Coming to America : They've Made Lives Here. Now, Watching the Tumult in China, Immigrants Recall Their Own Hazardous Passages

Times Staff Writer

He is an energetic man of 66, with silky white hair, mischievous eyes and a voice that erupts in a laugh so intense one is sure its force is meant to subdue some rising pain. He is replaying the years since he fled Iran in 1980--escaping a firing squad for the third time.

"What I am really missing is my 12,000 volumes of books, which I left in Tehran," says Dr. Hassan Shahbaz, one of Iran's leading Persian literary scholars and broadcast personalities before the fall of the Shah and the Islamic revolution that brought the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

"They were selected books, a large number of them offered to me by the authors," says Shahbaz, who teaches Persian literature at UCLA, and, out of his Westwood condominium, edits and publishes Rahavad, a quarterly journal of Persian literature and Iranian culture.

The most important works in the library of his Tehran mansion were not books at all. They were "original, written manuscripts . . . from the time of Homer to the present."

'They Are All Gone'

His voice fails for a moment. "For years, I've been throughout the world collecting those books. I was writing a dictionary of (Persian) literature that was supposed to be in 20 volumes. I was working on the seventh volume when the revolution began. And, of course, those books were my sources. But they are all gone."

What were the "crimes" he was charged with in Iran?

"My cook," he answers, "had joined the revolutionary guard. My house was in a neighborhood of mansions whose owners had fled. But I stayed. The cook thought it was time to occupy my mansion. He formed a file accusing me of many treasons to the Islamic government against Khomeini, against Islam, against the revolutionary mind and attitude," he explains with a weary smile.

"But I was innocent," he says.

Each time he was brought before a revolutionary committee for trial, he was freed. "Finally, a friend, a professor of theology who was a member of the revolutionary court, told me: 'You better leave the country because finally something might happen to you. They will shoot you.' "

And so Shahbaz became one of the world's dislocated, the millions who now watch the political turmoil in China with particularly pained and knowing eyes.

Fleeing Persecution

Whether they are refugees pushed to the United States from their homelands by fear of political persecution, or immigrants pulled to America in the belief that they are free here to pursue happiness as they choose to define it, they understand the social forces that can compel someone to abandon a homeland; they understand the anguish of separation.

Shahbaz arrived in New York "in early April, 1980, without a penny. I made a collect telephone call," he laughs, "to my daughter." She had been studying in the United States and is now the news editor of the Persian service for the Voice of America, Shahbaz says. He also has a son, who holds a Ph.D. in neurochemistry and teaches at a university in Cleveland.

The Persian scholar points to the books surrounding him in his home office. Among them are dozens of his translations of Western literary classics--including his Iranian best seller, "Gone With the Wind," in Farsi.

"All my life I have studied. . . . And what I have gained through reading those 12,000 books is that I am able to start from zero under any circumstances," he says with vinegar in his voice. "Under any circumstances, at any age, I can build a new life because I feel in myself strong and young and vigorous."

Then, as gracious as he is passionate, he begs forgiveness for the clutter of file boxes and books around his house and offers a guest tea and chocolate.

Unlike the pro-democracy demonstrators in China massacred in Tian An Men Square or rounded up afterward in a crackdown by the Communist government, then shot--notices outside the People's High Court in Beijing showed big red checks beside the names of those executed--Charles Penman had no death threat hanging over his head when he left his country.

Nor, like many Chinese fleeing their government's crackdown on dissidents, did Penman have to wait for days in a queue for a visa ultimately denied. He did not have to escape through an underground railroad, as some Chinese are reportedly doing now.

He bought a ticket, got on a plane and flew from his native Costa Rica into Los Angeles in November, 1966.

"Why did I come to America? I have to quote the Marquis de Lafayette: 'The moment I heard of America, I loved her.' "

His sentiments are those of the typical immigrant. His background is not so typical.

"My biological father was Teodoro Picado," the president of Costa Rica from 1944-48. Picado died in 1960, but not without acknowledging--from the day of his birth--that Penman was, he says, Picado's illegitimate son. But it was his mother and brother-in-law, Jose Luis Ortiz, a prominent broadcaster in Costa Rica, who raised him.

Penman began working in radio as a teen-ager and could have had a successful career in broadcasting in his native land, he says. But he did not want a career built on nepotism. He wanted to be sure he could make it on his own, he says.

