Forced to flee: Juneau residents recall arrival as refugees

Persecuted her whole life as a Bahá’í in Iran, Parisa Elahian came to Juneau as a refugee in 2005. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Persecuted her whole life as a Bahá’í in Iran, Parisa Elahian came to Juneau as a refugee in 2005. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Alaska receives about 120 refugees from all over the world each year.

About 10,000 Syrian refugees will come to the United States. While none are expected to end up in Alaska, the state still has a significant refugee population based mostly in Anchorage. However, some have made Juneau their home.

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As a child in Iran, Parisa Elahian was told by school officials she wasn’t equal with other children.

“They called us dirty, so they had to separate us from the other kids, so I was in the corner of the class,” Elahian said. “Imagine: I was a 7-year-old and going home crying most of the time because other students would say bad words to us.”

Her classmates were scolded for speaking to her. Neighbors told her to stay away from their homes.

Elahian, now 34, is a Bahá’í. In Iran, Bahá’ís have long been persecuted by the government. They aren’t allowed to practice their faith, are denied government jobs and admission to universities, and experience other forms of discrimination. Many have beenarbitrarily arrested.

Elahian left her home country when she was 24.

“I had nothing to do professionally, getting higher education, so that’s why I decided, ‘OK, it’s time for me to go,’” Elahian said.

Many Bahá’ís leave Iran as refugees via Turkey. Elahian was there for 10 months while she waited for a visa. She says she had a choice between Texas and Alaska. She chose Alaska and was sponsored in 2005 by a Bahá’í in Juneau. Today, about 20 Iranian Bahá’ís live in the capital city.

Vũ Schroeder holds daughter Katelyn. His wife, Myle, stands next to their two sons, Erik and Robbie. They live in Renton, Wash. (Photo courtesy Vũ Schroeder)
Vũ Schroeder holds daughter Katelyn. His wife, Myle, stands next to their two sons, Erik and Robbie. They live in Renton, Wash. (Photo courtesy Vũ Schroeder)

Back home, Elahian said she used to worship in people’s homes in groups no bigger than 15. In Juneau, Bahá’ís still practice their faith in houses, “but of course, there is no fear here,” Elahian said. “Back home, even though when we get together in very small group of people, still you would think as soon as you hear the doorbell — you would say, ‘Uh-oh, they could be here to get us.’”

Vũ Schroeder left his home country of Vietnam in 1983. He was 11 and had never gone to school.

“After the war, things got crazy and lots of political issues going on, lots of violence. People kind of get confused and a lot (were) struggling to survive,” Schroeder said.

He witnessed bombings, public beatings and executions.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Southeast Asians of that era, Schroeder escaped Vietnam in the middle of the night by boat.

“When it’s dark, you gotta go,” Schroeder said. “It’s not easy to leave the country because if you get caught, you either end up in jail or you’re gonna get killed.”

Schroeder spent about two weeks going across the South China Sea on a small wooden boat with about 20 others, half of them children.

“There was some rain – we could get rain water – but I didn’t eat for, like, five or six days. I was skinny. And then when we got to the land, we barely could walk because you’re so weak,” Schroeder said.

Somehow, everyone on his boat survived the journey.

He spent three years in a refugee camp in Indonesia. Schroeder said people were given food once a week and slept in rows on a long wooden bench where you couldn’t move.

Finally, in 1986, Schroeder and some relatives were sponsored by a group in Juneau. He was scared when he arrived, but his sponsor parents – Elaine and Bob Schroeder – were there.

“I remember they took me to the salmon bake and we had some really nice salmon, like the best meal ever,” Schroeder said.

His relatives moved to California within a year of arriving in Juneau. Schroeder, 13 at the time, didn’t want to start over again. The Schroeders let him stay in their home and eventually adopted him. He got a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alaska Southeast and worked for the Alaska Marine Highway system for years.

In 2007, Schroeder moved to the Seattle area. He’s earned his captain’s license and works for the Washington State Ferries. He’s married with three kids.

Parisa Elahian is still in Juneau. She’s married and works for the state. She says if she could have the same rights in Iran as she does in the U.S., she’d go back.

“But I’m so happy here, don’t get me wrong. I am so blessed. I’ve been here for 10 years. I just get emotional thinking about it. Even at the beginning when I didn’t speak English that well and people probably didn’t understand me that well, I never faced any kind of racism toward me,” Elahian said.

When she arrived in Juneau as a refugee, Elahian never wanted to be a burden, and she was never treated as one.