In 1994 Atousa Salehi visited her homeland of Iran. It was the only time she's been back since coming to America. She found it wonderful to see her family, but was dismayed by the social changes.
A woman on the street yelled obscenities at her for wearing lipstick; pulling out a tissue, she admonished Atousa to wipe it off. When Salehi protested, four revolutionary guards emerged from their trademark white SUV and surrounded her, pointing machine guns. They escorted Salehi to a van - which already held other women who had similarly trespassed against Islam - and hauled them down to a police station. Salehi had to complete a mountain of paperwork before she was released.
"Women are second-class citizens in Iran now," says Salehi. "The Shah was corrupt and needed to be deposed, but the conservative fundamentalists are worse."
In February clerical rule was reaffirmed in an election in which more than 2,000 reformist candidates were not allowed to run for office and only a small number of Iranians voted.
Salehi's parents met at a high school where her father taught literature and her mother was a student. Some years later they married.
The first of their three daughters was Atousa; she was born in 1968, in the city of Quasvin. When she was 3, the family moved to Karaj, a suburb of Tehran, where Salehi and her sisters grew up.
After the revolution in 1978, Salehi's mother lost her teaching job because she protested the new dress code imposed on women. They had to wear loose, dark robes that concealed the contours of their bodies, as well as headdresses called chadors.
Under the Shah, Salehi's father, who had invested in farmland and amassed many acres over the years, had acquaintances among the affluent and powerful. Under the Ayatollah he was deemed guilty by association. For most of the time Salehi was in fifth grade, her father was in hiding, evading execution. The revolution was a brutal litmus test, and he found out who his true friends were: the ones who sheltered him.
While he was away, everything he had was confiscated: money, property - both the farmland and the family home, which was taken over by a revolutionary TV station - his passport and his rights. His Ford was burned, for symbolism's sake. Salehi, her mother and sisters had to move into her grandmother's one-bedroom apartment.
After a year the political atmosphere had calmed down, so Salehi's father turned himself in. He was imprisoned for four months, awaiting trial. In Iran a person is considered guilty until proven innocent.
He finally stood trial and was found not guilty. But the government did not return anything they had taken, and he has had to fight for his existence ever since.
Two years after his ordeal, the family tried to defect to Spain. Mother and daughters made it, but, betrayed by his "helpers," father did not. The family reunited in Iran, and the parents began to plan to get their children out. As the eldest, Atousa Salehi was first.
High volume, high stress
Salehi's mother had a distant relative who worked at Vincennes University in Indiana. He agreed to sponsor Salehi, and she was admitted to the university. A month before her 17th birthday, in 1985, she came to America.
Initially, Salehi was disappointed. She expected Vincennes to be metropolitan; she found it to be a small, narrowminded town. The hostage crisis was still fresh in people's minds and Atousa experienced prejudice there.
Due to their circumstances, Salehi's parents could not support her financially. She was on her own. Permitted to work only on campus, she earned room and board as a resident assistant in her dorm. She also received academic scholarships.
After two years Salehi transferred to the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she also received a scholarship. She graduated in 1990.
By then she knew she wanted to be a doctor. Medical school followed, at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and she completed her internship in that city. She then moved to Colorado, where she was a resident at Denver Health Medical Center.
In Denver, Salehi met Don Davidge, a Seattle native. Eventually an opportunity to start a new company in marketing and sales took him back to Seattle. Salehi had to stay in Denver to complete her residency, so they maintained a long-distance romance. But once she became a full-fledged doctor, in 1998, she moved back to the Northwest to be with him. They married in 2000. The couple live on Queen Anne.
Salehi works in the emergency room at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue. "It is high volume, high stress," she says, but she is cut out for it. Patients she sees include "MVAs" (people injured in motor vehicle accidents), occasional gunshot victims, people suffering from various acts of lewdness gone awry, infants with ear infections... the list goes on.
Now Salehi is on maternity leave from Overlake. Her and Don's first child, Connor, was born in May.
When she takes care of an infant in the ER, she remains detached and can focus on doing what is necessary. With her own son, she loses objectivity and sometimes panics like any other mother. "I don't trust my judgments as a doctor with my own child," she admits.
Recently she rushed Connor to the pediatrician for what turned out to be diaper rash. "That is why they say doctors shouldn't take care of their own families," she says, somewhat embarrassed.
Salehi became a U.S. citizen in 1996. "As a woman," she says, "I have more of an identity here." Her sisters must agree. Parisa is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and Roxana is a graduate student in Toronto.
Raised a Muslim, Salehi no longer practices any religion. She has seen firsthand the effects of religious fanaticism. "Religion is not uniting, it is dividing," she says; "it ignites war. There is too much exclusivity and paraphernalia. Religions should be simple."
She still believes in God, but an open, accepting one. Organized religion is not necessary because, she says, "God is an inner experience."
Salehi's parents still live in Iran. It is a tragic irony that two years ago Salehi's father at last was granted a passport once again, only to be prevented by failing health from traveling. After Connor's birth, only Salehi's mother was able to visit.
But despite her family's political travails, Salehi has fond memories of her homeland. She remembers the hospitality of Iranians. "It is unmatchable," she says. "As a guest you are made to feel that you are the center of the host's life." A guest is considered to be a friend of God - an open and accepting one.[[In-content Ad]]