don’t realise the complexity of what’s taken away from them, what it takes to build oneself back up and I had to do that several times in my life. So it forms a personality, in my case, that’s jittery in certain areas and very confident in other areas – that most people can’t even fathom how do you do that? Drop me anywhere in the world, I’ll find my way, it doesn’t bother me, I’ll figure my way. It’s a non-issue. And yet the deeper emotions of true friendships, stability, view of life, view of self is all complicated. I only have a few people that have known me through bad times, good times, haven’t judged me, have been there for me and they are the most treasured part of my life. By moving to Australia I had two competing priorities: my family that I love and I wanted them to be happy and moving away from US which is the home that I had built and loved – a country that became my home. I understand the location, it really doesn’t matter, it comes from within. And yet there are elements that are seriously missing. I was in Europe for six weeks last year and I missed my family but I loved being there closer to my other family and friends.
I love art, I love culture, I love different languages. I love to paint, I love Australia there’s so much beauty in it. I take a French class in Hampton. As soon as I stop work, I’ll turn the office area into a studio and paint.
I think the next phase of my life is going to be about doing something about the issues that I care about and we’ve started working on a plan to see if we can set up an organisation to facilitate integrating people into new communities. I think some of the issues that we talk about: feminism, how women are viewing themselves, how we judge ourselves or judge each other, for me the solution to resolving these issues have been through spiritual path. The feeling of isolation that I felt was not so much about ‘Australia has done me wrong’, it’s really more about how do you connect, how do you make this connection amongst each other so we can develop better societies. So refugees are seen for who they are and what they can offer to a society rather than an economic burden. I think part of the integration is educating both sides. I think the refugee issue has become so complicated but having positive sides of the story told I think is extremely important. I was a refugee, I didn’t stay on the system for long and pretty soon I became a productive member of society. I paid taxes wherever I worked, I still do. I do think we need to focus more on developing solutions rather than just pointing out the problems.
I resented many things but the biggest lesson – and it’s a cliché – is that if it wasn’t for all the hardship in my life I wouldn’t be where I am today. The fact of the matter is I would have loved to have my parents close by as much as they would have driven me nuts! I dreamt of a time that I could go over and have Sunday afternoon tea with my mum and let her spoil me rotten because I definitely missed that but if it wasn’t for what I went through I couldn’t have had the life that I’ve had; the career that I’ve had, the places that I’ve seen, the people that I’ve met, the wonderful family that I’ve got. It wouldn’t have happened. So it’s all relative. My life happened the way it did because I lived through a Revolution. For the longest time I wouldn’t have told people I was a refugee, I was ashamed of it. I didn’t want people to think I was a refugee because ‘refugee’ became associated with parasites of society. They come in, they get on the social welfare and then they don’t work and they don’t speak the language, they don’t contribute.
At the age of 17 and a half, I got on a motorbike behind a Baluchi guy who can rape you at any hill around the corner and escaped Iran overnight to Pakistan where you get propositioned left and right because you’re a female. The things that I’ve seen… That takes guts, so that would separate me from a guy that sits at his home and hasn’t taken any risks and feels that it’s his right and does not like the fact that somebody else is coming to take a piece out of his privileges not realising it’s a give and take constantly. Today you’ve got it, tomorrow you can lose it. Put it in perspective and quit judging it. What are you contributing to society, what’s your worth right now as you sit? Not so much possessions but as a human being and then that would be the measure for me. I donate a lot to various causes to repay. I put a lot of volunteer times to raise funds to the causes that I’m passionate about. Well okay at one point I took, now I’m giving back.
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Wow what an amazing and tough life Masoomeh has had – I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks Lisa and Masoomeh for sharing this with us. I wish you peace and happiness for the rest of your days.
Amazing story of courage and resilience. You are an inspiration Masoomeh. Congratulations on all you have achieved and contributed.