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Eva and Ali Mostoufi: embracing a multicultural life

Tehran and Warsaw are worlds apart, two distinct pins on the map separated by more than 2,000 miles, with unique cultures, traditions, religions and history. Falling in love with someone from such a different culture might seem challenging, but for Ali and Eva Mostoufi, those differences have fortified the life they have built together, one filled with adventure, inclusion, generosity and love.

Ali’s story – growing up in Iran

Ali Mostoufi was born in Tehran, Iran, in the late 1960s. Ali explained that Iran was a peaceful place when he was a child, so much so that his family decided to return home after moving to England for about six years. Iran was ruled at that time by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had been in power since 1941. While the shah was credited for instituting widespread positive changes, some Islamic leaders denounced him for trying to westernize Iran.

Discontent in the country grew and revolution ensued. In 1979, the exiled Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shiite cleric who was a vocal opponent of the shah, returned to Iran and assumed power. “The shah was trying to keep what was good in the culture, then infuse things that seemed fairly new and modern to Iran.”

According to Ali, the shah was considered a progressive, but perhaps moved a little too fast for some in his country. “Iran had natural resources like oil and the tourism industry, and there was a lot of culture and heritage that would have been good for the world to see.”

Ali was in 4th grade when the revolution occurred and continued to live in Iran until he was 20. He was accepted to college in Tehran and originally planned to become a veterinarian before changing course to become a doctor. “The environment over that time gradually went downhill and Iran became a radicalized country,” Ali explained. As the Iran-Iraq War slowly stretched into the late 1980s, Ali became eligible to be drafted into the military. “My family felt the war was unjust,” explained Ali, “so the decision was made that I should leave the country and study elsewhere so it would be less dangerous.”

The decision to leave Iran

“Leaving Iran at enlistment age was difficult,” Ali explained, “so you had to find channels to get out.” Armed with just a couple of suitcases, Ali left his family behind, flew to Turkey then took a train to Budapest to enter medical school there.

“Eastern bloc countries did not want Muslims entering their countries, so I got kicked off the train between Bulgaria and Romania. A few other people got kicked off as well, including another guy from Iran and a Lebanese couple with a very young infant. The five of us headed to the airport, but I couldn’t get a ticket, so I took another train that went through Romania. I had to go around Yugoslavia since I couldn’t go through it. Eventually I made it to Hungary, but it was clear that an Iranian passport was not a good passport to have—no one wanted to let you in.”

When Ali first arrived in Hungary, he found it interesting to watch the young democracy navigate after its peaceful transition away from socialism. “The first Burger King opened while I was there and you’d think it was a 5-star restaurant. People would stand in line for Pizza Hut. And I remember the excitement when HBO came!”

Purchasing furniture for his apartment was difficult as Ali had limited funds to purchase items that must last through six years of school. “My landlord said he knew of a really good store in Vienna, so he drove me to Costco. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it did have everything I needed to furnish the house.”

Residency in the US

After medical school, Ali decided to come to the US to complete his residency. “The US definitely didn’t want any Iranians coming in, so it was a struggle to get a visa. When I applied in 1996, the US embassy told me my application had to be cleared with the FBI. I was in Hungary and my passport was at the embassy when the Atlanta Olympic bombing occurred.” It took about 2 months for the embassy to finally stamp his visa, then Ali was on the way to the US the very next day.

Ali spent a short time in Michigan with family before he left for New Jersey to study for the residency exams. Fund were tight—he had $5,000 to last for two years until he could begin his residency. If the money ran out, Ali had no choice but to return to Iran. He spent the first $1,500 on an Olds Cutlass Calais that he drove cross-country to Paterson, NJ. Paterson, according to Ali, was the capital of car theft in the U.S., but rent was cheap—$50/week for a room in the basement of a house. He had two roommates, one, a Syrian man who was going to medical school, and a trucker named Jerry who was rarely ever home. Another friend made sure Ali was well fed—his family owned a respected catering business and, for $10/day, Ali could eat all of the restaurant-quality food he could manage.

The apartment was not an ideal place to study, however, so Ali looked into local colleges for a library that might work. Montclair State University was close, and one of his friends even found him a small job tutoring a student. Peter, still a close friend to this day, knew a young woman who needed some help with an upcoming exam.

Peter introduced Ali to Eva.

