Migration: Stories about journeys home

This week, we bring you two stories about long journeys home, from an Iranian-American molecular biologist and a psychologist who survived Chernobyl.

Part 1: Biologist Maryam Zaringhalam is visiting her family's home country of Iran when the travel ban goes into effect in January 2017.

Jump to Maryam’s story >>

Maryam Zaringhalam is Story Collider DC's newest co-producer. She's a molecular biologist who traded in her pipettes for the world of science policy. She comes to DC from the concrete jungles of New York, where she received her PhD from The Rockefeller University. She co-hosts the science policy podcast Science Soapbox, and her words have appeared in Slate, Scientific American, and Quartz. Her cat is named Tesla, after Nikola and not Elon Musk's car. For insights like this and more, follow her on Twitter @webmz_.

Note: You can listen to Maryam's other Story Collider stories here and here.

Part 2: Chernobyl survivor Janina Scarlet flees the Soviet Union with her family as a child, only to find new challenges in America. 

Jump to Janina’s story >>

Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full-time geek. A Ukrainian-born refugee, she survived Chernobyl radiation and persecution. She immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 with her family and later, inspired by the X-Men, developed Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Her book, “Superhero Therapy” released on December 1, 2016 in the U.K. and on August 1, 2017 in the U.S.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Maryam Zaringhalam

It’s January 20, 2017, and I’m boarding a flight with my mom and we’re going back to the motherland. I hadn’t been back in about a decade and this time we’re going back to see the ancestral cities of my dad and my uncle, places I hadn’t seen before.

I asked my mom to book these flights for us on November 9, 2016, a day on which I thought that things would be changing very quickly and that I might not be able to go back to the place where my parents came from. Because, you see, my family is from Iran.

Like millions of my fellow Americans, my heart broke on November 8th, and like millions of American daughters, I called my mom that night through tears and I asked her how so many people could vote with their hate and their fear against people like us.

Now, my mom had about twenty-eight years of experience with my tendencies towards melodrama and she told me, very calmly, not to fear. That she and my father had been through much worse in their lives. The Iran of their childhood no longer exists. It fell away in a revolution that took place decades ago and they're okay. They came to America so that their children would never have to know that kind of a loss, would never have to know what it is to lose your country.

So as my small act of protest, I asked my mom, “Book those flights. We’re going back.”

I didn’t know then, but on January 21st millions of women would turn out around the world far dwarfing the scope and scale of my small act of protest. And I didn’t know then that on January 27th, just seven days into my trip and seven days into this new administration, the president would sign his travel ban.

For those of you looking to escape the day-to-day political realities of American life, I cannot highly recommend Iran enough. Because it is a country in which Twitter is banned and Facebook is banned and mainstream news sites like the Washington Post and the New York Times are all banned.

My mom and I spent that first week staying in these cute little bed-and-breakfasts that had little by way of internet or television and so I spent that week in a state of bliss. I was walking the streets of Qom and Kashan and Isfahan, thinking about what these places were like when my parents and my parents’ parents were growing up.  And I was sightseeing and reading and eating albeit overcooked vegetables because, it turns out, Iranian cuisine is not very vegetarian friendly.

But, at the end of that week, my mom and I returned back to Tehran to stay with a family friend. And while she didn’t have the internet, she did have TV.

So on that Friday night, January 27th, I am in the living room and the news is on. It’s state-sponsored news, but it’s news nevertheless. I can mostly tune it out because it’s in Farsi and Farsi is my second language. I’m reading and suddenly I hear [in Farsi]: “The President of the United States.” Suddenly, I remember why I’m here at this particular time in our history.

I look up and I see an image. It’s a map that has seven countries highlighted. While my geography skills are lacking, I do recognize one of those countries as Iran. I listen and I learn that people coming from those seven Muslim majority countries would be banned entry into the United States effective immediately.

At first I thought this can’t be happening. It’s too fast. It’s too soon. But the thing about Iranian news is that it’s state-sponsored and so they play the same clips over and over and over again. After about three or four times of watching the same clip, the reality of my situation sinks in.

