Life & Culture

A refugee from the Ayatollah

An Iranian Jew recalls how she fled to Britain after Islamic militants took over her country 30 years ago


When 18-year-old Jilla Youseffi said goodbye to her parents one morning in early 1979, she had no idea whether she would ever see them again. Youseffi was leaving her home in a well-heeled suburb of Tehran for the last time, heading for a new life in Britain where she would be safe from persecution by Islamic fundamentalists.

The teenager was one of a number of young Iranian Jews who were being sent out of the country by their parents following the establishment of an Islamic state under Ayatollah Khomeini. 30 years ago, the US-backed Shah was deposed by the Ayatollah’s supporters in what has become known as the Iranian Revolution, resulting in the setting up of the most hard-line Muslim government in the Middle East.

The move triggered a wave of fear among the country’s 80,000 Jews, who expected the peaceful co-existence they had enjoyed up until then to be replaced by harassment and oppression. Such was their anxiety that many parents were prepared to break up their families and send their children thousands of miles away to safety.

Youseffi’s uncle, who was working with the pro-Zionist Alliance Israel organisation at the time, arranged for her departure with the help of the Central Bureau Federation (CBF), a welfare charity helping young Iranians to settle in Britain. CBF committed itself to looking after her and five other girls for two years, paying the rent on a home for them in Golders Green, north London.

“Everybody was in a panic about sending their children out after they started killing people,” says Youseffi, who is now 48 and living in Temple Fortune with her Iranian-born husband Faramarz and her twin 19-year-old daughters, Jessica and Tania. “I wasn’t that keen to come out all by myself, being so young, but my two brothers said it wasn’t easy to get a visa, so I should take this opportunity.

“A while after I left, people had to be smuggled over the border and it became very difficult to leave. But for me, it wasn’t like that. We got our visas.

“But they did take all our money and the jewellery that we had at the airport. The authorities said we were not allowed to take money. They said they would give it back to our families, but they didn’t.”

Youseffi was fortunate in that she could speak a little English. CBF helped her get into a language school to improve her skills, which led her to securing a place in a secretarial school.

“It was very hard to settle in Britain, but a lot of other Iranian Jews were beginning to arrive because of the revolution,” she recalls.

“The majority of them came couldn’t speak any English. It was a trying time for everyone. We felt very lonely, we needed friends — the majority of us didn’t have family here.”

After three years she married Faramarz, with whom she ran a hotel and restaurant business. Her biggest regret is that her mother and father were denied a visa to travel to Britain to be with them under the chuppah.

“After the [Iran-Iraq] war broke out [in 1980] nobody came out of the country. They weren’t allowed. So my parents never got to come to the wedding,” she says. “They got to know his family in Iran so they were happy about the match. I’m sure it was one of the hardest things they experienced, and it is something that I regret.”

Her parents met her husband for the first time at her older brother’s wedding in Los Angeles 13 years later. “My brother was supposed to leave Iran immediately after me,” she says. “But they closed the borders and it took him three years to get out. He came to New York as a refugee [before settling in LA]. Then my sister came here for a year before moving to America.”

Eight years ago, Youseffi’s parents finally left Tehran for good, but not before her father had been falsely imprisoned for three months after being blamed for a burglary. They settled in LA’s large community of Iranian Jews. “America is an immigrant country,” Youseffi argues. “You’re not an outsider, you’re part of the country.”

She is now planning to join her parents in LA, but she insists that the Jewish community in the UK has always been very supportive of the Iranians who fled Khomeini’s regime.

“I’m very happy that I raised my children here, away from all the injustice and violence of the revolution.”

Would she ever go back to Iran? “I don’t think so. I don’t have anyone left there. It’s a very beautiful country but I have no desire to go. I feel now that I’m a Jew who just happens to have been born in Iran.”

Tehran terror

Thirty years ago, around 80,000 Jews were living in Iran. Demonstrations against the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi culminated in his flight from the country in January 1979. On February 1, Ayatollah Khomeini, the country’s spiritual leader, who had been living in exile since 1964, returned to Tehran to establish an Islamic republic. Although he decreed that Jews were to be protected, links with Israel were cut and Jews were arrested for having contacts with Israel and Zionism. Some 20,000 left the country in the months following the revolution but many remained. There are thought to be between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews in Iran today.

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