(by Nasrin Rejali)
Little did my parents understand when they gave me my name that it would be a predictor of my life. Nasrin means “wild rose” in Farsi, and although I am quite traditional in many ways, surviving for me and my children has been a wild ride.
I grew up in Tehran, Iran, in a house full of beauty and love. Grapevines shaded our courtyard. My mother found them fascinating, and harvested the fresh leaves, to stuff with rice or make tea. The scent would greet others in the neighborhood, filling them with desire and hunger, welcoming them. My father made very good wine from the grapes, and friends would come to drink and eat and dance and play cards. In winter, everyone would gather around a korsi, a low table with a brazier underneath and blankets thrown over it, covering themselves with the edges of the fabric to keep warm. Even after my father died, much too young, our celebrations continued and, as the Iranians say, our table was always open.
My mother was not overly interested in cooking, although she did it daily for us. It was her responsibility and duty to feed her family and friends. She had learned the discipline and traditions from her mother. But mostly my mother was a wonderful baker whose specialties were cookies, cakes, and other sweets. Friends would often say they wanted to stop by our house for dessert.
Before her marriage, my mother was a nurse, but my father was very traditional, an engineer by profession and demanding by nature, and did not want her to work. She was tiny, beautiful, with kind eyes. Always supportive of me, never critical or judgmental. One of the best things she taught me was how to read people and separate bad from good.
There was a big library in our home, full of historical books, and my mother loved to read, particularly poetry; her interest in books encouraged that interest for my siblings and me. In our family of seven kids, respect and getting along was most important. If a choice between being friends and being right came up, as it often did in such a large family, I’ve always preferred and chosen friendship. This has been an important lesson—very helpful in navigating my journey.
Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
It felt the encouragement of light
Against its Being.
We all remain
― Hafez Shiraz
Most every decision in our lives was based on family. When my parents married, until they could get their own home, they lived with my father’s mother. When I was 12 years old, I went to live with her for a year and a half so that she wouldn’t be alone after my grandfather died, but my mother visited every day, so we were always attached. I must admit I loved living with my grandmother. There were not as many rules, and she was very generous with her love for me. It was from her that I learned traditional Persian cooking. Instead of going to a supermarket, she shopped at specialty stores—one for meat, one for vegetables. Together we made jams from carrots or eggplant, a chicken stew called fesenjan with ground nuts and saffron, and meatballs called koofteh.
As the eldest girl, I was expected to marry. I had never experienced love and never expected to. What mattered was a good match. Along with the marriage came a dowry called the mehrieh from the groom’s family—coins called bahar azadi ("spring of freedom") and housing so that a new couple would feel comfortable. At age 19, I wed a man who was the brother of one of my sister’s friends, and we had two children—my daughter Armita (which means the sun) and my son Armin (which means gold). It didn’t take long before my husband stopped working—he really seemed to stop caring about life. My mother thought him to be a good man and tried to find solutions, but we divorced.
What next happened was unexpected but changed my life and destiny forever. I met and fell in love with a commercial driver who seemed like my soulmate—it was so easy to talk with him. For the first time, I shared everything about myself, and felt understood in a way I never had. But when I became pregnant, he wanted nothing to do with our child. Brokenhearted, I had my child without him. We never married, so according to Iranian law, our son had no rights.
I don’t care what people think about me, but I dreamed of a better life, one without all the restrictions for women in Iran. And my big challenge became my young son’s future: Arta (which means holy) did not have a birth certificate, so we could not leave the country. He couldn’t even go to school or be treated by a doctor. He was invisible and had no future. I tried so hard to get the papers that would make him legitimate in the eyes of the government—one official offered to get Arta a birth certificate if I married him. It made me so angry. I couldn’t.
My mother tried to help me stay hopeful, to have faith that the universe would provide. She never let me give up. It broke my heart to consider leaving her and the world I grew up in. But I decided that my children and I would go to Turkey illegally. I felt like I had no choice—I had to make a life for my son. I went to a small city in the north of Iran where I was not known and asked around if there was someone who could help me cross the border into Turkey. I talked to many people, followed many leads. Finally I found a man who agreed to help, without payment in advance. I had lost my attachment to Islam, and made my own views, but decided I must put my trust in God. It took only ten days from the moment I made the decision until my sons and I crossed the Turkey/Iran border. My daughter was to fly there with my mother.
A cousin of the man who helped me was to be on the other side, but we had to get there on our own. We went through rock channels and troughs in the mountains. Quietly and quickly, we crossed a barbed wire that looked like a short wall, trying to not be seen by guards. Our clothes clung to the wire. One of my shoes came off, and I climbed down the whole mountain with my bare foot. We made it, meeting the man who took us to my mother and daughter. We were in a lot of pain, but our new lives were beginning.
Immigration is the hardest work in the world. I was entering a country where I didn’t know the language, alone with three young children. We were directed to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and for the first time, a stranger heard my painful heart story. My mother brought enough money to rent a small apartment and buy food for a while, and when she returned to Iran, she gave money to the man who arranged our escape, as promised. We were sent to live near Ankara, in one cramped room with a communal kitchen in the hallway, and after several months, my mom was able to visit. She filled me with hope and, of course, love. I had been so lonely, but I had learned to be strong. I could have been broken thousands of times, but I wasn’t.
