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The Day That Never Happened

Atieh Sohrabi for NPR

Have you ever had a memory, but you aren't sure whether you dreamed it or read it or saw it in a movie? Have you ever had a day that changed life as you knew it, but no one ever spoke about it again?

For me, that day started early on a Sunday morning in June 2005. I had just turned 12.

Half-asleep, I heard footsteps surround the corners of my bed.

My mother's voice flooded in from the doorway. "Please," she said. "Let me wake her."

But it was a stranger's hand that shook me awake. He had one hand on a gun strapped to his waist and the other wrapped tightly around my arm. He was dressed from head to toe in what looked like black SWAT gear. I don't remember much about his face.

"Get up and go downstairs," the man said. He was not alone. There were at least six other men, all dressed in black.

My mother, younger brother and I were marched down our pink carpeted staircase. The men trailed close behind. They seemed more prepared for the front lines of a war zone than our picturesque home in Orange County, Calif.

They moved throughout our house almost soundlessly. When they spoke, it was to give orders.

"Sit down," one of them said, motioning to the cream-colored couch in the living room. It was the only piece of furniture we had purchased since moving in a few weeks before.

My father was already sitting, wearing boxers and a ragged T-shirt. I tried to meet his eye, hoping he would make a joke, be his usual, reassuring self. But that morning he said nothing — didn't look at any of us. When I sat down next to him, I noticed he was wearing handcuffs.

The shades in the living room hadn't been installed yet, so the morning sun glared in our eyes. I remember realizing, as I looked out on the street, that anyone could see inside. I prayed one of our neighbors would walk by, just to witness what was happening. But no one seemed to be walking their dog or grabbing the mail.

I felt like screaming for help, but I didn't. None of us did. We simply watched as the men rummaged through our drawers and flipped through our photo albums. They used the VCR in my parents' room to watch our home videos. The sounds of old birthdays, family ski trips and Persian New Year's echoed throughout our mostly empty house. We hadn't yet gotten to fill the house with memories of its own.

At one point, another man arrived, dressed in regular clothing. He began to sort through letters we kept in drawers in the guest room. I could hear him reading out loud, first in Farsi and then English, the words on the faded postcards from family and friends in Iran. Family recipes. Pleas for us to return. Love notes between my mom and dad, starting from when they met at university in Tehran.

Eventually, one of the black-clad men asked my mom to take me and my brother out of the house. He said they wanted to speak to my dad alone.

"Where do you want me to take them?" my mom asked. There were bags under her eyes.

"I don't care," he responded.

"Poru," she whispered under her breath. Rude, in Farsi. She, too, had been uncharacteristically reserved up until that point.

For a few minutes, my mother, brother and I stood on the front porch in our pajamas. I counted their black SUVs parked discreetly around the cul-de-sac. We didn't know where to go. If we went to a friend's house, we would have to explain why we were there — a question we couldn't answer.

So we went where many people in our town went when not much was open: Denny's. We sat in a faux-leather booth, the song "Send Me On My Way" from my favorite movie, Matilda, played throughout the half-empty restaurant. I stared at pancakes while my mom tried to fill the silence.

/ Atieh Sohrabi for NPR
Atieh Sohrabi for NPR

"Are you excited for camp this week?" she asked. I looked at my brother. He didn't look up from his Game Boy.

It felt like hours had passed when a private number called my mom's phone. "You can come back," a man said. Then he hung up.

When we returned, the black cars were gone. Inside, my dad sat in the same position that we had left him in — staring at the bare wall where a TV would eventually go. His hands were by his sides.

The house looked untouched. The men had put everything back. It was as if they had never been there.

The four of us sat on the couch for what felt like a long time. My dad was the first to get up. He went to my parents' room and closed the door. My mom stayed.

When it was dinnertime, she threw some things together for noon o panir, a traditional Persian breakfast. We ate bread and goat cheese; walnuts, tomatoes and cucumbers seasoned with fresh lemon juice. We drank hot tea with sugar. My dad didn't join us. But eating that meal made it feel, if only for a little while, as if everything was normal. No one spoke about what had happened that morning.

