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Sharing Iranian culture on Long Island

Persian whole wheat bread, known as sangak, is

Persian whole wheat bread, known as sangak, is baked on premises at Great Neck’s Shop Delight (Sept. 30, 2012) Credit: Robin L. Dahlberg

At 11:15 on a recent Saturday morning at the Greek Orthodox Church in Brookville, school is -- or was -- in session.

Gazle Dunphy, 9, and her friends burst out of classrooms in the church's basement, running and tumbling into a banquet room. Laughing and giggling, they grab handfuls of doughnuts, something to drink and then head outside.

It's recess at the Ferdowsi School, which was founded in 1990 by the Greenvale-based Iranian American Society of New York to teach the Persian language -- Farsi -- and culture to interested children and adults. Tuition starts at $600, and society members get a 10 percent discount.

"My kids grew up with this place," said Neda Bokai Dunphy, Gazle's mother. Dunphy, of Sea Cliff, was born in Iran and immigrated to the United States alone in 1978, when she was 17. Her extended family remains in Iran. Her two other children, 16 and 11, attended Ferdowsi and also speak Farsi.

"This is the only place that it is possible to meet other [Iranian-American] families, to learn the [Persian] culture, not just the language, but everything that goes into creating a culture -- music, art, food, everything," she said. "When children understand where their parents come from, when they learn different cultures, they can understand that things can be different from what they know at home and that's OK."

Because Iran was known as Persia until 1935, the terms "Persian" and "Iranian" are often used interchangeably.

Gazle, a fourth-grader at Sea Cliff Elementary School, clearly enjoys coming to Ferdowsi. "I do it so that when I go to Iran I can read and write," she said.

Besides the language classes, held on Saturdays during the school year, the society sponsors annual concerts and dinners to honor the ancient Persian holidays of Mehregan, a harvest festival; Nowruz, the New Year; and Yalda, the winter solstice. It promotes Persian artists, filmmakers and authors, provides humanitarian assistance and is raising money for a Long Island community center.

Local Iranian-Americans' interest in sharing their culture represents a change from a few decades ago. When many Iranians arrived here in the late 1970s and '80s, they formed an insular community. Now they have integrated into Long Island's multicultural society and are taking active roles in political, business and community affairs, opening restaurants, bakeries, gourmet markets and retail stores.

Feeling at home on LI

Most of those on Long Island who were born in Iran left there 25 to 30 years ago to escape the 1979 Islamic Revolution or the eight-year Iran-Iraq War that immediately followed.

By some estimates, more than 1 million Iranians immigrated to the United States in response to those two events. The vast majority went to California. Those who came to the New York area settled predominantly on Long Island, around North Hempstead, Roslyn, Great Neck, Little Neck and Manhasset.

The society has about 800 members. The group has no political or religious affiliation and was established in 1982, a year after Iranian militants released 52 Americans they had held hostage for 444 days in the then-U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran's capital.

Its original purpose was "to introduce the real Iran to Americans, to establish that we were different from the hostage takers," said the society's president, Reza Hedayati, 68, a Hewlett resident who came to the United States in 1973 to study medicine.

Nowadays, the society promotes Persian art and traditions to Iranians and non-Iranians. It is assisted in its mission by the Great Neck Persian Cultural Committee, a Jewish organization that seeks to do what the society does but specifically within the Great Neck area, where 22 percent of residents are of Persian ancestry.

The committee, founded in the mid-1990s, works with the Great Neck Parks Department and the Great Neck Library "to show our neighbors that there was a lot of richness in ," said Kamran Heckmati, 48, committee president and a Great Neck resident.

Risks lead to rewards

Data from the U.S. Census reveals that there are more than 20,000 people who were either born in Iran or are of Iranian ancestry living in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Among them is real estate developer Hooshang Nematzadeh, the first Iranian-American president of the Great Neck Chamber of Commerce. Nematzadeh, 67, had studied in the United States in the 1960s. He returned to Iraq in 1978 after getting an undergraduate degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and an MBA, but came back and settled in Great Neck with his family to escape Iran's unrest, he said.

For Perjman Toobian, 39, of Roslyn, and Anna Monashemi Kaplan, 47, of Great Neck, that journey began in childhood.

In 1985, Toobian, then 11, and his 13-year-old brother walked out of Iran while it was at war with Iraq. "The Iranian Army was taking boys from their classrooms and forcing them to become soldiers," he said. "It did this without notifying their parents and without providing them with any training."

Toobian's parents paid a stranger to smuggle their sons into neighboring Pakistan. During the next 10 months the brothers made their way to the United States, where they joined an uncle in Great Neck. Toobian did not see his parents again until 1995, when they, too, immigrated to the United States.

In 1980, when Kaplan was 12 and her brother 13, their parents sent them to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as part of an international effort to help Jewish children escape Iran. She stayed with foster families in Crown Heights and Chicago, where she learned English by watching TV shows. The siblings were reunited in Chicago with their parents when they obtained visas to enter the United States two years later.

For Toobian and Kaplan, their parents' risk and sacrifice to give their children better lives paid off: He manages and co-owns Colbeh, a Great Neck restaurant that serves Mediterranean Glatt Kosher cuisine, and Kaplan is a member of North Hempstead's town council. They, like scores of other Iranians, "cherish the opportunity" to give back to the Long Island communities they now call home, Nematzadeh said.

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