NEW YORK — William Mehrvarz touched down at JFK International Airport on November 9, 2017, with one suitcase and $200 in his pocket.
Inside the suitcase, a Hebrew prayer book, a kippa, and a Hanukkah menorah were nestled between his hastily packed clothes. Ordinary in design, the objects were remarkable for what they represented — the 25-year-old’s dream to live openly as a Jew.
The twist: Mehrvarz was born Muslim in Iran.
“Nobody wakes up one day and says, ‘I’m going to leave my country forever. I’m going to leave my family and I’m going to start over,’” Mehrvarz told The Times of Israel over coffee inside a SoHo café.
But that’s exactly what he did over fears of being charged with apostasy for converting to Judaism. Under Iranian law a Muslim who leaves his faith or converts to another religion can potentially face the death penalty.
While his future in the United States is uncertain — his asylum case likely won’t be heard until 2020 — Mehrvarz said he feels he can breathe for the first time in his life.
“New York is a tough city, but you can also start over here,” Mehrvarz said.
Mehrvarz is two months shy of finishing conversion classes at the Conservative Town and Village Synagogue in the Lower East Side. Enrolled in Columbia University’s School of General Studies, he’s working toward a degree in human rights, one class at a time. And like many New Yorkers, he’s developed a love-hate relationship with the subway.
With a job interview scheduled for later today, Mehrvarz, who currently has temporary protected status in the US, was nattily dressed in a navy pinstripe suit, pink and white plaid shirt and floral tie. Every so often, while telling his story, he fiddled with his silver bracelet sporting a hamsa — a talisman used throughout the Middle East for good luck.
When Mehrvarz was born his lawyer parents named him Reza (contentment) and assumed he’d grow up to be, if not devout, at least respectful of, and satisfied with, his religion.
And for a time we was — until as a 13 year old he went to a camp in northern Iran for children of Iran-Iraq War veterans. There he befriended an Armenian Christian boy, whose name Mehrvarz withheld to protect his identity. The boy let Mehrvarz read his Farsi-language Bible.
The New Testament was as unfamiliar to him as many of the pop culture references he now regularly encounters living here as a refugee. By contrast, having grown up knowing about Jews and their connection to the Old Testament, its stories felt familiar. At summer’s end he shared his newfound knowledge with his father.
“I thought he would be happy with my discovery. He was not. In the beginning he was confused by my questions, later he was angry,” Mehrvarz said.
His father’s anger didn’t quell his desire to learn more. In fact, it only piqued his interest in Judaism. Mehrvarz used a VPN, virtual private network, to circumvent Iranian censorship laws to get information.
His persistent inquisitiveness upset his teachers and parents. First his father sought advice from some mullahs he knew. Finally his parents committed him to a short-term psychiatric hospital at age 15.
“Three men came into my room and dragged me out. It was horrible. Psychiatrists kept asking me why I thought I was Jewish, why I was behaving this way,” he said. “I learned to keep my mouth shut and after two weeks I was let out. I started pretending I was an observant Muslim. Only my closest cousins and friends knew the truth.”
A closet wannabe Jew
At 15, Mehrvarz also started keeping kosher, which in practice meant pretending he was a vegetarian. He learned the basics of Judaism on Farsi websites such as iranjewish.com and 7dorim.com. He wouldn’t learn about the different denominations or that observant Jews change dishes on Passover until much later.
Over time his wish to leave Iran grew. He applied to high school in Germany, but his application was rejected. Depressed, he dropped out of school, where he was having problems with his teacher. Though his parents were disappointed, their concerns were somewhat alleviated when he completed his graduation requirements in night school and matriculated at Tehran’s Allameh Tabataba’i University.
It was around that time Mehrvarz started volunteering and traveling with the Association Internationale Des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et Commercials, or AIESEC. Based in Rotterdam, the non-governmental organization is affiliated with the United Nations Department of Public Information. (Despite repeated calls and emails, AIESEC couldn’t be reached for comment.)
In the summer of 2016 Mehrvarz traveled with AIESEC to Warsaw, Poland for a 10-day conference. He took a side trip to Krakow and visited Auschwitz.
“I felt at the peak of my Jewish identity there. I realized the extent of the Jewish suffering, something I had had no clue about because it is denied in Iran. I was very moved, it was a very hard moment,” he said.
A marriage miscarried leads to a Jewish rebirth
By now Mehrvarz was married to a secular Muslim woman, whom he says agreed to conceal his affinity for Judaism. They decided she would remain secular, he would convert, and they would raise their children Jewish. They also agreed to emigrate, sometime, to some undetermined destination.
Then his wife miscarried and the marriage disintegrated.
One night during a fight in front of his in-laws, his wife revealed that Mehrvarz was practicing Judaism. His mother-in-law threatened to call the police. Snatching his phone, she shoved him inside a bedroom.
