Five Questions with Dr. Sima Goel

Tags: Federation, Women

  • Share This Story

By age 17, Sima Goel had seen enough to know that increasing anti-Semitism had irreversibly changed her home country of Iran. Leaving behind her family, friends, and her life as she knew it, she undertook a harrowing journey to freedom that she documented in her book, Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape From Iran.

With help from the Jewish Federation and the Jewish community, she persevered to become a mother, a wife, a doctor, and an inspiration to people around the world.

Your life has taken many different directions. How would you describe yourself?

I am a combination of many chapters. I am an Iranian Canadian Jew, a political refugee, a proud Canadian citizen, and a wellness specialist. I am the first woman certified chiropractor in Canada, I am happily married, I have two wonderful sons. I have an amazing extended family with sisters and brothers. My husband’s father is a Holocaust survivor and is a gift to everyone. I love life and I have a blessed life. I don’t want anything in my life to be different. If any step along the way – no matter how painful – was any different, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.

What factors led to you to leaving Iran?

My life in Iran was wonderful, until it wasn’t. Things started to change on August 18, 1978. I was 13-years-old and living in Shiraz, Iran sitting in my garden when the radio announcer said that 400 people went to a movie theater in Abadan and were turned to ashes. Muslim extremists had burned the whole movie theater and no one could escape. Something in the depths of my being just sank and wondered how anyone could do something so grotesque. I later found out the people who were killed were against the Shah (Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) and political extremists took responsibility for burning the theater. I decided that – at age 13 – that the Shah had to go and I wanted freedom.

I found out there was a rally at the local college campus, so I went there and shouted as loud as I could, ‘long live freedom’ thinking that the louder I shout the quicker it would come. I didn’t bother to look around to see who was nearby. There was a Hezbollah supporter; I thought to myself, ‘we both want freedom.’ We were both risking our lives. But soon, Hezbollah was in power and I lost whatever freedom I had left. Hezbollah created hate in my country and made life horrible for anyone who was not them. They threatened the safety of Jews living across Iran, but I continued to be outspoken.

At age 16, a woman came to our door and told my mother I couldn’t stay at our home anymore. I had to go into hiding. I began to stay in different homes; my family didn’t know where I was. I went from city to city without a place to stay. I finally returned home, but never stepped foot outside. My mother saw that I was slowly deteriorating, like I was dying. She asked me if I wanted to get out; she knew of some smugglers. I recognize now, as a mother myself, how hard it was what she did – the courage, the unconditional love she had. She put my needs in front of hers.

That night, I left in the middle of the night with my sisters. If my father found out, he would have stopped it. We didn’t say goodbye to anyone. As we were leaving Iran, Hezbollah supporters were coming to Iran from Afghanistan in what Time Magazine called ‘the most dangerous desert in the world.’ There are human traffickers, drug dealers, and arms smugglers. I almost came eye to eye with one of them, but I hid in a sand dune. I laid down and started praying. And I said to myself, ‘if I survive I’m going to write a book.’ And I did – many years later. And that night, I realized I’d never be given a problem I couldn’t handle. The angels came many times during this journey. We finally made it to Pakistan and stayed there for about seven months. After that, we moved to Canada – but Canada chose us. It was a place I had to be.

How did Federation help you when you arrived in Canada?

I was so happy when my sisters and I came to Montréal, Canada. We only had $60 in our pockets. When we arrived, I was afraid to tell anyone I was Jewish. The Federation was the family I didn’t have. They provided a social worker for us to help us learn the culture of Canada. They gave us support, but more importantly, they put us on the right path. We didn’t want money, we wanted to learn English, go to school, and go to work. Federation would also send us holiday baskets for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. I remember us sending us this floating thing in a bowl – I didn’t know what it was. It was matzah ball soup! They gave us a coupon for clothing. Overall, the Federation was my go-to. Whenever I had a question, I’d call the Federation and our social worker.

The only way I can say it is the Federation and the Jewish community were my home away from home. It didn’t matter how observant we are; we are the same tribe. As Jews, we do tikkun olam (repairing our world). I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough; we have a great community that wants to help everyone, no matter what part of the globe you’re in.

What was the spark that finally gave you the courage to write your book, Fleeing the Hijab?

After living in Canada for many years, my parents came to visit. Unfortunately, they passed away while they were here – first my mother, then my father. The month following my father’s death was the darkest month of my life. Once again, I approached the Federation. After everything they did for my family when we first arrived, I told them I wanted to give back. They asked me if I could be the speaker for a Women’s Philanthropy event and tell my story. People came up to me afterward and said I needed to write my story down. I also told my husband about the promise I made to myself about writing my book. It took me five years to write, but it’s my words, my story, and it’s written from the heart.

What do you want an audience or a reader to get out of your story?

When I wrote this book, I wanted it to have a message. I gave the final draft to my son; his first comment was, ‘Mommy, you were a troublemaker.’ I told him, ‘Good, keep reading.’ I said, ‘You are free to read whatever book you want, but when I was your age, I was not.’ He finished reading the book and told me how much he loved his life. I’ve heard that from almost everyone who has heard my speech or read my book – I give them a different perspective on life. I give them hope, I give them a sense of gratitude. I keep my energy pure and do what I can to help empower, inspire, and lift those who lifted me up. I pay it forward. That’s all I can do. There are few things in the world that we have a limited amount of – time, energy, and money – spend them wisely. And this moment right now is a gift. You choose how you want to spend it.

Sima Goel’s book, Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape From Iran is available in bookstores now. For information on how Federation helps to share our perspectives, contact Debbie Klein at dklein@jcfcleve.org or 216-593-2834.

Learn More: Federation, Women