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Iranian Immigrant's US Success Story Chronicled in Memoir <i>The Road To Home</i> - 2003-08-21

Every individual who immigrates to the United States has a unique story to tell about his or her journey to this country. In a recently published memoir, a man who rose from a poverty-stricken childhood in Iran to the pinnacle of academic achievement in the United States told the story of his life.

"I am very proud to be an Iranian, very proud to be an Armenian, very proud to be son of Tabriz, and very proud to be son of Azerbaijan," said Vartan Gregorian, who says he has many cultural identities and is able to keep up with all of them. He is the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic organization that supports education and peace projects. He has also headed New York's Public Library, one the largest library systems in the world, and Brown University.

Mr. Gregorian was born to Armenian parents in the town of Tabriz in northwest Iran, in a province also known as [Iranian] Azerbaijan. In his memoir, called The Road To Home, Mr. Gregorian writes at length about his life in Tabriz, and his grandmother's influence on his future.

"My grandmother believed that learning was the only way one can escape one's condition," he said. "I became a page in an Armenian Prelacy [Church] Library in Tabriz, which had 5,000 books. It was the cheapest and most exciting travel that I had around the world through books and through imagination. So books saved me in many ways. But also some of my teachers, Armenian, Turkish and Persian teachers, all of them influenced me very much."

Mr. Gregorian says it was particularly painful to write about relations with his family, especially his father. He calls his father an absentee parent, but says this helped him gain independence. He regarded his grandparents as parents.

"We come from a culture, as my grandmother says, 'houses have four walls in order to keep the news inside, not to make it outside.' So it was very painful to discuss family affairs. Because it's not in our tradition to discuss - [instead we] cover it up, or ignore it or don't attack. It would not be honest unless I describe to my sons what I went through to become a man."

At the age of 14, Mr. Gregorian left home for Beirut, Lebanon, where he graduated from the Armenian-French Lycee as valedictorian, and became the personal assistant to the school's director, Simon Vratzian, who had served from 1918 to 1920 as the last prime minister of the independent Republic of Armenia.

Mr. Gregorian then studied at Stanford University in California, and taught at a number of prestigious universities across the United States. He says the United States shapes ones individuality in many ways.

"I think America's greatness is the fact that it allows you to become an individual, and remain an individual. First of all, I have to learn how to be a citizen. Namely, that the right of dissent, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, travel," he said. "Some people come to America for economic opportunities, some for a career. To me the most important thing that America has, in my opinion, is respect for dignity of individuals, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and assembly, and freedom to be calm, and to transcend one's limitations."

The Road To Home has been well-received by prominent American writers, journalists and intellectuals. Jill Ker Conway was the first woman to become president of Smith College, a prestigious women's college in the northeastern state of Massachusetts. She says Vartan Gregorian's book offers important insights into both the American and the immigrant experience.

"I think it is in the great American tradition of the story of an immigrant arriving with virtually nothing to support him, triumphing and taking advantage of the enormous range of opportunity that exists in the United States," he said. "In another sense, it is an extraordinary story of a man's intellectual development and personal growth, which finally carried him to leadership across the very broad spectrum of activities at the center of American culture. Thirdly, it's an evocation of a world of enormous importance to us today in terms of where Vartan was born and grew up, which few Americans know and understand."

Mr. Gregorian left Iran in 1948. But he still follows Iranian politics closely. Currently, he is involved in projects related to the development of Afghanistan. One of them, called the "repatriation of Afghan memory," imports into Afghanistan writings about the country from all over the world.