At that moment, Mehrvarz’s parents, who had also been invited for dinner, arrived. Pushing past everyone, the bespectacled young man raced home and packed his bags. Hours later, the 23-year-old was on a bus to Armenia.
“It was very hard. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to my parents but I knew this was the only option and I was going to take it,” he said.
From Armenia he headed to Georgia and received a US visa, three months before the Trump Administration enacted a travel ban. He also called his friend Christopher Harris who lived in New York. He’d met Harris through CouchSurfing.com and stayed with him for five nights in December 2016 while on a trip for AIESEC.
“I call him my savior. He was the only person I knew in America,” Mehrvarz said.
Harris paid for Mehrvarz’s flight and invited him to sleep on his couch.
“I can’t remember if he called me from Armenia or Georgia, but I remember telling him he could stay with me. I told him he would probably get asylum,” Harris said.
Two months passed. Mehrvarz felt he had overstayed his welcome and went to a homeless shelter. Four months later, a couple at his synagogue invited him to stay at their Brooklyn apartment. (They declined to comment for this story.)
Mehrvarz started conversion classes while living with them and enrolled in Columbia.
Helping to oversee Mehrvarz’s conversion is Rabbi Bronwen Mullin, the rabbinic artist in residence at Conservative synagogue Town and Village. She met him by chance while he was working at a Manhattan restaurant.
“In truth our reaction to his story was just awe. We wanted to convert him on the spot,” Mullin said.
The synagogue agreed to subsidize Mehrvarz’s conversion classes and his adult bar mitzvah, which will take place in October. He now reads Hebrew fluently from the prayer book.
“Watching William grow has been amazing. He really owns his identity now, which is no small miracle considering where he came from. We really consider him a part of our family and wherever he goes we deeply hope he will always think of Town and Village as his home,” Mullin said.
While his conversion will be recognized across the Conservative movement, Mehrvarz also wants to go through an Orthodox conversion so he is accepted into the Persian Jewish community. Because of that he is learning the Persian style of Torah reading intonation for his bar mitzvah, Mullin said.
Living in limbo
Nearly a year after his arrival in the US, the feeling of “being in a state of limbo, of being stateless is very difficult,” Mehrvarz said. While he has legal representation, he talks about his fear of being sent back to Iran in a short YouTube video.
In addition to worrying about whether he’ll get asylum, his friend Harris said he’s seen Mehrvarz struggle with what it means to be Jewish in America.
“Learning all the Jewish culture here, the different Jewish politics about Israel, about what it means to be Jewish and who is Jewish can be overwhelming for him at times,” Harris said.
Although asylum seekers can apply at the port of entry, it isn’t required. However, one must apply within one year of arrival to the US, according to the US State Department.
“I didn’t ask at the airport because I knew I would be detained right away and I didn’t have any evidence with me to back my request,” Mehrvarz said.
Asylum-seekers must prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one or more of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
The current Iranian penal code doesn’t include provisions criminalizing apostasy, and Iranian law doesn’t require that apostates be sentenced with the death penalty. However, courts can hand down that punishment, according to a 2016 US State Department Human Rights report. The last execution for apostasy was carried out in 1990.
Attorney David Leopold, who doesn’t represent Mehrvarz, said the young man will have to show proof of persecution, or fear of persecution. That can come in the form of a detailed statement from him. While he can submit independent evidence from family or friends, it’s not required.
“It’s virtually impossible to get a note from your torturer,” said Leopold, past president of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association.
It’s virtually impossible to get a note from your torturer
Still, the question isn’t so much one of eligibility as it is of probability, he said.
“The government is not very easy when it comes to asylum cases. It doesn’t exactly deny them, but it keeps postponing cases. This administration is hostile to any immigrants, whether [or not] they’re refugees,” Leopold said.
Family ties severed
Another part of starting over has been severing ties with those he left behind. Mehrvarz hasn’t spoken with his father since he left Iran. He spoke with his mother once, three months ago, when his grandfather died.
“My feeling is they think I have abandoned them. I would love to see them again. I would hope they would accept me. I want them to say ‘Our son is our son, even if he is different,’” he said.
Mehrvarz knows some people are skeptical of his story.
“They don’t understand a Muslim wanting to be Jewish. I still don’t know what to say to them. I’m being me. I’m being normal,” he said.
Normal means finishing a paper for school. It means once again sharing an apartment with Harris since he can pay rent. It’s occasionally eating at one of his favorite kosher restaurants, Grill 212 or Milk & Honey. It’s going to the Fat Cat jazz bar.
Normal is marking important dates such as Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Israeli American Council and Israeli Independence Day at Manhattan Jewish Experience. It means wearing a kippa in public, something so many in New York take for granted.
“This is why I left Iran,” Mehrvarz said. “I feel like there are many misconceptions about refugees, about their motivations and passions. It is believed that they have chosen this, but that’s not right. It is believed that they come here to take advantage, but that’s not true — they bring advancements and they are achievers. If not, they wouldn’t leave in the first place.”