The phone starts ringing and it’s my family from back home and we’re coming up with a plan of what to do in case my mom and I are blocked entry or detained when we try to reenter. Our citizenship set aside because at this point we have no idea what to expect. There's so much chaos and confusion.

It’s getting late and it’s time for bed, but I can’t sleep. I was so angry and hurt and ashamed because I thought that we had moved on from this, that we were better than this. I felt duped into this false sense of security because I'd been here before. I had felt this kind of rejection before.

September 12, 2001, was the first time I learned that someone could hate me or fear me or misunderstand me without doing me the courtesy of getting to know me. I was thirteen, and my best friend found me in the hall and she said, “Look, Gina C. has been telling all the kids at school that your parents had something to do with it.” By “it,” she meant those two towers coming down just twenty-five miles from where we lived.

Immediately, I was just completely taken aback. This was so ludicrous. I was freaking out just the day before with all of my classmates because my mom worked in New York City and I had no idea where she was. And there I was being accused of something so heinous and hateful. Fortunately, the rumor was so ridiculous that it died out after a week.

But once you have that feeling that you're different, that you're easily mistaken and that people will jump to conclusions out of fear or ignorance or sheer convenience, you never lose that. I developed this sort of sixth sense for what people got wrong about me, the ways that they would talk about me, sometimes right to my face.

Like I remember this kid after high school biology class cornered me and he said, “Maryam, just so you know, the only reason the teacher is giving you such high marks is because she knows that your parents come from a culture that doesn’t value women.” And I just thought, Well, it seems to me like you don’t much value women, because there he was trying to undermine my success because it allowed him to believe that he was better than me, that he deserved more than I did. And it came at the expense of who I am of where my parents come from.

So while I have this microphone let me set the record straight. My parents come from a country where over 70 percent of the science and engineering students today are women. A country that holds science and engineering excellence to the highest regard. And science, it runs in my blood. My mom is one of the best doctors in the tristate area and my dad is a nuclear astrophysicist turned systems architect. My aunt is a software engineer, my uncle is a material scientist, my cousin is a civil engineer and my grandma was one of the first women to integrate into an all-boys’ school in France.

I could go on and on, but this is just to tell you that these are the strong Iranian men and women who raised me, who lifted me up and who taught me that the sky was the limit because I was at the intersection of two cultures, Iranian and American.

But that night, those two cultures wrestled inside the pit of my stomach until, finally, I gave up on the dream of sleep and it was morning again. I will myself out of bed and out the house and down the street to get a cup of coffee at a coffee shop because I desperately need caffeine. But more than that, I am craving for the first time, in a long time, the Internet. I want to feel connected to what’s going on back home.

So I sit down and I order an Americano, and I open my phone and I connect. While I can’t get social media or the news, I can get text messages and emails, and they are pouring in from my friends and my family and my peers and my professors.  They are telling me how concerned they are, how worried they are. They're giving me phone numbers of lawyers they know that are stationed at JFK.  But more than that, they're telling me to please tell my friends and family in Iran that this isn’t us. That these aren’t the American values that we hold.

In that moment, I felt completely overwhelmed by a feeling that was so different than what I felt as a thirteen-year-old when I was accused and I was just trying to grieve. In that moment, I felt held and loved and cared for all while I felt nauseous and anxious and so completely exhausted. So I closed up my phone and I headed back home hoping for a nap.

I go and I see my mom is still in the living room and she's watching the news again, but this time there's a new news clip. I look at the screen and it’s footage of all of the protests that had broken out overnight in airports across the country. And I see people holding signs that say “No ban, No wall” that Muslims are welcome here, and they are signs of love.

I realize that I don’t need to tell anybody in Iran who the American people are because there they were, on state-sponsored television no less, telling the world exactly who they were with their signs and their voices raised and their bodies standing side by side in solidarity.

