Iran is always on the minds of students and teachers at Berkeley’s Golestan Kids, but more so than usual in recent weeks. The adults at this Iranian culture, language and education program—perhaps the only one of its kind in the country—are busy teaching preschoolers about Iranian culture during the day and anxiously monitoring the news from Iran at night.
Ever since protesters took to the streets of Tehran June 12 to protest the outcome of the Iranian presidential election, their relatives all over the world, including those in the Bay Area, have lost much sleep while compulsively checking YouTube, Facebook and Twitter posts, their peace shattered by images and reports of violence half a world away.
“If you look at all the parents and the teachers, we all have dark circles under our eyes,” said Yalda Modabbar, who co-founded the program in 2005 and helped to get it incorporated into Golestan Kids last September. “We all put our children to bed, and we just go to the computer and look at the news.”
Modabbar, who moved from Iran to the United States with her parents after the revolution of 1979, said that, although the organization was completely apolitical and secular and did not adhere to any religious or political affiliation, concern was natural.
“I came here when I was 9—the reserves of my childhood memory for that period of my life, from the age of 10 to 14, is very blurry, but from 6 to 9 is very, very sharp,” she said. “I can give you directions from one place to the other in Tehran. I remember the revolution very clearly—it was very similar to what’s going on right now. People were screaming and chanting and there were curfews. I never went back, for no reason other than it hasn’t worked out, but that doesn’t mean I am not worried.”
A young working mother, Modabbar placed an ad on the Berkeley Parents Network website three years ago searching for a nanny or a preschool for her son.
“I was alone in Berkeley and didn’t have any family here,” she said. “I didn’t want my son to grow up without other people speaking Farsi.”
Another Iranian parent responded, and soon a small playgroup was formed.
“The group just grew organically—in fact it became too big,” Modabbar said. “Soon we had 30 families, and within months we had to hire a teacher, and then a teacher’s aide. Now we have pregnant mothers coming and filling out applications. We already have nine applications for 2011.”
Tucked away inside Berkeley’s historic Heywood House at 1808 Fifth St., a block away from the Fourth Street shopping district, the kids at Golestan seem to be a world away from the land their parents were born in.
But it’s here that 2- to 5-year-old Iranian-American, Iranian-Asian and Afro-Cuban toddlers (families where both parents are Iranian are in the minority at Golestan) play with one another while learning to speak and write the Farsi alphabet and hearing stories from Persian classics.
“It’s a way for children to develop an identity as Iranians or Iranian-Americans, so that when they go to kindergarten they don’t feel like they are different,” Modabbar said. “At least once a week I get inquiries from other parts of the country asking for advice or help on how to raise their bilingual children. Our long-term goal is to become a resource for other communities.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, about 10 students trotted into the dining room from the garden, which has its own vegetable patch complete with lemon, cilantro and tomato saplings from Iran.
“It’s going to get chaotic in a while,” Modabbar said apologetically. “The kids will be coming in to eat.” The children, however, were very well behaved, pitching in to set the table, serve the lunch of saffron rice and grilled zucchini, and even carry dirty plates to the kitchen to be washed.
The program, which borrows tenets from Montessori and Waldorf philosophies, and Persian culture, has 25 children. Students can choose from classes in theater, music, nature, science, language and cooking.
Music is very important, and the children are exposed to a range of compositions, from Beethoven to old Persian folksingers.
After lunch, a small group gathered around 4-year-old Darya Massih, singing “Happy Birthday.”
“Mubarak, mubarak (congratulations)—come and blow the candles, so you’ll live for 100 years,” they sang, just as Darya’s father, Amir Massih, walked in to tell his daughter he was taking her out for an ice-cream sundae at Fenton’s.
“Ahhhhhh,” Darya screamed in delight, bursting into Farsi as she hugged her father.
Massih, who came to the United States when he was 8, described the program as a boon for Iranian parents in the Bay Area.
