How an Iranian immigrant family’s journey of hope ended in heartbreak
They awoke from the nightmare to find things were the same in the light of day.
Their 17-year-old son, Aydin, was dead. Three hours after leaving home to attend a party, the student leader respected throughout his high school had flat-lined in the back of an ambulance.
Hamid Salek and Azita Rezvan discussed returning to Iran. America had been Aydin’s dream; South Pasadena, his kingdom. Perhaps putting an ocean between themselves and the place that held too many memories of their only child would ease the ache.
But the city’s response unveiled a community the parents were unaware they had. Hundreds of students took part in a vigil one night and appeared with teary eyes on their driveway, their hands glowing with candlelight. Letters penned by strangers came in the mail, and casseroles were dropped off with an embrace.
And then the couple remembered how Aydin had struggled with English and fitting in when he first arrived in the United States. “Should we go back to Iran?” Azita had asked her son in Persian. “No, I want to stay here,” he said stubbornly.
Hamid and Azita, too, have decided to remain. It is the best way, they say, to make sure their son’s passion for activism and love for America live on.
Reunited at last
Hamid Salek’s arrival in South Pasadena marked the end of a 7,500-mile separation that lasted exactly four years. His wife and son left Tehran in 2005 for the United States, which promised political freedom. As he waited to follow, Hamid continued to work as a dentist, while struggling to get his visa application approved.
Every night he called Azita and Aydin, who were living in Austin, Texas, with Hamid’s brother. Aydin had discovered that his eighth-grade classmates knew little about Iran. “Do you ride camels there?” they asked. “Are you a terrorist?”
Aydin’s fluency in English eventually surpassed his mother’s, and she began to rely on him to help navigate American life. When Azita was admitted to the master’s program in environmental design at Cal Poly Pomona, Aydin researched places to live and chose Diamond Bar. During the move, Aydin called out directions for his mother, who had never driven before coming to America.
“Everywhere that we want to go was a new experience for me and for him,” she recalled. “He was so young, but he was more helpful. He was just my little man.”
After a year, they moved to South Pasadena to be closer to Azita’s job in Ventura County.
It was at South Pasadena High School that Aydin thrived. He threw himself into school activities, serving as president of both the American Cancer Society club and Model United Nations. He ran for student government and won, donating his $100 campaign budget to the cancer society. He joined the school paper and wrote passionate editorials that called for social activism. One of a handful of Persian students at the school, he proudly introduced his peers to Iranian culture and history.
“A shadow of shame has been following Iranians everywhere to such a degree that most now prefer to be known as Persians,” Aydin wrote about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s dictator-like presidency.
Azita watched her son in amazement. She and Hamid had both spent time in prison for protesting against the government in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, but here her son was fearless, with visions of becoming a Supreme Court justice and president. When she told him the foreign-born were not eligible to become the leader of the free world, he smiled. “This is America. If the people want it, it can happen.”
It was Aydin who made the phone call to the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, where Hamid had continued to receive the runaround.
“I am Hamid’s attorney,” Aydin said confidently into the receiver. “What is the problem with his visa? I’d like an answer.” Minutes passed, and then word came: The visa was ready.
Hamid finally arrived Aug. 24, 2009. In celebration, the family popped a bottle of champagne.
Less than four months later, they recounted that day to police officers after a night of confusion and horror.
“Our son would taste wine during family festivities,” they said, “but he was not a drinker.”
A surreal image
Aydin Salek’s life slipped away from him in the early hours of a Sunday morning, a day shy of his 18th birthday. Officials said he died at 12:13 a.m. on Dec. 13 at Huntington Memorial Hospital. His father, however, will always remember watching a paramedic attempt to revive his unresponsive son moments before.
The surreal image came a few hours after Aydin had left the house to meet a friend, promising to return soon. Hamid, 50, and Azita, 48, never questioned his departure. He was a responsible son.
After 11 p.m., Hamid called Aydin’s cellphone but reached voice mail. He’s on his way, he thought.
Five minutes later, a knock came at the door. It was a police officer whose message was brief: “Your son is hurt. Follow us, he’s nearby.”
Hamid and Azita trailed the cruiser in their car. “A traffic accident?” Hamid wondered aloud.
The scene on Diamond Avenue was difficult to discern. Aydin’s friends stood outside a house, speaking hysterically about a party in Altadena where Aydin had drunk alcohol, then passed out snoring in the car.
When he did not awake, they had panicked and driven to the South Pasadena home of a friend who knew CPR.
Later, the couple arrived at the hospital along with Azita’s sister, Zohreh, who was visiting from Iran.
An hour passed, maybe a few minutes -- none of them can remember -- and then the doctor was standing before them with incomprehensible news.
“We thought, ‘We’re in a dream,’ ” Hamid said.
Aydin also appeared to be dreaming when they approached his hospital bed. Looking at him with hopeful eyes, Azita patted his arm.
“Wake up,” she said, her voice breaking. “You’re just asleep. Wake up. I want to go home. Let’s go home.”
Her son’s eyes remained closed.
A flood of visitors
Aydin’s story has since become a cautionary tale about underage drinking, alcohol poisoning and naive parenting. It is all hurtful speculation, Hamid and Azita say, since the coroner has yet to determine the cause of death. Aydin, after all, also used a prescription inhaler and would complain of shortness of breath.
In the weeks since their son died, the couple’s rented three-bedroom house on Gillette Crescent has been filled with phone calls and visitors who help drown out the void of a departed son.
The holidays came and went with little notice.
The family does not practice a religion, but Aydin had always insisted on decorating a Christmas tree. Without him, the tree remained untouched in their backyard until students took it to the high school, where it was adorned with notes to Aydin.
Sometimes the couple can’t help but think about the events of that December eve, and what would have happened if frightened teenagers had immediately dialed 911. But it isn’t important how their son died, they say. The college scholarship they established under the Aydin Salek Leadership Foundation will only honor how their son lived.