As a woman, without knowing the language, it was almost impossible to find a job. An Iranian living in Turkey posted on Facebook about a job in a car wash. At first he resisted, saying that only men worked for him, and a woman was not capable of the job’s physical demands. I begged him, and he agreed to give me a chance. It was hard work washing cars, but I was delighted and comforted. I could feed my family. The boss was a kind man who never made me feel insecure. And even though all the employees were men, I felt safe. They called me sister, and I made food for them. My children went to school just a ten-minute walk away, and took care of themselves until I got home from work.
Turkey has very tough winters—heavy snow and rain—and I could not afford boots, so I covered my feet in plastic and socks, but they always were wet and frozen, and just before New Year’s Eve, I got a severe flu. I couldn’t work. But the car wash workers brought us food and brought me boots and a hand warmer that the boss had paid for—he told everyone, “This is Nasrin’s New Year’s gift.” I cried a lot because it showed me that love is in everyone’s heart and people cared for me.
After six months, I found work prepping food and washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen. It was better for me, but the Turkish government did not allow foreigners to cook, only do the dishes and storage. One day when it was so busy and they needed help, they let me cook. The chef said, “You have artistic hands and talent,” and I was made his assistant.
We lived in Turkey for two years and three months. The big lesson I learned was about living in the moment—not the past, not the future. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, if you are constantly worrying, you can’t enjoy life. If you are quiet and can imagine good news, good things will come. I was overjoyed always when my mother was able to visit us, and fortunately back home in Iran, my family was never harassed or paid any price for me leaving. The government either was not aware or did not care.
I knew that Turkey could never be our home, and we began to dream of America. We went back to the UNHRC, and after several uneasy interviews, background checks, and disappointments, we were given plane tickets to New York—starting over again, with a new language to learn, a job and a home to find. It was scarier for me but not for my kids—they knew about the American Dream. For the first year, we slept in a room provided by a service agency, and during the day we would be in its shelter. It was unsettling and frustrating. But as luck would have it, I found a Persian landlord through the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which responds to the world's worst humanitarian crises and helps people rebuild their lives.
The IRC also helped me find out about a catering business called Eat Offbeat that hires immigrant women from all over the world—Syria to Sri Lanka to Senegal—to prepare and sell the foods of their countries. It was exactly the right job for me. I got hired and felt at peace for the first time in years. We gathered in the kitchen; no borders or politics separated us. It didn’t matter where and what culture everyone came from. We worked with love and peace. Our language was the language of food. Food is without borders. The fragrances of our delicious cooking made our friendships start. You can’t imagine how thrilled I was, how much we were there for each other, and what we learned from one another. Lots of laughter and tears and spices. No one cared about what had happened in Iran, and the fast pace of life in New York didn’t allow for much nostalgia.
I knew how to cook for a few hundred people, but Juan, the head chef, taught me how to cook for 2000 people—and, most importantly, how to cook Iranian food for American tastes. When I needed money to qualify for an apartment, he gave me $1000, even though he did not really know me well. I will always be indebted to him.
I lost my job because of the pandemic, and when I was forced to stay home, I decided to start baking traditional Iranian sweets (each Iranian city has its own sweet). I got my green card, and a unique angel named Anna Polonsky helped me start my own business to sell the pastries, jams, and pickles I learned at my grandmother’s and mother’s knees. I was introduced to friends of friends who were designers and photographers to create a website and labels for my products; all of their work was done for free. Recently we had an order for 1500 cookies, which my daughter and I made together. I have come to value her opinion, as she teaches me to make decisions with my head, not my heart.
Finally, with travel restrictions lifted, I was able to have a wonderful reunion with my mother in Turkey. My children and I will soon be celebrating five years in America. I am raising three Americanized children, and we will all become American citizens one day. I am sometimes homesick for Iran, and I would love to open a Persian teahouse that would be an homage to our tradition of eating breakfast together or sitting together at the end of the day, gathering energy for the next day. The memories sometimes make me sad, but I have seen many miracles. My mission is a world of love and friendship, and it can happen through food.
Turkey is home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. For information about humanitarian aid, see the Turkish Heritage Organization.
Fesenjan (Persian Chicken with Saffron and Nuts)
2 lb. skinless, boneless chicken thighs
a few threads of saffron
1 c. boiling water
1/3 c. vegetable oil
3 c. chopped white onions
1T. ground turmeric
3/4 c. finely ground cashews (cashew flour)
1 T. kosher salt
10 oz. pomegranate molasses
1/3 c. sugar
pomegranate seeds for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Cut chicken thighs into quarters, and place them on a sheet pan with parchment paper.
Bake until fully cooked, about 30 minutes.
Lower oven temperature to 200 F., and keep the chicken warm.
Steep the saffron in the boiling water. Set aside.
Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.
Add onions and sauté until very tender, about 15 minutes.
Stir in turmeric, coating the onions, and cook for 2 minutes more.
Stir in ground cashews, and cook, stirring frequently, allowing to brown on the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes more.
Slowly add the saffron water to deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits, about 1 minute.
Stir in salt.
Stir in 2 c. water and bring to a rolling boil.
Lower heat to simmer and cook until liquid is reduced, about 30 minutes.
Slowly stir in pomegranate molasses, and simmer until incorporated into the sauce, about 10 minutes.
Add sugar and cook, stirring to dissolve it, about 15 minutes.
Add chicken pieces, and simmer about 10 minutes more.
Garnish with pomegranate seeds, and serve with rice.
Serves 4 – 6 people.