I've never really been one for protests. I really don’t like crowds, and chanting in unison with a bunch of strangers really creeps me out. I always thought that protest was this exercise in preaching to the choir for a change that may never come, but in that moment, I realized its true power. It’s this way of signaling out to the rest of the world who we are and what we stand for when those with all the power failed to represent us time and time again.

I went back to the States four days later, thankfully, without any incident and I came home to a country that felt different but not lost, not like my parents’ Iran. I came committed to joining the movements that were popping up around the country, not just to march for science or environmental justice or women’s rights or affordable healthcare but to raise my voice as uniquely me, to articulate every part of myself, who I am and why I matter as a woman, as a daughter of immigrants, a product of science without borders, an Iranian, an American, and a scientist myself, and what I can only hope is exactly what my parents imagined when they dreamed their American dream. Thank you.

Part 2: Janina Scarlet

So I have a question for you guys. How many of you have ever wished that you could have had a superpower of some kind? Or a magical ability or some kind of a supernatural ability? Me too.

My origin story began when I was about three years old. I was born and raised in Ukraine and this is actually my first memory. It was May Day, which is our Labor Day and I was sitting on my dad’s shoulders, my parents were holding hands and we were marching. The air smelled like cotton candy and I was holding a red balloon. There was music and dancing, and then there was a scream to my left.

They looked and there was a woman on the ground and she was convulsing and there was white stuff coming out of her mouth. Some people ran to help her and other people ran to call the paramedics. Then other people started falling down. Some of them were also convulsing and some of them just were not moving at all.

I remember that feeling of utter horror, not knowing what was happening. My parents held hands. They kept me on my father’s shoulders and they ran all the way home.

A few days later, we found out that a week prior to the parade there was a massive explosion about two hundred miles from us in the Chernobyl Nuclear Radiation Plant and we were all infected. We had to seek immediate iodine treatments.

I somewhat remember the harvest of that year. The plants and flowers were the biggest and most amazing that Ukraine has ever seen. We had apples the size of watermelons, all beautiful and extremely toxic.

We were all affected differently. The way that the radiation exposure affected me is that it pretty much shut down my immune system. I spent many months at the hospital. I would get frequent nosebleeds, for which I had to go to the emergency room. And every time the weather would change I would get severe migraines and seizures.

A few years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and, with it, so did the economy. Most people lost their jobs pretty much overnight. Some people, like my dad, were able to keep their jobs on the condition that they would get paid twice a year. People were starting to get angry. People were starting to drink, and they were becoming very aggressive.

Their aggression quickly turned toward Jewish people, and the amount of anti-Semitism very quickly rose to that that it was in World War II. For those of you that might not know, Ukraine was invaded during World War II, and the particular city where I’m from was burned to the ground. Several concentration camps were established there, and most of my family were slaughtered with a few exceptions like my grandmother, who was taken as a slave to Germany.

So after the Soviet Union collapsed, aggression once again turned toward my people. It was no longer safe for us to live there. Some of the minor acts of aggression were kind of like when my neighbor Vicky came up to me. I was eight and she asked me, “My mom says you're a kike. Is that true?” She was seven.

I just shook my head and she said, “[spitting] I knew it. You're a kike,” and she walked away.

We filed for refugee status with the American embassy because it was no longer safe for us to live in Ukraine. That year of excruciating background checks, interrogations, finding out whether or not we were eligible to move to United States was hard enough, but keeping it a secret from the people around us that was a lot harder.

I remember one day walking with my older brother and a gang of teenagers surrounded us. One of them asked my older brother, “Is it true you're moving to America?” I expected them to knife us for treason right there.

My brother said as sarcastically as he could, “Oh, yeah. We’re moving to America.” Of course, to me, that sounded terrifying and I immediately jumped to my brother and I said, “Michael, what are you saying? He's lying.”

And the leader once again turned toward my brother and asked, “Well? Are you moving to America or not?”

My brother said, “Oh, yeah. Tomorrow.”

Thankfully, the leader took it as a joke and said, “Oh, forget it. They're lying,” and left us alone.

