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How an Iranian refugee rose to lead Camden's schools

"My family would have encountered a very different fate if it weren't for the compassionate policies of our country."

Paymon Rouhanifard was 5 when he arrived in America on Thanksgiving Day 1986 with his parents and brother. Almost two years had passed since the night his family crossed the Iranian border into Pakistan in a truck, fleeing religious persecution that had resulted in the imprisonment and murder of friends and relatives, and they had spent months in refugee camps before landing in New York City.

After Rouhanifard's family settled near Nashville, his father pumped gas until he was able to start a small business. Rouhanifard learned English, went to college, and became an educator. In 2013, Gov. Christie appointed him superintendent of Camden's state-run school district, calling on him to turn around the city's struggling schools.

Rouhanifard, who lives in Camden's Victor Lofts with his wife and son, has often pointed to his own story as an example of the power of education to transform a child's life. When President Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27 blocking entry to the U.S. for refugees and immigrants from seven countries, including Iran, Rouhanifard thought of the children and parents who are living as his family did. He thought of the doors that could be closing on them with each passing day.

"My family would have encountered a very different fate if it weren't for the compassionate policies of our country," Rouhanifard, 35, said in a recent interview. "To argue that this policy is about the safety of this country is not rooted in evidence, and not rooted in that compassion."

Last weekend Rouhanifard, his wife, and their almost 3-year-old son joined thousands of people who flocked to Philadelphia International Airport to protest the order. It was the first time Rouhanifard had attended a protest since college. He went as a citizen who believes America can do better.

"I'm proud of the way our country is responding," Rouhanifard said. "It's inspiring. And it gives me hope."

Rouhanifard's family immigrated through the Iranian Lautenberg program, developed by the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. Originally meant to help Jews leave the Soviet Union, over the years it became a conduit through Austria by which religious minorities in Iran, namely Jews, Christians, and Baha'i, could resettle in the U.S.

Trump's order prompted Austria to cancel hundreds of travel visas intended for those citizens, leaving them in limbo.

"We heard clear rhetoric about isolationism during the campaign last year," Rouhanifard said. "What's unfortunate is that the policies seem to be matching that hateful rhetoric."

Rouhanifard's family, who are from Shiraz, are members of the Baha'i faith, a religion targeted for persecution after the 1979 revolution. Baha'i was deemed heretical by the Islamic regime, and members have been subjected to discrimination, false arrests, imprisonment, torture, and killings.

As friends and relatives began fleeing the country, the Rouhanifards stayed. His father worked as an engineer, his mother as a chemist.

"They didn't want to leave," Rouhanifard said. "They waited as long as they could."

The government burned down the home of his mother's uncle, imprisoned him, then executed him before a firing squad, Rouhanifard said.

One day, two soldiers came to Rouhanifard's door and offered his father the chance to renounce his religion. His father refused.

A few weeks later, Rouhanifard and his family came home to find everything gone, including the furniture and pictures from the walls, as though they had been erased.

After that, they lived with friends and family until they found someone willing to smuggle them over the border. Rouhanifard said he and his brother, who is a year younger, were largely shielded from the turmoil by their parents. Rouhanifard remembers only that the man who drove them to Pakistan was kind, and that it was late at night.

The family lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan for about a year, where they were robbed of the few possessions they managed to bring from Iran. From there they flew to Vienna, Austria, where they lived for about nine months before they were admitted to the United States.

They lived first with Rouhanifard's grandparents, who had left Iran and settled in West Chester, then moved a year later to a suburb of Nashville.

Rouhanifard's father, whose college degree didn't transfer to the U.S., worked at a gas station and learned to repair air conditioners. He later started his own HVAC business and hired other refugees who arrived in the area.

Rouhanifard, who became an American citizen while in grade school, said he and his family were embraced by the community. He became a University of Tennessee football fan and made friends. In 10th grade, his parents enrolled him in a prep school.

Rouhanifard said watching his parents' sacrifices led to his career in education.

"Without the education my parents had, I don't know that they would have succeeded," he said. "My perception then, as it is now, is that education is freedom. And as I got older I saw that there are parts of our country where those opportunities to access a good education aren't available to all children."

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rouhanifard worked for Teach for America, then as an analyst for Goldman Sachs. He was hired by the New York City Department of Education, then the Newark school system. His brother also pursued a career in education and is dean of a New York City grade school.

In the days after the travel ban was announced, Christie said the Trump administration botched the rollout of the executive order, but he has since said that the policy overall "really has moved the country in the right direction."

Rouhanifard declined to discuss Christie's comments. Since the executive order went into effect, Rouhanifard said, members of his staff and Camden residents have asked about his relatives in Iran, and offered support. His parents miss Iran every day, he said, and fear they may never again be able to visit.

"This is the most divisive political environment of my lifetime," he said. "All I can hope is that it's temporary."