An Unexpected Friendship
Even as he sits in Yuba County Jail, Kourosh Gholamshahi, 35, carries with him an old letter from a Rev. Robert Ash. It thanks him for saving a rescue mission in Marysville from a fire in 1994 while Gholamshahi was staying there. Glowing as it is, it's a flimsy shield in the battle he is fighting now -- to stop the U.S. government from deporting him back to Iran, the very country he fled as a teenager in 1985.
Gholamshahi has one other unlikely lifeline -- Gae Geram, whose busy life selling immigration bonds was turned upside down by a collect call she happened to take from Sacramento County Jail last year. Gholamshahi had found her number in the yellow pages.
"He just sounded so desperate - he was on his last wing and a prayer," recalls Geram, sitting in a Starbucks in downtown Sacramento. Something in his voice piqued her curiosity, and she visited him in jail. He looked so miserable with greasy unwashed hair. She put $20 on his book so he could buy some shampoo. "If I did that for everybody, I'd be broke. There isn't even an immigration bond in this for me. But I just knew he was honest," she says smiling.
In the sleepy dusty town of Marysville, visiting hours at Yuba County Jail are very quiet. Gholamshahi, a soft-spoken burly man with a goatee, still seems shell-shocked. "Can you help me? I am scared I will be killed if I go back," he repeats mournfully. Members of the Baha'i faith have been accused of apostasy and executed and tortured in Iran. But in 1988 when he applied for political asylum, Gholamshahi wasn't able to satisfy the judge with his knowledge of the Baha'i religion. His asylum was denied.
Gholamshahi simply went underground. "Only 10 to 12 percent of the people ordered deported actually leave the country," says Randall Caudle, chair of the Santa Clara chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). He estimates that there are at least 6,000 to 10,000 people like Gholamshahi in the United States evading deportation orders. The number of illegal aliens is in the range of 8 to 12 million.
Gholamshahi picked up a string of odd jobs - at Denny's, at an IBM warehouse, as a security guard. He settled in Sacramento, married an American and bought a Jetta. Kourosh Gholamshahi was piecing together a very ordinary American dream. 9/11 changed all that.
Picked up in the INS sweep for visa violators, Gholamshahi was bundled off to Sacramento county jail in June 2002. Though he has no criminal record, murderers and junkies and 23-hour lockdowns became part of his life. Floundering in the legal system, he couldn't even turn to his wife who was battling multiple sclerosis and had no money. "I can't even call her collect. I just write letters," he says. He had no other family in the United States.
Soon he was calling Geram collect three times a week. When an INS official harassed him, it was Geram who wrote to the top brass. She has no beef with the INS. "They are mostly good people doing their job," she stresses. But it upsets her that a non-criminal like Gholamshahi cannot even get released under supervision to fight his deportation in court. "I am the first one to say people who are a danger to this country need to be sent back. But believe you me I have had people who have driven cars in drive by shootings get their immigration bonds."
Geram started scouring the Internet for articles on the persecution of Baha'is. She found Gholamshahi had been represented mostly by a law student. She learned an old beating in a fast food restaurant "had left [Gholamshahi1s] head mushy" and probably dulled his comprehension skills.She got letters from his wife, job offers from a friend and testimonials about the dangers Bahai's faced in Iran. "She became my friend," says Gholamshahi.
As someone who has lost his asylum claim, Gholamshahi can be put on a plane
immediately if Iran will have him. When he was whisked off to Florence, Ariz. in early March to meet with Iranian officials, he was terrified that it was all over. Though the official told him they would not issue his travel papers currently, neither Gholamshahi nor his new lawyer can get any written proof of that.
"This is a real dilemma," says Caudle of AILA. "If their country won't accept them, the U.S. government can detain them indefinitely, but the Supreme Court says you cannot do that either."
For now, Gholamshahi is counting small blessings: like his new lawyer who is trying to reopen his case, like television for 24 hours on Fridays at his new jail. He's just written a letter to George Bush. "You go over to Iraq to fight for democracy and freedom. But I too came over here 18 years ago for my freedom."
"He wrote that?" exclaims Geram. "Good for him. I just want him to get out and manage his life. And then he can call me non-collect."
Gholamshahi's biggest fear is that everyone will forget him. "I had bought a car you know, a Jetta," he says wistfully. "I had only two payments left on it. They took it away."
But strange as it may seem, despite all his travails Gholamshahi still fervently believes in the American dream. For him it got new meaning in jail when he picked up a phone book and dialed a stranger for help.
Sandip Roy is host of UpFront, a weekly radio program produced by New California Media.