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Life As an Iranian...

Life As an Iranian Woman in Switzerland

Touran Cheraghi Seifabad Kroon, an Iranian with a PhD in Chemistry, runs a skin care business in Switzerland. She talked to me about taking the last Pan Am flight out of Iran in 1978, crossing cultural divides, and life as a working mom.

Q: Tell me about where you grew up in Iran.

A: I am the oldest of five (three boys and two girls). I grew up in a Bakhtiari family in the State of Khuzestan, in the southern part of the country. As you might know, Iran is a melting pot of people from different ethnic backgrounds. My father worked for the Iranian Oil Company and my mother was a housewife. Because of my father’s job, we moved around a lot, living in different cities and islands in the Persian Gulf. Education was key in my upbringing, so when I was fifteen, my parents decided to send me and my younger brother to Esfahan to live with my grandparents, as the city had higher quality private schools.

Q: Can you tell me about being on the last flight out of Iran during the revolution in the 1970s?

A: I got a scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education to study in the U.S. My parents were liberal and willing to send me to study abroad. I left on the last Pan Am flight on Nov. 5, 1978. They were difficult times—it was chaos, the airport was a big mess, and we had to carry our own bags to the plane. I was very nervous, and was not sure if the plane would be allowed to leave Iran. During the whole flight, I was thinking about my family in Tehran and what to expect from my life in the U.S.

I arrived in a small town in the Midwest. It was hard. My dreams of America were shattered, as I was expecting big cities, modern and sophisticated like in the movies. Here I was in a small town (only 200,000 compared to Tehran’s four million), one main street, no traffic, no chaos. Everything was so quiet. I cried for the first three months, couldn’t eat the food, and didn’t like the fashion. I was always over-dressed compared to other students.

The university assigned a host family for me. The first week, they came to my dorm to pick me up for a dinner at their house, and I didn’t know what to expect, so I dressed up. They were very simple people, and very young. Both came from foster families, had no jobs, and were very religious. After having a hot dog each for dinner, they decided to take me to their local church to introduce me to everyone. I will never forget this—I was the only Moslem they had ever seen their life. When I got back to my dorm, I cried, feeling so lucky and blessed. I was so happy to know a family with such a big heart. I kept them as my host family for many years and saw them while I was still at the university.

Q: What are some of the similarities and differences between Iranian culture and your current community in Switzerland?

A: In many respects, Iranians are like Latin Americans, Spanish, and to some extent, Italians. We love being around people, big families, and lots of guests. Our friends and families play a major role in our lives. We get involved and allow our extended family to get involved as well, which is not always to each other’s benefit or comfort. Iranians that I know are open, expressive, passionate, and transparent in many ways. Our discussions are lively and not always logical, and as a result, we get upset and might lose friends and family members.

My husband (who is Dutch) and many people here in Switzerland are very logical and keep their distance and don’t get involved in others’ business. Sometimes it could be perceived as not caring and cold. You have to live here long enough to know that this is not case, that they care for you, but you have to ask for it.

Q: What do you think are some of the most powerful commonalities between women around the world?

A: I believe all women around the world want to achieve and feel respected for their views and given the same chances as men in their lives. Women feel that they can be whatever they want to be, either raising families or having a career or both. I know from my professional experience that we have to be strong, knowledgeable, and driven. We should not allow people to intimidate us.

Q: You have a PhD in Chemistry and have recently started a skin care business. Can you tell me about what your career has meant to you, as a woman and a mom?

A: Work means a lot to me. After my graduation, I started working even when I had my boys. I wanted to use my knowledge and contribute to society. I enjoyed being challenged, meeting new people, traveling, and being independent. Even though I continued working, my number one priority was my family. I was neither a 100 percent mom nor a career woman. I wanted both and I knew that I could be both. It required lots of organization and a husband who is understanding and contributes. I was proud to be one of a few women in senior management at a Swiss Company.

Other women encouraged me to be tough and be one of the boys. This was not easy as the work environment changed and became more political. I might be a top manager with a good income, but was not a very happy one and this affected my life and people around me both at work and at home. Again, it was my family and my boys who kept me going. With the help of two ex-colleagues, we started a small business in skin care. I might not be the top executive that I was, but I am much happier and doing things that I could not enjoy before.

Q: Tell me about your two sons. What are some of your favorite traditions to do together?

A: They are very different. My oldest, who is eighteen, has more of an Iranian personality, loves having many friends, loves shopping, and having friends over for dinner. He has a passion for people. He is not very organized and loves to argue. We have many social and political discussions at dinner. My youngest son, who is sixteen, enjoys cooking and has a good sense of taste so we experiment using different ingredients in our cooking. Unlike his bother, he is well organized and has few close friends and does not want to waste time shopping or arguing. As a family, we ski, sail, and have dinners together.

Q: If you could change one thing about the world today, what would it be?

A: It is not that easy, but if I have to choose, it would be greed. We are so obsessed with money, land, and power that we fight each other either as individuals or as nations. I believe that our values are not very different, though we might choose different ways to achieve them. I try to teach my kids to be understanding and have respect for all cultures and religions.