By DAVE STEPHENS
Tribune Staff Writer
6:08 PM EDT, September 14, 2011
The last time they were together there were tears and hugs and cries of sadness.
On Wednesday, after nearly eight years and several thousand miles, there were tears and hugs and cries of joy.
The hugs began the moment Ali Sohrab saw his brother walk through Gate A of the South Bend Regional Airport, the first time the two had been together since Sohrab fled Iran in 2004.
The tears came next, followed by sobs of joy.
Sohrab’s parents were next, followed by his sister-in-law and her two children, ages 7 and 4.
For the first time in nearly a decade the entire Sohrab family — practitioners of the Bahai faith and victims of religious persecution in their native Iran — were together again.
"Unbelievable," Ali said, seated next his elderly mother, struggling to find the word that could match his emotions.
It was 2005 when Ali Sohrab arrived in South Bend with his wife and two children.
As a practitioner of Bahai in Islamic Iran, Sohrab had been arrested twice, refused opportunities to work and his children were denied access to higher education.
In 2004, Sohrab told authorities his family was going on a vacation to neighboring Turkey. Instead, they never went back.
Milad Sohrab, now 19, said he remembers a final meal with his extended family. Much crying, much food, an emotional night for a then 11-year-old.
"Then we were at the airport and were all ready to leave, and that’s the last thing I remember,’ Milad said.
In 2005, with the help of South Bend area churches, the modern-day pilgrims arrived in South Bend, where Ali’s sister already lived, having arrived in 2003.
Since that time, the family members have been able to communicate via e-mail, phone calls and online video messaging. But they couldn’t exchange a hug or share a meal.
And for the family in Iran, the threat of persecution was always real.
Last year, the family members still in Iran made the decision to flee.
But coming to America isn’t that easy.
The Sohrab’s fled to Turkey, where they filed for refugee status with the United Nations. Then they waited.
In South Bend, officials with the American Red Cross began helping with their case, as part of their international relief efforts that they coordinate around the world.
Since the Red Cross began coordinating local refugee efforts last year, the agency has helped about 50 people, in 17 different families, immigrate to the South Bend region, said Gena Robinson, director of emergency services for the Red Cross.
In most cases, Robinson said, the Red Cross tries to be very quiet about refugees coming to the United States, out of fear for family members back home. But with Sohrab’s family all arriving safety, family members said it was OK to share their story with the world.
Ali, who said he couldn’t sleep Tuesday night because of his excitement, said his family members couldn’t have found a better place to relocate.
"You don’t have freedom over there, you have a very hard life," Ali said. "You can’t get jobs, you can’t work, its dangerous situation to be Bahai."
But in America?
"Here, it’s everybody is free," Ali said. "You can get jobs, you can get anything you want, if you are willing to work for it. You can do anything you want, you just have to do it."
Ali said his family planned on having a large dinner together Wednesday night, before the new arrivals settled in with family and friends.
Robinson said the Red Cross will spend the next 90 days actively working with the family, helping them transition into their new lives.
There will be a new language to learn. A new land to navigate. Jobs to be found. A new culture to absorb.
Ali is confident, after enduring persecution and the separation of time and space, that nothing will separate their family again.
"I’d like to do everything I can for them," Ali said. "They are my family. They are my heart."
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