Immigrant from Iran has a lesson for city students

August 18, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

WHEN Baltimore schools open next month, Ali Batmanghelidj will stand in front of his students and perhaps ponder the gulf between them.

First there's that name. After I assured him that students are almost certain to nickname him "Batman," Batmanghelidj said that was the least of his worries. For the 24-year-old University of Southern California grad, the worst experience with his last name is years behind him.

"Can you imagine learning to write that [name] in kindergarten?" Batmanghelidj asked this past weekend as he sat in his sparsely furnished St. Paul Street apartment. "My first day of school, I was asked to write that last name, not even being able to speak the language. It's a cruel world sometimes."

Batmanghelidj knows, better than most Americans, how cruel that world can be. His family left Iran with "just a suitcase and a plane ticket" - perhaps "fled" is a better word - in 1985, when Batmanghelidj was 5 years old. That was six years after the Iranian revolution that overthrew the shah and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini as the nation's ruler. Batmanghelidj's paternal grandfather held the office of chief diplomat under the shah and didn't survive the uprising. The experience was so painful that Batmanghelidj declined to provide details.

"The events of my grandfather's death are some of the most personal and sacred events of my family's history," Batmanghelidj said. He won't offer more than that, except to say his grandfather was prevented from living to see his oldest grandchild, Ali, born.

Batmanghelidj has other memories of his five years in Tehran. He recalls "very vividly" the posters of Khomeini that dotted the walls, the rationing that started after the Iran-Iraq war and the sound of AK-47 rifle fire crackling throughout the city. It's a long, crooked, pothole-filled, rock-strewn road that took him from a war-torn country run by fanatical revolutionaries to Los Angeles, where his family settled, to Baltimore, where he will begin a two-year stint teaching high school history as part of Teach For America. It's the lessons learned in overcoming those difficulties that inspired Batmanghelidj to come here.

"If I could impart the same lessons to the students of Baltimore," Batmanghelidj said, "that they will face obstacles but that education will give them skills to overcome those obstacles."

Batmanghelidj's obstacles included learning a new language. Becoming fluent in English "was almost a family affair," he said. "We were all learning together." (Critics of Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's insistence that immigrants learn English could learn much from the Batmanghelidj family.) Educated in California's public schools, coming from a family that lost it all in Iran, Batmanghelidj won a scholarship to USC and graduated in three years after majoring in history, minoring in psychology and winning honors in both.

After USC, in what Batmanghelidj described as "one of history's ironic twists," he went to work for the law firm of O'Melveny and Myers, where former Secretary of State Warren Christopher is a senior partner. Christopher was deputy secretary of state when he negotiated the release of American hostages held in Iran the year Batmanghelidj was born. Batmanghelidj said that Christopher, after hearing the story of what happened to Batmanghelidj's grandfather, assured the young man that while he may have lost an Iranian grandfather, he had gained an American one.

It was while at the law firm that Batmanghelidj penned a superbly written, eloquent op/ed piece for the Los Angeles Daily Journal about the violation of constitutional rights suffered by Justice Department detainees after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I took it upon myself to dive right into those issues," Batmanghelidj said. "I wanted to give a voice to those who didn't have one and to provide a voice for them, who didn't have the same legal background and didn't have the same educational tools. When I face my students that first day, I want to be able to tell them that the only way I was able to do this, the only way I was able to overcome anything, is because of education. If you give that up, you're giving up a lot of ammo, a lot of tools."

Whether that message gets through to Batmanghelidj's students - he's still not sure which high school will get his much-needed services and voice - remains to be seen. But, for at least two years, Baltimore will have a teacher who has overcome obstacles every bit as formidable as many students in the system, and one who adheres to one credo.

"It's a disservice," Batmanghelidj said, "to allow students not to believe in themselves."

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