Haunted by the past, working toward the future

Thousands of miles from home and traumatized by war and torture, two Iranian refugees formed a life-changing alliance in Las Vegas

Afshar walks with his belongings down Foremaster Lane.
Photo: Leila Navidi
Timothy Pratt

One of the two men sits on the couch in his student-sized apartment near UNLV, assuring you he can see before him—in the same living room you are both sitting in—the faces, the bodies of thousands of fellow Iranian political prisoners whom the Khomeini regime shot, hanged and blew up in the summer of 1988. He was one of hundreds who survived.

“It’s like it’s happening right now,” says Mokhtar Hossein on a recent morning, black tea brewing on his stove, walnut-and-honey pastries on a table between us. “They’re all right here with me.”

The other man, he dreams at night—in his sleep on a Downtown Las Vegas sidewalk, or more recently on a Catholic Charities bunk bed—of killing Iraqis with an AK-47 assault rifle,

of wading through the blood of thousands, until he arrives, he says, like Jesus Christ resurrected, at the end, a survivor. He was one of the few in his battalion who didn’t die in the Iraq-Iran war, which consumed most of the 1980s.

Mokhtar Hossein and Jamshid Afshar are both survivors. Both men lost their fathers to the Khomeini regime that ruled Iran from 1979 to 1989. A firing squad shot Hossein’s father, an Air Force colonel. After the regime put Afshar’s father, an Army sergeant, in jail for two years, he was finally released: a psychologically battered alcoholic. Both also fought as teenagers in the Iraq-Iran war.

Ghosts of Iran

And now they are both refugees, a legal status the United Nations confers on the victims of unimaginable violence abroad, giving them the right to start a new life in the United States or other countries.

Until recently, when Hossein shaved, the two stocky, muscular men also favored the gray beards of Iranian elders.

But that’s where their paths separate.

Hossein suffered five years of jail and torture beginning in the late 1980s, leaving the left side of his body paralyzed. He has endured 100 operations and procedures and was confined to a wheelchair for seven years. But he has defied doctors, recovering the ability to walk here in Las Vegas, through Zen meditation.

Hossein survives through help from the United Nations Assistance Program, which helps political refugees who are torture survivors.

Afshar, meanwhile, attempted to patch together a new life here in the United States, even finding a wife for himself in Carrollton, Texas, when he arrived in 1988. But his mind unraveled. There were fights, breakups, arrests for disorderly conduct, a life on the road, a camp of homeless men and women on Foremaster Lane, ground zero for the Las Vegas Valley’s homeless population.

Eleven months ago, Hossein met Afshar in that camp, after someone told him there was a homeless Iranian refugee living on the streets. The two together have woven their own second-chance-in-Las-Vegas story, attempting to achieve more than either one could alone—to break Afshar out of his new prison, the one his mind has made for him, and into a new, stable life.

“I felt sad and angry that one of my people would face this situation in the United States,” says Hossein, describing meeting Afshar last May on the hot pavement of Foremaster Lane, lined with dozens of tents and homeless men and women.

Afshar bowed, kissed Hossein’s hands, thanked the gods, said he knew the day would come when someone would deliver him from suffering.

“It was a big shame,” Hossein says. “It didn’t make sense. I decided to help him.”

So began the unlikeliest of relationships. Two men whose fathers were in the military under the Shah of Iran’s government, who had seen and outlived more terror than anyone should have to face, only to escape to the land of the free. One miraculously rebuilds his life and the other winds up lost on the streets of a city where millions of dollars change hands every minute, with no papers to prove his identity, no tomorrow.

How could Hossein, the one on his feet, begin to help Afshar, the one on a bedroll, sleeping along a strip of cement Downtown?

Hossein was no stranger to activism. He spent more than seven years of his life in jail because he had opposed the Khomeini regime. He had flooded agencies with calls and e-mails, many of them related to medical needs he felt were being unmet since arriving in Las Vegas under the care of Catholic Charities in early 2000.

He soon found out that Afshar had been to Catholic Charities nearly two years before, after landing on Foremaster Lane following a series of left turns—days in California jails and psychiatric clinics.

What was Afshar seeking that day?

“The same thing he needs now,” says Hossein. “Papers, a job, an apartment.”

But he got violent; he banged a table, he made threats to staff members. His case was closed.

Hossein started over. He met with Jasmine Coca, in charge of immigration services at Catholic Charities. She was the same one who couldn’t help Afshar two years before, afraid, she says, for the safety of her staff. But Hossein was able to pacify Afshar, to lend some order to the process of rebuilding his identity. They went to work.

Meanwhile, Hossein took a tent to Foremaster; a cooler, a $20 bill. Weeks later, Metro Police came through the homeless camp, threw the tent and cooler away.

“I got him some more,” Hossein recalls. Someone stole the second tent and cooler.

The only thing Hossein had for starters was paperwork Afshar stuffed in a jeans pocket from an inpatient psychiatric treatment clinic. The clinic had kicked Afshar out. But the papers had his name, his Social Security number.

