Our Immigrant Story

 

In 1981, Sia and I made the decision to leave everyone and everything we had ever known and fled Iran with Sia’s older sister through the border of Turkey. The memory of saying goodbye to all our loved ones in the middle of night and disappearing into the mountains was one of the most painful experiences in our lives that haunts us to this day. We did not know if we would survive the trip with the unknown smugglers, and though we were facing what very likely could have been our own demise, we were straddled with the deep worry about whether our family members left behind would survive the war and the government’s brutal crackdown. Words cannot express the emotions and the pain of that moment in time, but thankfully either time or the mind’s own protective coping mechanism has since dulled the more extreme details of those memories. However, I do remember very clearly that Sia made an impassioned promise, to both his and my family, that one day they would all be reunited again in a better, safer place where they will all live close to each other again and would not have to live in fear of oppression. I don’t think anyone quite understood in that moment how determined he was to make good on that promise, but I knew Sia’s resolve, and it was that faith in him that helped me walk away from our previous life and into a void, gripping his hand every step of the way.

It took a week of riding on horseback in the middle of the night and hiding in villages during the day for us to finally arrive at a border village in Turkey. We had to camp there for a few uncertain days before we were transferred to Istanbul, and later to Spain. After more than 6 months of waiting in limbo in a foreign land where we knew no one and couldn’t even speak the language, we were finally able to get our United States visas. In 1981, we arrived in San Francisco and though we faced the daunting task of literally starting over, Sia absolutely fell in love with the City of San Francisco, and it became very clear that it would be our adopted new home from which we would start laying the foundation of our new lives.

Yet despite having a masters in geotechnical engineering and being a successful civil engineer in Iran, Sia found it extremely difficult to find a job. There was a deep recession in the early 1980’s and it was tough for anyone to find good paying work at that time, let alone an Iranian immigrant with an accent in the United States on the heels of the Iranian hostage crisis. Moreover, as we were the first large wave of Iranian immigrants to the United States, there was no Iranian American community with roots in the country to turn to for help or advice. So instead of fruitlessly continuing to apply for jobs, he started studying to get his contracting license to start his own business. After passing his test and becoming a licensed California contractor, Sia set out to be the best at every detail of construction from plumbing, electrical, sheetrock to pouring concrete and everything in between. He couldn’t afford any employees so he did all the jobs himself, working all day, and oftentimes into the night. He took any job that was offered and was never too proud to take even the most menial of assignments. Meanwhile, though he would get home exhausted from toiling at jobsites, he started studying for the Professional Engineering (PE) exam in hopes of building his business by providing engineering services.

However, when it came time to sign up for the test, Sia realized there was a requirement that three licensed PE’s must endorse his candidacy before he would even be allowed to attempt the test. Being a recent immigrant, he didn’t have anyone to turn to other than one engineer friend he knew from back in Iran that had later settled in the Los Angeles area. We just couldn’t accept that Sia wouldn’t even be given a chance to prove himself, so we got in the car and drove straight to Sacramento and waited in the lobby of the California Department of Consumer Affairs until someone agreed to meet with us. When an employee finally acquiesced, Sia passionately pleaded his case and handed over stacks of studies and papers he had written to prove his ability. Amazingly, the gentleman we met with eventually granted Sia’s wish and made an exception to allow him to take the PE test with his one endorser.

In 1984, after countless sleepless nights studying, Sia passed the PE exam on the first try. While that is in and of itself an impressive feat for such a challenging exam many have to take several times to pass, Sia amazingly did it without the textbooks everyone was allowed to bring into the open book exam because we simply couldn’t afford them. Looking back, this triumph was truly a pivotal moment for the future of our family, and it couldn’t have come at a better time because a few months later we would welcome our first child Sufi into the world at Kaiser hospital in San Francisco.

With both his PE and contracting license, Sia started getting small engineering jobs and with his years of experience swinging hammers himself, was able to design the most cost-effective approach to construction which became a critical factor in the future success of his real estate career. With the founding of his own design and engineering firm known as SIA Consulting, Inc., Sia had established a reliable income stream but we still struggled to support our family that had grown to four with the birth of our son Yosef in 1986 who was named after Sia’s father. Since my work as a graphic designer did not make enough money, I eventually joined the business to help with the administrative and bookkeeping tasks while also trying to be a present mother to my young children. Though we no longer worried about where our next meal would come from, we were still behind on some bills and were starting to wonder if we would ever truly be able to provide a good life for our kids.

Then on January 17th, 1994 the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake struck Southern California and caused extensive damage throughout the Los Angeles area. Soon after, California Federal Bank called Sia after having hired him once to fix a leaning building in San Francisco which he did successfully, and efficiently, much to their satisfaction. That led to the bank asking him to assess and recommend fixes to an entire portfolio of damaged homes and buildings. Over the course of the next 2 years, Sia would fly back and forth to Los Angeles every week working for the bank and in doing so, generated the first real seed capital he needed to realize the dream of pursuing his own real estate ventures.

This led to the founding of his own real estate development company, SST Investments, LLC which began with the purchase and remodel of small fixer homes in San Francisco that Sia would remodel himself and sell in order to buy other homes to remodel and sell. Eventually, we had the wherewithal to actually hold onto some of the assets—which were mostly in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco—in order to start deriving our first rental income. While we were truly living the American Dream at this point in our lives, it wasn’t until June 4th, 1996, that we finally felt as though we had made it when Sia and I were both sworn in as proud citizens of the United States of America.

The next 25 years, from which countless other stories could be written, were filled with a lot of hard work and many ups and downs, but most importantly, Sia make good on his promise that fateful day in Iran to unite our family once again. Sia helped many of those family members, including my sisters, my brother, my parents, his mother, his sisters, and a host of other extended family immigrate to the United States, and we supported them upon their arrival until they could get on their feet. Sia even mentored several of them in construction, teaching them his craft which helped them start their own successful contracting businesses as well.

Eventually our family was able to buy a home of our own in San Mateo where we put down roots and raised our children through their teenage years, all the while continuing to support our now extensive family in America. While Sia would never make mention of any of this, I feel a responsibility to document this largely untold story so future generations can understand the depths of my husband’s devotion to our collective family. From building an in-law unit at our home so his mother could live with us until she passed, to fully supporting my mother when my father passed, and even helping support my sister and her husband when they fell upon difficult financial and health circumstances. The examples span uncles, aunties, cousins and even friends that are not technically family, but to us they were no different. When we would talk about what to do when these needs arose, we would unintentionally but invariably transport ourselves back to our own harrowing journey, and in reliving those intense emotions, would always opt to lend a helping hand.

Sia eventually stepped away from the consulting business in order to focus solely on the development company, and after a long career of building homes, he retired and left the development business to our now grown children to run. I now spend my days in the world of philanthropy, helping run our family’s foundation and doting over my grandchildren any chance I get. Yet amidst all of these blessings, not a day goes by where we forget where we came from and the treacherous road Sia and I ran, limped and crawled down to get here. I can’t say it was all our own doing as we truly believe there was a higher power watching over us through those darker days, but there is a book worth of life lessons on perseverance, humility, hard work, and compassion that I hope to chip away at and document over the coming years.