Gilda Ghanipour has spent the last nine years on the run.
Abandoned by her Muslim family for converting to Christianity, she has shuttled from one address to the next, terrified of being deported to her native Iran, where apostasy can be punished by death.
Last year, Ghanipour stumbled upon a retired immigration judge and his Pepperdine University Law School students, who championed her quest for asylum.
Ghanipour won the case. But she doesn’t know it.
The devoutly religious woman vanished shortly before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services delivered on her dream at the end of August.
Her Pepperdine legal advocates are desperately searching for her -- calling churches she frequented, scouring prison databases, knocking on doors where she once lived.
Somewhere in Los Angeles, they believe, Ghanipour is wandering alone, as she has for most of the last decade, probably clutching her beloved Bible, possibly sleeping in a homeless shelter or in someone’s spare bedroom.
Police haven’t been able to find her. The coroner has no record of her. Efforts by The Times to locate her through relatives, churches and homeless advocates also were unsuccessful.
The disappearance of the 49-year-old Ghanipour, who speaks three languages and once attended medical school, is especially difficult for those at Pepperdine Law School’s Asylum Clinic.
Gilda, as they’ve known her, was their first client. She offered the lawyers-in-training an early taste of victory. They have only a grainy black-and-white photo to remind them of her thick black hair, her proud smile, her opinionated ways. And they are worried, knowing that Ghanipour has been in ill health.
“Part of me doesn’t want to celebrate until we find her,” said Kristin Heinrich, a third-year law student.
Ghanipour recounted her life story in declarations accompanying her asylum application. According to the written statements, she spent her childhood in the city of Arak and her adolescence in Tehran, about 200 miles to the north. She married in 1979 shortly after graduating from high school and moved with her husband to Germany to escape the strict fundamentalist rule of the Islamic Revolution.
While in Germany, she studied medicine. She periodically visited relatives in California and returned briefly to Iran on several occasions to help her father sort out her mother’s will. While touring historical sites on one of those trips, according to her declarations, she was arrested by the Iranian secret service and interrogated about suspicions that she was a German spy.
The experience left her shaken. Divorced from her husband in Germany, she accepted an invitation to join her relatives in California, arriving in June 2000 on a six-month visitors visa, she wrote in the asylum papers.
While staying with a cousin in Diamond Bar, she had an encounter that would change her life. An evangelical Christian family knocked at the door. Their message about God’s love through Christ resonated with Ghanipour, who had never been especially religious but had experienced what she described as an encounter with God after her mother’s death years before in Iran.
“I immediately knew in my heart that this is what I was looking for,” she wrote in her asylum declaration. “And on the 30th of November 2000, while on a legal visit in the U.S., I received Jesus Christ as my savior and became a Christian believer.”
The decision alienated her family. “One by one my relatives turned away from me,” she wrote.
With no family, no job and an expired visa, Ghanipour wandered from place to place, relying on the kindness of friends, many from churches she attended. Her asylum paperwork listed 25 addresses in the last five years alone, including locations in Woodland Hills, Glendale, North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Inglewood, Hawthorne and Ontario.
“She was afraid she would be arrested and removed” from the United States, said Bruce Einhorn, a retired federal immigration judge who runs Pepperdine’s Asylum Clinic. “She lived on the run.”
Ghanipour tried repeatedly to resolve her immigration problems. She filed for an extension of her visa, only to see it rejected because the wrong fee had been submitted, she wrote in her asylum paperwork. That happened, she wrote, because a Sherman Oaks notary who had posed as an immigration attorney provided an outdated form, defrauding her of money in the process (she did not say how much).
She met with other attorneys, one of whom advised her to hold off on her legalization efforts because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Another suggested that she “pray and ask Jesus Christ to reveal the truth” about the notary who allegedly scammed her.
Ghanipour prayed often and fervently. Faith was the one constant in her life.
“She seemed to be a very committed Christian,” recalled Roger Bosch, the associate pastor of outreach at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, where Ghanipour was baptized in 2004 and attended services and Bible study.
“She was always concerned that her life would reflect her faith,” he said.
Ghanipour disappeared from the church about four or five years ago, Bosch said. She drifted to homes and churches across the region, landing in June 2008 at the Union Rescue Mission on L.A.'s skid row. A case manager there referred her to the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic, which is housed in the mission. The clinic’s attorneys typically do not handle immigration matters, so they turned to Einhorn.
At the time, Einhorn was preparing to open a new legal clinic at Pepperdine to represent indigent asylum clients, particularly those who faced religious persecution. Ghanipour filled the bill.
But by applying for asylum, Ghanipour would be doing precisely what she had tried to avoid all these years: bringing herself to the attention of immigration authorities.
Einhorn informed her of another risk. The majority of asylum seekers, he explained, are rejected and wind up being referred for removal proceedings in Immigration Court. But Ghanipour insisted on pressing ahead.
In May, she appeared with Einhorn and another clinic attorney before an asylum officer with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The interview lasted 6 1/2 hours. Einhorn and Ghanipour returned two weeks later, hoping for a decision, but were told that it would be mailed.
Then, in late July, Ghanipour disappeared. Her cellphone went dead. She no longer returned e-mails. Her legal advocates were surprised by her silence because she had been so persistent and vocal about her case.
On Aug. 28, the government granted her asylum.