Coca contacted federal immigration authorities, the ones who could confirm Afshar’s legal right to live and work in the United States.

It took nine months, but the proof arrived one day in late February. Hossein is now a careful steward of the 4-inch-by-6-inch piece of paper, a photo in the corner of Afshar with his trimmed gray beard, the number “I-94” indicating that the homeless man has the right to be in this country.

Afshar gets cleaned up by a local barber.

But when Hossein takes Afshar to the DMV, seeking the sort of ID needed to find an apartment, a job, mental health services, the two come up against another bureaucratic bump in the road. The DMV wants another piece of paper from federal immigration authorities, the so-called green card. So they make another appointment to see an official at the Las Vegas U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices on Pepper Lane.

Coca says it is unusual for such a case to take longer than a year to resolve. Hossein says it should be easier to get a man some paperwork needed for a roof over his head, an appointment with public agencies.

Meanwhile, as the months pile on, the two refugees develop a halting relationship.

Hossein takes Afshar to places he’s never been, like Red Rock, Henderson, Summerlin, a local barber, a mosque in east Las Vegas.

“If there are other people in the car, I learned to ask him to be silent. This is because, if I let him talk, he begins to get all excited, and he describes a battle, or someone he is going to kill, and I’m afraid I’ll lose control of the car, and we’ll have an accident. If we’re alone, then we can both talk.”

Afshar leaves the mosque in a panic, anxious that authorities will arrive at any minute, seeking terrorists.

But the two develop a rapport. “We have things in common,” says Hossein. “We were both in the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war.” This brings Afshar to talk about dead bodies, scenes in the desert, losing friends, valiant soldiers, the blood.

Hossein sees this as necessary, a vital part of what he is trying to achieve with Afshar. “I have to talk about his past,” he says. “If I don’t return him to his past, I can never take him to his normal life in the present.”

He says he does this not by probing, or asking many questions, but by telling his own stories, what he calls “flashbacks”—“to give him some sort of connection.”

Asked about this recently over a cup of McDonald’s coffee near his Downtown bedroll, Afshar says, “I have no past.”

“You’re not supposed to think about yesterday,” he says. “I get bad dreams. I’ve seen the pasts of people like Mokhtar,” he adds. “I have no past,” he repeats. “It’s all war.”

In August, Hossein took Afshar to a pizzeria owned by an Iranian, seeking a job. Within an hour, Afshar, a large knife in his hand, standing in the kitchen, shouted out, “I’m an Iranian commando! I’m working for the CIA! I’m going to kill you all!”

Hossein, who has experience in the martial arts, grabbed his wrist, making him drop the knife. “This is not a war,” he said. “You are here, in a pizzeria.”

Moniro Ravanipour, an Iranian novel-ist and writer-in-residence at UNLV’s City of Asylum program, says that “all Iranians ... carry trauma with them, even if they go somewhere else”—especially if they have left Iran at any time in the past three decades.

As an example, she says that most Iranians lost someone or were in some other way affected by the 1988 prison massacres—and that was just one event. The result: The past is always present. Ravanipour saw this in her own life when she accompanied a friend to a courtroom and found herself suffering cold sweats and an attack of nerves, brought back in time by her surroundings to an Iranian courtroom that was anything but just.

“It’s very hard to remove this kind of psychological disorder,” she says.

Coca says it is unusual to find Middle Easterners among her homeless clients seeking to reestablish their identities. “Usually they have support from family or friends,” she says.

But Afshar only has Hossein. He hasn’t talked to his father, he says, in 11 years. He remembers clearly the day his father sat the family down at a table in their Tehran home, fresh from prison. “My dad told me everything. He cried. He was drinking a beer, which you weren’t supposed to have at the time. He was never the same.”

Afshar blames his father for convincing him to come to the United States. “Why did he bring me here?” he wonders. “People are sleeping in the streets!”

A photo of Hossein’s father occupies the center of the wall over his living room couch. It says, “Ali Mokhtar Zebai, Iranian fallen hero.”

Zebai talked to his son a week before Khomeini’s soldiers shot him. The father told the son that he would soon die. He told Hossein never to give up, or he would never be forgiven. He was talking about Hossein’s shared opposition to the Khomeini regime. But Hossein took his father’s words as a lesson for life. “His mentality gave me strength,” he says.

So he survived two years of solitary confinement in a 4-foot-by-6-foot space, electric shocks, near death, pain every day for decades, partial loss of hearing, years in refugee camps, the near loss of his legs, the red tape in a new country, the memories.

“Why Jamshid?” he asks out loud, questioning the latest episode in his life. “This was another test from God, to see how I pass it. To see how I am doing my job. To finish this life successfully, and enter the next life successfully.”

Afshar, after thanking me for the coffee with a kiss to my hand, says he soon hopes to have Hossein and I over for tea.

Ravanipour is guarded with her hopes for her fellow countryman. Speaking of the Iranian diaspora, with more than a million members just in the United States, she says, “We go from one location to the next location. But the main location is in our mind.”

Contact Tim Pratt at [email protected].


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