He thought about studying in the Soviet Union, just for the "adventure of it." But his family nixed that idea, saying it could jeopardize his future were he ever to consider politics. (His father, Picado, was a staunch anti-communist.) When he told them he was going to New York, they said they wouldn't give him any money. But if he ever wanted to come back home, "Just pick up the phone, call collect and we'll send you a one-way ticket back to Costa Rica."

The 19-year-old Penman arrived in Los Angeles "with no job. And I didn't speak English." The little money he had ran out in a few days. He was thrown out of his hotel. "I found myself with no clothes and no money. I slept in the streets of Hollywood for a few nights."

Then he found a job at a gas station doing janitorial work. At the end of the day, "I'd fake my leaving work to go home, wait for darkness, come back and sleep in the restroom. . . ." This was not the America he dreamed of in Costa Rica.

A man of compact build, elegant manners and nervous habits, Penman puffs on cigarettes as if, indeed, each drag were his last before facing a firing squad. He fidgets at a cafeteria dining table near City Hall and trembles slightly as he speaks of his dead mother . . . the dead president . . . the past.

He is 42 now. After cleaning houses, working in a plastics factory, hawking fish wholesale and selling used cars for six months, he is a Spanish translator and a part-time writer with two daughters and a second wife.

Does he ever wish he made that phone call to his family in Costa Rica?

He is silent for a moment, and stares, his eyes magnified behind thick glasses in fashionably large frames. "I did go to that pay phone many times," he answers finally. " And I did ask the operator to connect me, and I heard the phone ringing, but I'd hang up. The last time I hung up, I said I might be wasting the greatest opportunity of my life to learn about Charles. If I do this, I may never forgive myself."

If he has regrets, if a sense of dislocation remains, Penman has made peace with it. "I have learned here in 20 some years what I think I would have never learned down there in Costa Rica in 100 years. . . . This is the most powerful country in the world. You are taken out of your environment and faced with a different language, culture, approach about life. In fact, you become what the early Europeans became when they first came to America--a pioneer. That's what makes America great. You come here to play the game, not to watch the game from the sidelines."

Leticia DeLeon is a Central American for whom the United States will never be home, no matter how grateful she is to be safe here from Guatemala's death squads.

Formerly a science teacher in Villa Nueva, near Guatemala City, DeLeon now runs the Guatemalan Information Center in Los Angeles. But her income in the United States has come primarily from work as a domestic.

"I tried to get a job in a factory, " she explains one day in the GIC office, "but with no experience, no references it is impossible." She takes a tissue to her nose--she has a bad cold--and turns her head in profile. It is a regal silhouette. Her smooth brown skin and her angular features, accentuated by hair pulled tautly behind her head, conjure images of a Mayan princess--one in blue cotton slacks and sneakers now. Her sneakered feet, crossed at the ankles under a chair, wiggle anxiously as she speaks.

She worked as a housekeeper for a family when she came to the United States in 1983, DeLeon says. One day, the family's secretary mistakenly accused her of some error and began yelling at her. "I hadn't done anything wrong," and even if she had, "that was no way to speak to another person--it certainly wasn't the secretary's place. When she screamed in my face, I said: 'My God, I'm not going to accept this.' " So she talked back and lost her job.

'Less Than Human'

DeLeon, who is 42, married and the mother of three, says the loss of self-esteem is one of the most painful adjustments many educated people must face when they leave their country and start life from scratch. "You feel so humiliated." People think immigrants are "less than human" because of the language barrier or cultural differences, she says.

America is a "cold, difficult" place, she says. She misses her extended family of relatives and friends in Guatemala. But she had to leave.

She was standing in her kitchen "warming up spaghetti," when relatives told her the country's plainclothes death squad, La Judicial, was looking for her. She had been among those in her town protesting poor housing conditions, an inadequate water supply and government corruption.

After hiding in the countryside and later Guatemala City, she escaped to Mexico. "I liked it there, they spoke Spanish, the culture was the same. I had a job teaching psychology at Puebla U."

But her parents, who had been caring for her children in Guatemala, refused to send them to her if she stayed in Mexico. Mexico was politically unstable, they told her. She had to go to the United States, they said. There, they knew she and the children would be safe.

"I wanted my children," she said. "So I took the bus to Tijuana. Guatemala is such a beautiful country. I miss the beach where we would bring fruit and sandwiches and spend the day. I miss the trees. I miss the land."