Eva’s story - Growing up in Poland

Eva backed up to talk about her childhood in Poland. “When I came to this country, Poland had just opened up. The wall in Germany fell, the country was opening to the west. I was a sophomore in high school when my father said that I should get an education outside of the country, so I could come back and have the pick of any job opportunity I wanted. Poland always had a problem finding people to teach English because teachers could make more money teaching privately than in public schools. He thought that culturally competent, English-speaking teachers would be in great demand.”

Eva’s father suggested the family take a vacation in the US so they could see the country and decide if it was a good fit for Eva. “We had some family in the New Jersey area, so my father thought I could go to school to learn the language and see if could go to university here. I liked adventure, I liked challenges, and I was old enough that I didn’t think I would miss everything too terribly.”

That summer, Eva and her family flew from Warsaw to New Jersey and moved to a town with a large Polish population near some relatives. Eva met a few local Polish-American kids through her grandmother and made some new friends. “I really wanted to learn the language,” she explained. “I was very interested in American culture—and we loved watching HBO. We used to listen to Michael Jackson. I was interested in all of it!” Eva said her friends were kind and patient as she struggled to learn conversational English.

Eva’s grandmother lived in a ground-level apartment across the street from an elderly woman who had some trouble getting around with her cane. “She was second-generation Polish and the kindest person,” Eva recalled. “My grandmother was working, my dad was working, so over the summer I was so happy to go help the lady clean up a bit, make cookies together, or put things away for her. We developed a special relationship, like a family.” Eva said her neighbor helped her learn the English by speaking slowly and carefully enunciating words so Eva could understand. “It was like camp for me!”

Navigating America high school

Eva started high school that fall, noting some significant differences between high school in Poland and the US. “In Poland, schools separate kids who go to high school on a college track from those who do not want to go to college. There is a placement exam and everyone is very serious about their studies.” In her new primarily blue-collar town, Eva said many students did not plan to go to college, and sometimes exhibited rude or belligerent behavior in the classroom. “I felt sort of a culture shock because classes were loud, the kids didn’t pay attention and some were disrespectful to the teachers,” she reflected. “In Poland we used to stand up for our teachers when they walked into the room.”

“In Poland, they taught the same standard material to everyone. I didn’t realize that in the U.S. there was a different quality of education in every school.” Eva said that most Polish students who immigrated and attended her high school were put in the highest math programs. “Even though they might come from a small village, they were still ahead of the American students.”

“The school enrolled me in ESL classes and I recall my teacher could never really pronounce my last name. But I had fun and enjoyed learning,” Eva said. She admitted that she had a difficult time with history and English, but was pleased that math came easily for her, and that she had already covered much of the material in middle school.

After six months in high school, Eva felt like she was able to communicate very well. “I think I have actually regressed because of all of the years I have been home taking care of kids at home,” she laughed. “It was hard for a 16-year-old, though. Whenever my father or my grandmother had a question about a bill or needed to go to the doctor, I had to translate. You learn a lot about life from those kinds of things.”

Eva was accepted into a nursing program on a scholarship after graduation. She enrolled at a community college, but soon transferred to Montclair State and changed majors. “I changed my mind about nursing because I really liked philosophy and history when I lived in Poland. I always wanted to pursue those topics but there really was no guidance, at the high school or the college level. As a foreigner, you really don’t know what the possibilities are, and at that time there was no Internet to learn what opportunities you do have.”

Eva again, and Ali

Eva met Ali through a mutual friend when she needed some extra help on an exam. “I had an anatomy professor who I had heard failed half of the class on the first test, so I was in a panic. When I met Ali for the first time, he was in a computer lab writing his residency applications. He stayed and tutored me that first night until 12 or 1am, then he bought me a bagel with lox,” she laughed. Eva was ultimately successful on her exam. “I got a B+. He was a keeper!”

Their courtship was simple, and lasted only about 8 months. “Ali had a lot of free time when he wasn’t teaching, so we studied, then went to all of the different buffets in the area to eat. Sometimes I would listen to his lectures on campus as well,” Eva recalled. “They were in anatomy and physiology…it was a high for me, but good to listen. We had fun.”

Eva graduated from Montclair State with a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Physiology and Biomechanics. The summer after graduation, Ali was matched with a residency in Chicago, so the couple decided to marry so Eva could accompany him. “I remember when I went to get to my marriage certificate,” Eva recalled, “the lady said to me, ‘listen, child, are you sure you want to get married?’”

“In the Catholic religion,” Eva explained, “there is no living with someone. You have to make a decision. I have strict parents. I told my parents just three days before we were getting married, but mom still wanted to do some sort of ceremony. I said, ‘No, we are keeping it small—this is just so I can go to Chicago!” They planned a simple back yard ceremony with about 15 guests, with the promise of a large church wedding when they were able. “We didn’t give her many options,” Ali added.