“There was just a sense that there was a hole in the process for our kids in getting to know what their culture was like and being able to speak in the language their parents and grandparents understood,” he said. “This program is tapping into something that wasn’t there.”
Massih, who still has aunts and uncles in Iran, said that he would like people to know that there is more to Iran than political unrest.
“I think what’s going on right now is in the back of everyone’s mind, and probably in the forefront a lot, but I would like to separate the cultural parts we are celebrating here from the political parts. We are celebrating the cultural gifts Iran has given to the world. What is happening there is a political process that is ugly—I am hesitant to have it intermingle with what’s happening here. I don’t think it has anything to do with a 4- or 5-year-old born here. These are just kids.”
Massih said that what was seen or heard on the news often distorted people’s opinion of Iran.
“That’s not all there is to it,” he said, talking about the country’s contributions in art, literature and philosophy.
“There are lots of beautiful parts to the culture. People have a great sense of humor. They don’t really take themselves or life too seriously. People like to laugh and enjoy themselves. If you were to see a picture of a party in Iran, behind closed doors, it doesn’t look much different than a party here. It’s a reflection of their desire to live a good life and to enjoy themselves in the same way that we do here. They just do it in a different language.”
In an adjacent room, filled with hand-woven rugs and Eastern furniture, head teacher Mina Moubedi was trying her best to put the toddlers to sleep. Soft notes from a santoor played in the background.
“I love how they are keeping Iranian culture alive here,” said Moubedi, who worked as an accountant at a knitting factory in Iran before the revolution. “In here, I am myself. I don’t worry about the differences of cultures. The words come from my heart.”
One teacher, who didn’t want her name used for fear of retribution against her family in Iran, helped the older children carry their storybooks to a room filled with the bright afternoon sunlight. She moved to the East Bay from Iran two years ago to join her husband. Most of her family still lives in Iran. When asked whether she was surprised by the political situation in her home country, she said “yes and no.”
“It can happen after each voting, because people don’t like the government,” she said. “If they are against something they don’t like, they will find a way to show their feelings.”
Another teacher, who also didn’t want her name used out of concern for her family, teaches art and dance at Golestan. She was born in the United States but lived in Iran for 14 years after the revolution. She said this is the dawn of a new era for all Iranians.
“I am very upset about it, because many innocents are getting killed. But at the same time I am happy Iranians are getting united for democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech,” she said. “That’s really fantastic. They actually waited too long—30 years. Unfortunately, like any revolution, many have to perish for the major changes to happen, but I am hoping this is one of those changes.”
The 35-year-old teacher, who describes herself as “neither completely American nor completely Iranian,” recalled her life in Iran after the Shah was overthrown, a time she compared to the “dark ages of Europe.”
“When I went to school, every single day there were these women from the government who would check us and say ‘Oh, your pants are too short or too tight,’” she said. “They would check our nails for nail polish and whether we were wearing any makeup. But the funny thing is, all the girls who would cover themselves up at the front door would get into the university and put back their lipstick or open their hair. It’s kind of living in a duality. You try to look right for the government, but behind them you are having all these dance parties. But really, it’s not fun to live in that duality. In the street you have that fear, the fear of government.”
Describing herself as “a child of revolution,” she said that when she was living in Iran, she wasn’t fully aware of the lack of freedom.
“Sometimes when you live there and you haven’t been anywhere else, you adapt to it,” she said. “When you get out of there, you get to zoom out, and you realize that you have no freedom at all. It’s really sad.”
Her parents, she said, stayed in Iran after the revolution in hope of getting a “good democracy. Many people didn’t know it was going to turn out to be that bad,” she said. “Things gradually got worse, and nobody could say anything, because the government would put you in prison.”
When the pre-K class gathered around their teachers for “circle time,” the teacher announced that the theme of the week was heroism.
“It’s because of what’s going on in Iran,” she said, reading aloud from the famous Farsi poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, which chronicles the struggles and victories of Iran’s heroes. “It will help them to know about it—that people there are striving for human rights.”