Cramped in Ashdod, cheering for Iran

Old allegiances hold sway for some immigrant soccer fans.

Iran footy 88 (photo credit: )
Iran footy 88
(photo credit: )
He was their president until their departure. And he wants their new home wiped off the map. But for at least a handful of immigrants from Iran, recent arrivals who now live in Ashdod, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's vicious rhetoric and nuclear drive have not overwhelmed their soccer allegiance. When Iran takes on Mexico in Nuremberg on Sunday evening in its opening encounter of the 2006 World Cup, these immigrants will be watching at the homes of relatives or in their own tiny apartments, and they will be cheering for captain Ali Daei and his men. "I think it's great they got into the World Cup," said one of them, an 18-year-old Iranian Jew who recently made aliya. "I want Iran to win." This man immigrated along with his two older sisters more than a year ago. Recently his father, mother and youngest sister followed. All of them, with the exception of his oldest sister, who resides in Rehovot, live in Ashdod. The 18-year-old and one of his sisters commute together every morning to study at a preparatory school for immigrants in Tel Aviv, returning late at night. The young man hopes to pass preparatory school exams in a month and to gain admission to university. On Sunday, he hopes he'll finish his studies early enough for the game. "If I get home in time, I want to see it," he said. "I think most of the Iranians, here and all over the world, hope that Iran will win. Because we remember the days we were in Iran and we were happy. And so we want them to win and we'll be happy again." Life is more difficult for the family here, he said, than it was in Iran. They face problems common to immigrants from developing countries: Their savings are worth less in Israel, a lack of fluency in Hebrew makes finding a job in their professions difficult if not impossible, and their mentality often clashes with that of veteran Israelis. In common with other recent immigrants, members of this family said a principal reason for their move to Israel was to be close to relatives already here, not because of concern for their wellbeing in Iran, and that the transition is proving more challenging than they had anticipated. Some new arrivals even suggest they might ultimately want to go back. The two siblings share an apartment; the young man's father, mother and little sister share a one-bedroom apartment one floor down. None of the family members works; they live on a stipend from the Jewish Agency. "I had a good pension in Iran," said the father, 60. Sitting on his bed, which also serves as a couch in their living room, he said his family, as well as that of his brother and his parents, lived very well in Teheran. "We all had good jobs, great homes and very good pensions. In Israel, I am supposed to work until I am 67. And all the money I brought from there is worth very little here," he said. "I am an engineer, I am not a laborer," he said in the broken Hebrew that he has managed to learn in a time in ulpan. "They want me to work in anything. But I am old, not young." He still dresses in dark blue trousers and a starched, ironed white-collared shirt, and carries a pen and his immigrant ID card, as if he was on his way to work. But he has nowhere to go except to the bank or to buy food. "Our refrigerator here is so small that we need to buy vegetables every day," he said, pointing to the shoulder-high refrigerator near the door. "In Teheran we had a side-by-side door refrigerator." He fears that his family will be forced to live in a one-room apartment after one year in Israel. "I don't know where we will go," he said. "We can't fit six people here and my children are studying hard and can't work. I came for my children. I need Israel to help us. I think about going back. I love Israel. But why are things like this?" The family's mother has no such intentions. "It's easier in Iran, but I like it here," she said. "After all we went through to come here, we will stay. It's good for our children." A few doors down the hall, another family from Iran has squeezed three single beds in a U-shape around the walls of the living room. Two more single beds and a computer adorn the bedroom. The parents have a 17-year-old daughter and two little girls. The father now doubts whether he made the right decision in moving to Israel. "In Iran, the Jews live better than the Muslims," he said. "We have businesses, factories." He sold his small car parts factory and distributing company to move here. "I thought everyone in Israel was good," he said, chuckling and shaking his head in disbelief. "I came here and it's not like that. Some people are good. But people here are very irritable." Neither family came out of fear of Ahmadinejad. Nor are they worried that Iran might attack Israel. "There are many families here now, and not because of Ahmedinejad," said the father of the second family. "It's because they have family here." He said he came because his children wanted to live near their aunts, uncles and cousins. He and his family laugh at the suggestion that there was friction with the Muslims in Iran. "I went to public school and I have many Muslim friends," said his slim 17-year-old daughter, wearing jeans and a white tank top. She did not know any Jewish students at her school. Using the computer she brought from their home in Teheran, the young woman displayed photos of her girlfriends at her farewell party. The girls were dressed in blouses and jeans, their dark hair flowing over their shoulders. "They are Muslim and they all knew I was going to Israel," she said. "We cried." The family did not sell their home in Teheran. "We will see if it is good for us in Israel," said the father. "If not, we will go back." His wife, who sat quietly at the kitchen table, looking depressed, said she was giving Israel two more months. "My heart aches for Iran," she said. Across the hallway, another immigrant, 22, lay on her bed in her tiny studio apartment as her three-year-old played in the hall with the next door neighbor. Her husband was at work selling shoes at a Iranian-owned shop in Tel Aviv and wouldn't be back until late. On Sunday they will go to the home of his sister to watch the soccer game against Mexico. "Of course we hope Iran will win," said the young woman with bleached blonde hair. "We love Iran." The couple moved to Israel with their toddler in January 2005 to join the husband's parents and sisters, who had moved here earlier. "I cried for the first eight months," the wife said. "It was the three of us, everyday, all day in this tiny room, with no job and no money. We came here because it was very difficult for us financially in Iran." In Iran, the husband worked selling clothes, but his salary would never have been enough to buy an apartment. "In Iran, everyone says that in the land of Israel, it's great. They give you a house, they give you money. Life is easy," she said, laughing at herself. "We came here and we were in shock. There it's difficult, but not as difficult as here." In Iran, women don't work, she said. Now she suffers from pressure brought by her in-laws for her to get a job. "I want to work, but cleaning houses? No, that's no good," she said. She wants to study hairstyling. "For one and a half years, I've been waiting for a place in a course [for immigrants]," she said. "Everyone says it will be all right."