by Lydia Gans
Sanam Kazerouni had her own home and a comfortable income in Iran, but what she was seeking, what brought her to the United States, she says, is “freedom.”
Sanam now sells Street Spirit in front of Peet’s Coffee on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. She is a writer and a blogger, and she says that in the United States, she is able to freely express herself on the Internet. In Iran, she says, it would not be safe to express herself so freely.
Sanam explains, “There is no filtering here, as there is in Iran. Sites are closed in Iran. For some little bit of information, you have to nearly kill yourself to have access on the Internet. But here, you click and you have lots of information.”
She was born in England and grew up in Iran, and has dual citizenship. Farsi is her native language. She speaks English with a slight accent and somewhat scrambled grammar which has a certain charm.
Now 41 years old, she is petite, with delicate features and curly gray hair. Soft-spoken with a gentle manner and ready smile, Sanam is the kind of person people like to be kind to. And she says she is experiencing much kindness here.
In June 2011, Sanam left Iran for Canada where she applied for and was granted a U.S. visa. It is a visitor visa good for only a limited time and does not allow her to work here. She hopes to be able to get an extension, but if it is denied she can go back to Canada on her British passport and apply for a new visa.
She really hopes to stay right here in Berkeley, saying, “I love to stay here because I feel it is my home.” She recalls a favorite saying: “Wherever you stop running is your home.” She describes her life as “always running somewhere, looking for peace and freedom.”
Her life has not always been a happy one. Both her parents were from wealthy Iranian families. Perhaps they were in love, she says, but they were not married. When her mother became pregnant, she went to England to give birth, but promptly sent the baby Sanam to her father in Isfahan, Iran.
Sanam’s father raised her, but their relationship was a stormy one. She recalls many bitter arguments, and ultimately left his home to go to the university in Tehran and never went back.
She earned her degree in Political Science and wrote two books. She was only 24 when her second book was published in Iran. Then, Sanam started blogging and writing newspaper articles. (Unfortunately for American readers, her books, blogs and Facebook passages are all written in Farsi, her first language.)
The next years she describes as “a dark time.” She stayed at a house her grandmother owned in Tehran. She continued to write, and kept in touch with friends at the university, but she started using drugs and became addicted. She struggled with the addiction and finally decided to get into an entirely different environment.
Sanam moved away to a small town far away, near the Turkish border. After ten years, her father bought her a house in Isfahan but he told her, “I bought you this house but I don’t want to see you.”
She admits that “after one year I accepted the keys.” She felt she was finally escaping from her father only when she came to the United States. “It was June 2011 when I left Iran,” she says. “I went to Canada, stayed there for two months with my friend in Vancouver. I applied for visa. They gave me this visa. [In the] last week of August I came to U.S.”
Up until January 2012, she stayed with a childhood friend who lives in Moraga.
“One night we came to Berkeley together,” Sanam recalls. “We were walking on the street. Somebody touched my hair and told me, ‘I like your hair.’ It was like a sign for me that I’m not strange here. My curly, white, short hair is not strange here. So I told my friend: ‘I go to Berkeley, I like Berkeley.’ I made a decision to come here. I didn’t know anyone.”
Her description of arriving and settling into Berkeley life is a story of resourcefulness buoyed by unfailing optimism.
“When I came to Berkeley, it was on January 3rd of 2012,” Sanam says. “I had only $57 in my pocket.” So she went to the YMCA, where rooms cost $54 a night.
An Internet search led her to Piedmont House, an inexpensive hostel on Piedmont Avenue near Haste Street in Berkeley. She managed to stay there for some days, the owner letting her stay in the common room for just 20 dollars, and then for free in exchange for some house cleaning. But she knew she couldn’t stay there long.
“I was looking for a job, but I couldn’t have a job because I don’t have work permission,” Sanam explains.
“I found some records on Channing and Telegraph. They put it for free there outside. I filled my shopping cart and I started to sell these records for 25 cents and people gave me around 1 dollar for each. They didn’t need them because they don’t have record players.”
She describes all this with a pleased smile, appearing not at all surprised by such random acts of kindness.
Just a month after she came to Berkeley, Sanam was at the free laundry on Center Street and happened to meet J.C. Orton who, upon hearing her story, offered her a job selling Street Spirit. She found a room to rent and sales of Street Spirit now pay for the rent and basic necessities.
“I have everything,” she says. “And I don’t pay for my laundry. I don’t pay for food.” Sanam discovered the breakfast J.C. Orton serves at Trinity Church, the free afternoon meals served by Food Not Bombs in People’s Park, and other sources of food. “Sometimes I go to different events on campus and they serve coffee, cookies, sometimes more,” she says. “In Berkeley, every day you can find food.”
Content with her life now, she has finished her third book and is working on a fourth. Her basic needs are met. “I have my safety, my warm, dry place.”
Fifteen dollars a day is sufficient to pay her rent. She can earn that selling Street Spirit. People frequently give her more than one dollar for the paper.
Speaking of her fellow vendors, Sanam says, “My competitors, they teach me how to sell. They say you have to move, you have to talk, keep your smile. They are really kind. I appreciate.”
As for Street Spirit vendor coordinator J.C. Orton, she says, “J.C. is the best!”
Leaving Iran at the age of 40, Sanam says, “I lost my country, my culture, my friends and family.” But here she has found freedom and many new friends who have welcomed her to a new home.