By Rebecca Jones
Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, March/April 2008.
When 23-year-old Pouri Azghandi arrived in the United States in the summer of 1978, she intended to stay only a few months, visiting her brother and some cousins, seeing the sights. She spoke very little English, but she liked America and found the culture not all that different than her own.
Back in Iran, she’d been raised in a middle-class family, had gotten a good education, and had become a social worker. Life in her native Tehran held much promise.
And then the unthinkable happened—events that would keep herfrom her native land and her familyfor 27 years.
Throughout that fall, there were strikes and demonstrations that left Iran virtually paralyzed. In January 1979, the Shah—the pro-Western monarch who had ruled the country since 1941—fled into exile, and in February Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned, proclaiming Iran to be an Islamic Republic.
Azghandi watched the news reports coming out of Tehran with stunned horror. “Things had started happening in Iran before I left, but nothing that would give you the idea that the government might be turned over, that an Islamic government would come into power,” she says. “I just never thought the Shah would leave.”
Fears for Her Family
For Azghandi, the Iranian Revolution brought with it not just a change in government, but a very real threat to her safety and that of her family. Azghandi was raised in the Baha’i faith, an offshoot of Islam whose members have often suffered persecution. The religion was officially tolerated under the Shah, but Azghandi feared such tolerance would disappear under the Ayatollah’s reign.
Indeed, over the next 20 years, Baha’i worshippers were frequently persecuted in Iran. Their homes were routinely ransacked, and worshippers were banned from practicing their religion, from attending universities, and from holding government jobs. More than 200 were put to death.
Her own family was spared, she said. But only because they did nothing to draw government attention to them. “My family feared to do anything that would make the government comeafter them,” she says. During this tumultuous time, Azghandi chose to remain in the United States. She became a U.S. citizen in 1991.
New Language and Life
Today, she is a renowned esthetician in Denver, beloved by clients who have been going to her for many years, and praised by coworkers. And she is a proud ambassador for the skin care profession.
“I always liked to work with people,” Azghandi says. “Definitely my passionwas to be in a beauty salon. Initially, I wanted to be a hairstylist. But hair was not for me.”
It took her a while to fulfill her dream. She had few resources on which to build a life. She had a brother in Milwaukee and a cousin in Boulder, Colorado, but no one else to help her or advise her. She couldn’t speak the language, she had few job skills, and she couldn’t drive. She moved in with her cousin in Boulder and got a job waiting tables.
Some people discouraged her and said she’d never make her way in the United States. But she persisted, telling them, “I’m going to stay here. I can do this.”
But there were times when her determination wavered. “Even after a year, I was not sure if I should stay or go back home,” she says. “It was so very difficult coming from another culture. But my family told me that in Iran the situation was so bad, it would be better for me if I stayed here.”
As her English improved, life got easier. After three years of living in America, Azghandi felt ready to enroll in cosmetology school. She attended a four-month training program, then landed a job giving facials at a posh Denver salon.
To make up for the lack of close family, she adopted two dogs, a Chihuahua named Bochi and a miniature poodle named Meemo. “They were the best things I had. They were my family,” Azghandi says. “They were great, because when I went home, I never felt I was by myself.”
Thirty years later, Azghandi looks back over her life with no regrets. She still loves being an esthetician and routinely works eight- to nine-hour days.
Mostly, she loves the relationships she’s been able to build with her clients. “In the early days, while I was still learning English, I understood most of the things my clients said, but I couldn’t speak back to them too well. So I’d just sit there and smile. I still have some of the clients I had in those days, and they tell me I was so quiet then.”
Conversations and Bonds
Today, Azghandi makes it a point to carry on heart-filled conversations with all her clients. She feels about them as she would feel about dear friends and family members.
“Clients often say to me, ‘Do you know how important you are in my life?’ And they are just as important to me,” she says. “I think clients come to me because they appreciate the service I provide, yes. But also the conversation. I think success in this field is 50 percent the work you do and 50 percent your personality.”
And hers is a winning combination. “She has one of the most incredible work ethics I’ve ever seen,” says Angela Lema, owner of the Allure salon in Denver where Azghandi works. “For her, there’s one way to do things: the right way. It doesn’t matter if it takes a little longer, it doesn’t matter if it costs a little more. That’s the only way she’s interested in doing it. And that shows in her clients. I think all her coworkers would agree, she gives 150 percent all the time.”
For the first 15 years she was in the United States, Azghandi’s dogs, clients, and coworkers were her family. As a single woman, she poured most of her emotions into her work. But at 38, she met and fell in love with Seif Azghandi, a fellow Iranian Baha’i who had arrived in the U.S. just three months after she did.
The two met when Seif, who was residing in Chicago, visited the Rocky Mountains. Soon after they married, and today have two children: a daughter, 11; and a son, nine. Seif is on the faculty at the University of Denver, where he’s working on his doctorate in computer science.
Return to Iran
Three years ago, Azghandi did, at last, return to Iran for a visit. What she saw shocked her.
“It was not the same country I left,” she says. “When I left, Iran was just like here. Now it’s a totally different country. The women have to cover their hair. The freedom they have taken away from women is incredible. Even little things—like getting up to go for a run or a drive—it just cannot be done there, as a woman.
“I know I went through a lot of hardship here,” she says. “I thought it was difficult. But when I compare it with what my family has gone through, being there, what I have gone through is nothing.
“I truly believe in this country,” she adds. “Here, if you put your mind to it, you can be whatever you want.”