They have moved countries through war zones, conflict, political and religious persecution EastLife kicks off a new series of immigrants sharing their stories of hardship and displacement from their birth country as they risked their lives to find a new home in New Zealand.
Turning their narrative around from extreme hardship to success, three Baha’i sisters Gitti Asadyari-Lupo, Jamaliyeh Drake and Sona Asadyari talk to FARIDA MASTER of their dangerous escape from Iran to find hope in the land of opportunity.
Trying to preserve the bloodied clothes her father last wore at the time he was executed with nine other people is a gut-wrenching memory that has stayed with Gitti Asadyari-Lupo since she was 15 years old.
The Flat Bush resident says she remembers running her hand over the frayed, burnt edge – the exact spot where the bullet had whizzed through his heart, instantly killing him. The emotional pain was piercing.
“My sister Sona and I didn’t want our mother to see Dad’s blood-stained clothes as she was deeply mourning his death. We would take turns to get Mum out of the house so that she wouldn’t see us drying them on the clothesline, as we wanted to preserve them,” says Gitti, a test manager for a software company.
Her life story was once riddled with heart-stopping moments, dangerously traversing mountains in the middle of the night, risking her life as she was smuggled out of Iran.
One of the first, vivid memories Gitti has as an eleven-year-old is of looking out of her school window and spotting soldiers lining up against the Catholic School wall in Tabriz, Iran.
“We heard loud noises, and it sounded like a group of people shouting and screaming, sounds of windows shattering and guns being fired. There was a lot of unrest, as men in uniform were attacking anything foreign – businesses, banks, people,” she says.
This was in the late ‘70s in Iran, just prior to the uprising in 1978-79 that resulted in a revolution, toppling the monarchy and led to the establishment of an Islamic Republic.
“Our school principal hurriedly ushered us into the basement of the school building,” recollects Gitti who can still visualise the roads covered with shards of broken glass.
Gitti was the youngest of the brood of six children born to Baha’i parents.
“My dad was a teacher. He was a very progressive man who believed in women’s rights and was very thoughtful and considerate. He was born a Muslim and later converted to the Baha’i faith that respects all faiths. He had made a conscious choice to follow the Baha’i faith which the clergy strongly disapproved of. An agency was funded by the government to identify Baha’is and intimidate them. They were singled out and persecuted. My dad was arrested several times and put in prison. My mum was Russian and loved my dad dearly. She also converted to the faith.”
By the time Gitti was 12 years old, she witnessed the horror of hate crimes.
“As a child it was horrifying to see people being shot down on streets, dead bodies hanging from trees. Iron rods stuck in their backside. People were being publicly executed. It was surreal. I just couldn’t get my head around it.”
Another memory deeply etched in her mind is the first time her father was arrested.
“All of us had gone out on a family picnic. Only my dad and my older sister Sona were at home when the guards knocked at the door and asked for my dad to appear in court.
Next, he was arrested and put behind bars for being an ‘infidel’. We had no information on his whereabouts and I remember my brother and the rest of the family frantically trying to locate him.”
Gitti’s father was released from prison 10 days later. He was only allowed to go home because of a tragedy.
His daughter had sadly drowned trying to save the lives of two young boys swimming in the Caspian Sea.
“It was such a tough time for my mum, as she finally got to see dad, and yet she was filled with immense grief and despair on having lost a daughter.”
By the time Gitti was 13, she begged her mother to allow her to leave the country.
After much thought and planning for two years, they came up with an escape route that would lead her to Karachi, Pakistan, where she would be handed over to the Baha’i Centre that would look after her.
“Being the youngest in the family, all my siblings were well educated by the time I was growing up. Iran was quite a modern country before the revolution. Everyone had enough money, and amongst the Baha’is it is believed that the most important gift you can give your girl child, is education. But with the political upheaval, I was afraid that I would be left behind and not get the education I deserved. I was determined to get out of Iran.”
Gitti’s older sister Jamaliyeh Drake had moved out of the country at the age of 22 and had travelled before landing in Samoa. Jamaliyeh later married Steve, a New Zealander contracted to build a government building in Samoa.
Gitti convinced her mother that she wanted to be with her older sister.
“I can’t imagine what my mother must have gone through to finally hand me over to a group of young smugglers whose boss had been beheaded just six months prior to our great escape. He had been caught smuggling people out of the country. I know I’d never allow my daughter to do the same. But those were desperate times.”
The long journey involved a covert operation travelling with two other girls by air, bus and later speeding in a four-wheel drive with no headlights, dodging bullets, hiding in bushes enroute to Pakistan.
“Many like myself have escaped to freedom,” says Gitti. She admits that when she did finally arrive in New Zealand in 1984, she was in for a huge culture shock.
“Firstly, I didn’t speak a word of English, and I missed my mum and my friends terribly. I missed the food we grew up with,” she laughs.
It took some years for Gitti to adapt and fully integrate into the country she calls home. More importantly, Gitti has the ardent desire to give back.
She has been volunteering at the Hospice for years now. For ten years she wrote biographies for people who wanted to share their stories with their families.
“My family and my faith helped me get through and, in a way, made me stronger and determined to fight back by trying to make my life better through education and faith in humanity. I don’t take anything for granted.
I am eternally grateful to my parents for their courage and determination to give us the best they could. I am grateful to be in New Zealand and call it my home where I live free and away from prejudice that my fellow Baha’i brothers and sisters are denied in their own home country.
“When you have been deprived of things, you know the true value of giving back,” she says.