That entire year, it felt like I was holding my breath. And finally, on September 15th, 1995, I was able to breathe with relief when we landed at JFK Airport. It was a Friday.

It was a Friday that brought a lot of hope. It was a Friday that brought freedom. It was a Friday that allowed me to believe that we will no longer have to hide the fact that we were Jewish, that we would no longer be faced with anti-Semitism.

I was twelve and I was starting seventh grade. Kids can be cruel in seventh grade, and a girl that didn’t speak English that came from a radioactive country, I made an easy target.

So some of the kids would ask me things like, “So, are you contagious?”

“Do you glow in the dark?”

“Are you radioactive?”

On most days, I just wanted to die.

A few years later I watched a movie which forever changed my life. That movie was the X-Men. For those of you that don’t know, the X-Men tells a story of Marvel superheroes, all of whom are mutants.

When the movie begins, there is a little boy on the screen. He's being torn away from his parents during World War II. His parents are being taken away to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The boy uses his powers to bend the walls around them to try to argue, to try to fight for his parents’ life and I realize that boy has super powers, and I want them.

I realized as I was watching the movie that every single hero of the movie had some kind of a genetic mutation, kind of like me. And that most of them, like Wolverine, for example, received their genetic mutation from being exposed to radiation, kind of like me. And the X-Men were required to register so that they could be controlled or, if necessary, exterminated. I knew what that felt like.

My favorite X-Man of them all was Storm, and the reason why I liked her is because she had a very special connection with the weather, like I do. I later learned about Storm’s origin story. When Storm was six years old, her parents were crushed by an airplane that landed on their house. Her parents were killed, and little Aurora Monroe, Storm’s real name, barely got out alive.

As a result of this experience, she developed severe claustrophobia, which means fear of tight spaces. And even as an adult, when she was in a tight space she would have severe panic attacks and have a hard time functioning.

But if anything was to ever happen to her friends, to the X-Men, none of that mattered. She’d be willing to face her biggest fear if it meant helping others.

Storm taught me a lot. Storm taught me that your origin story does not make you a victim, it makes you a survivor. And that your very story, the very thing you've been through is actually your super power. It’s the first time I rethought my own origin story. And I thought, Wait a minute. I want to use stories to help other people.

So I went on to study psychology and then proceeded to my doctoral training first in neuroscience and then in clinical psychology. Then when I was doing my postdoctoral training, I was working at Camp Pendleton with active-duty marines with PTSD. Many of them would tell me over and over and over again, “I wanted to be Superman. I failed.”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? Some of the most incredible men and women you've ever met, who’ve seen some of the most atrocious things you can imagine, believing themselves to be a failure because they developed a mental health disorder.

So this one day I was working with a marine and I decided to challenge him. I said, “Well, does Superman have any vulnerability?”

He said, “Well, Kryptonite.”

And I said, “Right, right. Kryptonite. So if he's vulnerable to Kryptonite, does that make him any less of a superhero?”

And he said, “No, of course not.” And then he got it. Then the smile spread on his face and he said, “I see what you did there, doc.”

I've been using stories like that for years now. I've been using stories to help people understand that what happened to them is not who they are. What happened to them is what they’ve survived, what they’ve overcome, and they can use that to become the very hero that they are today.

In doing so, in this connection, I too have been able to heal. I too have been able to find my life purpose, my own post-traumatic growth in finding a way to connect with people and help people.

Up until recently, I thought that my past was behind me. A couple of weeks ago, there was a march, a demonstration in Virginia. There were people marching down the streets wearing swastikas and saluting Hitler and chanting anti-Semitic and racist remarks. I was triggered. I was angry and I was really sad believing that history was repeating itself, believing that my family and I were no longer safe again.

But then I saw something else. I saw the counter protesters. There were a lot of them. Not only in Virginia, but they were all over the world. There were thousands and thousands and then millions of people pouring out their support to those who needed it. There were people standing up to hatred and standing up for love. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had the world in my corner. Now, I’m no longer afraid because I know I am an X-Man, because we are X-Men. Thank you.