“We had our actual wedding in 2001 in New Jersey to be close to Eva’s family,” said Ali. “As luck would have it, 9/11 happened a few weeks before. We invited so many people who were from out of the country, but they were unable to come. Everything was shut down. Now it’s just part of the history of us.”

On being a foreigner in the US

“It was much easier to be a foreigner twenty years ago, certainly before 9/11,” said Ali. “When I came here, I thought it was a very free country and I didn’t feel like a foreigner because so many people were also. If you go back even just one generation, most people came from somewhere else.” While they came here on student visas, both have now become U.S. citizens, first Eva, then Ali.

“Our life brought us here and I think that, in Eva’s experience just like my own, we felt like this is a really good place to live. You can be yourself here. In Germany, there are Germans and there are non-Germans, but you will always be a foreigner, no matter how long you stay there. But I think that in the U.S., after you become legal, you are just like everyone else here. First generation kids, like our kids, don’t know what it means not to be an American because they were brought up here.”

The value of a dollar

“If you told my child ‘I’ll give you $5,000 and you have to survive for 2 years and either make it, or ship yourself back to a country that’s at war,’ they would not understand what that means,” Ali said. “Their iPhones cost $1,000. A cup of coffee is $4. 50. They have no conceptual idea of how it would be possible to survive on so little.”

“When I think of the pressure that Ali had to go through when he took the exams—there were no retakes,” Eva explained. “He didn’t want to put pressure on his dad for extra money because they had sanctions in Iran and it was difficult to send money. He was going to make do with what he had. Dating him, I appreciated that. He was conservative but still very generous…he would even buy me a sandwich,” she recalled. “Then I wouldn’t eat for two weeks,” Ali joked.

Eva realizes that she and Ali are different in many ways—their backgrounds, upbringings, culture, food, and even religion. “He had a different reason to come here, and I had a different reason to stay. When I got here, I was able to work, go to school, be independent of my parents, not ask for money, and get my own car.” Eva even started skydiving, without telling her parents, of course. “This country is full of adventures. You have this feeling that you can do anything, accomplish anything, try anything.”

Coming to Carlisle

The couple eventually moved to Carlisle so Ali could be closer to work. Eva said they just fell in love with the town. “Coming from a big city like Warsaw, we always loved to go to my grandmother’s farm and run free. We would play with my cousins, get in all sorts of trouble, try to ride workhorses—it was a life of wonder! In Carlisle, our kids have been able to enjoy lots of open space, with chickens and dogs and ducks (and a turtle, and a horse, per Ali).”

“I feel such a strong sense of volunteerism in this town,” Eva said. She is a member of the Carlisle School Committee so was intimately involved with COVID planning over the past year. “It was an amazing journey and a pleasure to work with the School Committee and teachers to open the school. There are few communities who work together to accomplish something for greater good. You look next to you and see such talented, brilliant and sharing people. It’s a wonderful aspect of this community and makes Carlisle so unique!”

Preserving culture with children

“Whatever we can do to celebrate what is important to us in both cultures, we do,” Ali explained. “We want our kids to understand the good things about each culture. We have been lucky enough to take the kids to both Iran and Poland, so they were really able to learn the good things about both cultures and have fond memories of both places.”

Ali continued, “We have done our best to be balanced, not favor one culture over the other. One child likes Persian food, one likes sushi, the third one likes Mexican. We drink Persian tea, but we drink coffee, too. It’s a really nice blend of both cultures under the same roof. From that perspective, I think we have done a great job of exposing them without being preferential to one culture over the other."

The couple recalled the first multicultural fair at Carlisle School where families gathered to share information, traditions, artifacts and food from their native countries. “We made a poster that was half Iranian, half Polish,” Ali remembered. “Half of the food was kielbasa and pierogis, the other half was Iranian. We were definitely the melting pot.”

Ali said the couple has many American friends, but also many friends from foreign lands. They have noticed that their children also have diverse friendship groups. “Our son at Purdue has friends from all over – Puerto Rico, Morocco, Russia, New Zealand, Connecticut, Texas, Carlisle. I think being friends with such a multicultural group has had a positive effect on our kids, and we hope it will carry on throughout their lives. Whether people come from around the corner or a whole different part of the planet, we must appreciate them for who they are.”

Originally published in the Carlisle Mosquito on June 23, 2021.

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