"Animals that wander must adapt or die," wrote philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Nega Araia did not escape the murderous wrath of Ethiopian soldiers in Eritrea Province to waste away here from melancholy--no matter how difficult life in America has proved to be.

"Here I see the law enforced without any favoritism." In Eritrea, where Africa's longest-running war has been raging for 25 years against the Ethiopian government, the policies of "an African Hitler,"--Ethiopian president Mengistu Haile Mariam--caused the death of Araia's 13-year-old adopted brother, he says.

"He was shot in the street, his body riddled with 30 bullets," Araia says stiffly. Days later, Ethiopian soldiers warned Araia, also 13 at the time, that he was next.

A steady flow of neighbors use Araia's phone in his small Santa Monica apartment. They are immigrants, too, some Eritrean, others Ethiopians. "I am very close to Ethiopians. I hate the current Ethiopian government, but not the people. But I am not Ethiopian. I am Eritrean," he says adamantly.

Ethiopia forcibly annexed Eritrea in 1962. Fighting was sporadic between the Eritrean resistance forces and Ethiopian government until a Marxist junta, calling itself the Dirgue, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and initiated a brutal campaign to collectivize the nation's farms and businesses.

'Don't Waste a Bullet'

"My mother did not want me to leave the country," Araia says. "But she did not want me to die, either. I was crying that I had to leave. But the Ethiopians were merciless. I knew an army officer, a good friend of my family." There had been direct orders for the Dirgue, the soldier told him, "that every bullet should land on people's bodies. Don't waste a bullet. If there are 4 million bullets, they should hit 4 million people." The population of Eritrea, a mountainous territory the size of Mississippi, is 4 million.

At night, past the cross fire of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, the 13-year-old Araia stole into the Sudan. When he was 17, he entered Italy with forged documents. All his life, he had wanted to do "something in the sciences." In Rome, he worked as a housekeeper and "read a lot about America."

His six brothers and sisters had, by now, fled Eritrea and were in Sweden. But Araia was intent on going to America. He finally did in 1986. "I saw America as a multiracial society, " says Araia, now 31 and the nighttime receptionist at a condominium.

The discrimination he has encountered in the United States has been disillusioning, he says. But the country is not "paradise or hell."

He mentions that, as he speaks, one of his brothers has just graduated from medical school in Sweden. Would he have been better off had he gone there?

He repeats that he likes the cultural mix of America. He likes African American culture in particular, he says. "I love jazz. . . . I love Bobby Brown." His goal now "is to go to Northrup College in a few months. It is time I become a professional. I am getting old."

Pari Abasalti Mirhashem has some advice for the 40,000 Chinese students now studying at American universities and fearful of returning home:

"It is better if one can stay in their country and fight. But sometimes people have a better chance of challenging a regime from the outside," says Mirhashem, a journalist and Iranian refugee who was her country's first female editor and a congresswoman who represented Tehran. "That is why I am so upset when I heard people cannot get visas to leave China."

Out of their Westwood apartment, she and her husband, Houshang Mirhashem, publish Rah-E-Zendegi, a Farsi-language Iranian monthly.

While the phone constantly rings in the living room, which doubles as an office, the animated woman of 53--a touch of blue shadow on her eyelids, a reddish cast to her light brown hair-- explains the "crimes" for which she had to leave Iran after the fall of the Shah in January, 1979.

'I Am a Nationalist'

"I am a moderate. I am a nationalist. I am not pro a person. I am for my country. . . . I knew that a bunch of ayatollahs could not rule the country." As the editor of Ettella'at, Iran's "first leading women's magazine," Mirhashem says, she refused an order from the periodical's editor-in-chief to run a picture of Khomeini on the cover with Iranian women in Moslem dress.

"I knew those women, they were very modern people, but they wanted to have a position with Khomeini's (regime)." They were willing to be photographed with Khomeini out of "self-interest."

"I am a Moslem, I am religious, but at the same time I believe politics should be separate from religion. I left my country because I did not want to do something against my principle."

But, she says, "that was the beginning of nostalgia in my life." She had heard the sentiment expressed in poetry and songs, "but I had never felt what it means."

Weeks after she and her husband left Tehran, she sat in a New York hotel reading an article "about what you do when something bad happens to you--if you lose your job, if you lose someone you love, if you lose your money. But what can one do when they have lost their country?"

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