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To be Iranian in Colorado Springs

Nikzad Hashemi faced hate and found peace in the United States


Nikzad Hashemi owns Grand Gyros, where he displays - Iranian art and a gold tea set, pictured here. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • Nikzad Hashemi owns Grand Gyros, where he displays Iranian art and a gold tea set, pictured here.

On the south-facing window of his Greek and Persian restaurant, Nikzad Hashemi hung two flags: one from the United States, the other from Greece. Absent but conspicuously only to those who know Hashemi is the flag from his homeland, Iran.

The 43-year-old omitted that homage seven years ago when he opened Grand Gyros at the corner of Palmer Park and Academy boulevards.

"It is one way I hide my identity," he says.

Hashemi is usually forthcoming with his background. A Jew born in Kurdistan, he moved to Tehran when he was 8 and immigrated to the United States as a teen.

But an Iranian flag in the window? This would advertise his identity to all passersby, not just the cadre of regulars who visit Grand Gyros for its spiced lamb shawarma and perfumed Persian Earl Grey. Besides, he says, even if only one in a thousand pitched a rock at his storefront, he still would have to clean up the broken glass in the morning.

Hashemi's subdued trepidation follows a half-lifetime of exclusion for things that were "not his fault." The slim, clean-shaven man with a long nose, dark eyebrows and a golden name necklace recounts these stories slowly, as if the agitation that accompanied them dissipated over the years.

As a youth in Tehran on the brink of the Iranian religious revolution of 1979, Hashemi joined the ranks of young Muslims who sought to expel the nation's Western tendencies. In spite of his eagerness, his peers shunned him, asking him to leave the party because of his religion.

"I found out very early that this was not the right revolution. This was a gimmick," he says. "I said it is not worth my life. I was born here and raised here. They put a wall between us because I am a Jew."

Religious plurality was zapped from Iran shortly after, when Baha'i subscribers and others were jailed. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent Holocaust "denial conference" indicates that some things have not changed much in the 27 years since Hashemi left.

When he was 16, he escaped to Italy with the help of a Jewish organization. Eventually, he made his way to Minnesota, where he enrolled in a private Catholic high school. By that time, the Iranian hostage crisis in which militant Muslim students held 66 diplomats and American citizens captive was well underway. Images of people who looked like Hashemi splashed on TV screens across the United States. One student questioned Hashemi about his homeland, and "five minutes later," everyone knew: He was Iranian.

In the months that followed, Hashemi's peers hit him and shoved him against lockers hard enough to bruise his spine. They called him "camel jockey" and "donkey rider" and other names, he says, that he'd rather not see in the newspaper. One day, the school administration allowed him 15 minutes to defend himself in front of the student body.

"I told them, "You are worried about the hostages. I am worried about the hostages and my family. I came here to be safe. I chose this place.'"

But as he walked out of the auditorium, the jeering swelled behind him. He transferred out of the school and moved to Colorado Springs, where a brother lived with his wife.

"Before I came [to the U.S.], I thought Americans were smart and educated," he says. "Maybe this country is a superpower, but people here are immature. They don't know about the other side of the world."

In Colorado Springs, though, Hashemi found the peace he had sought. He finished school and opened Grand Gyros, and has gone 26 years without another incident.

Today, he longs to return to Iran, a stark impossibility with the current regime. Though he says the United States should lead Iran to democracy, he rejects a possible bombing campaign, saying it would be only a "wound on top of another wound."

In spite of his questions Flag or no flag? Leave for Iran or stay? Hashemi has created his own alcove. Here, in his restaurant, he is Iranian, Jewish and American.

"I love the U.S.," he says. "I am more native than most people here."

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