/ Atieh Sohrabi for NPR
Atieh Sohrabi for NPR

We didn't talk about it the next day either. Or the day after that.

My dad would go back to work. My brother and I would go to camp. My mom would show up at her morning jogging group, on time. We would go through the motions, same as always. And as the days came and went, none of us would mention that day. At all. Ever.

For more than a decade, it was the day that never happened.

But it changed our family, even if we never discussed it. We no longer spoke Farsi in public. My mom stopped saying hello to our neighbors as she got the mail. My dad lowered the Persian dance music from his car stereo before turning onto our street. My brother, Sohrab, began to go by "Rob." And I borrowed the interests of my white peers: Lunchables, cheerleading and country music. I changed the way I dressed to fit in with the Abercrombie & Fitch girls in my class. I chemically straightened my thick, curly hair until it flowed straight down my back in sleek strands. I second-guessed the food I ate at lunchtime: Persian stews served with rice were swapped out for PB&J sandwiches in brown paper bags.

I couldn't completely remove my "otherness," but with the right hobbies and accessories and slang, I figured I could help mask it.

Every aspect of my family's Iranian identity became toned down, softened, put away for years at a time.

It was until years later and 3,000 miles away, in graduate school in New York City, that I was able to revisit that day.

In the absence of any explanation, I'd thought up wild theories: My dad was filtering money to a terrorist organization; there was something from my parents' past in Iran that had followed us here; or, more realistically, we simply weren't trusted in our white, conservative neighborhood.

And I did research, trying to find out whether anything similar has happened to families like mine.

What I found was examples of extreme policing that dated back decades. In the 1990s, the FBI's "Operation Vulgar Betrayal" allowed for years of surveillance of a Muslim community in the suburbs of Chicago. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the New York Police Department began to surveil hundreds of mosques and businesses deemed "hot spots." (That six-year surveillance campaign of Muslims spread into parts of New Jersey and was later deemed a breach of the FBI's own rules.) In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit based in Michigan, alleging the FBI had a secret racial and ethnic mapping program in parts of the state that gathered intelligence on specific Muslim and Arab American communities.

It was clear that Muslim and Arab communities in many parts of the country had been under government surveillance for years. But I still haven't found an example quite like what happened to my family, in Southern California. I still don't know for sure what happened. I still don't know if I want to know exactly what happened.

But not talking about that day with the only other people who had witnessed it eventually became unbearable. It felt as if we were enlisted in the witness protection program, but the only people we were protecting were the men who came into our house. We were helping keep their secret. I didn't want to do that anymore.

So finally last March, for the first time in 14 years, I brought it up. I decided to ask my father first because, as the one who was questioned — the one who was handcuffed — I felt like he was the only one of us who might have really understood what had happened.

"I want to talk about that day," I texted him. "The day that those men came into our house. Can I call you when you get off work?"

A part of me felt scared about what he might say. What if I had made this whole thing up? What if the reason no one spoke about it was because it didn't happen? Or worse, what if it was because it did?

When he answered the phone later that night, I could tell he was nervous, too. But when I asked him to go through the details of the day, he patiently answered my questions about what had happened, how he was feeling, how much he knew.

/ Atieh Sohrabi for NPR
Atieh Sohrabi for NPR

He told me the men identified themselves as federal agents but never specified what agency they were from. He said they forced him to open the door, hands on their holsters. When he asked whether they had permission to search the house, they said they didn't need it. "I was new to this country," he told me. "It was a couple of years after 9/11, and I am Middle Eastern, so I thought I'd rather be quiet, don't ask them too many questions. I didn't know my rights at that time."

He described how he watched the men march up the stairs, heading to my and my brother's rooms. His voice began to tremble as he explained to me how he begged them not to scare us.

But when I asked my dad why we never talked about that day, he sounded more ashamed than afraid.

"I didn't want to remind you guys," he said. "You were so young. And that was a bad memory of policing in this country, that because you are foreigners, they hate you."

Because you are foreigners, they hate you. I hadn't realized until I heard my dad say it, how this feeling had morphed into my need to conform. I was afraid that if I didn't, that day would happen again. Those men would come again.

Over the phone, my dad added, "I worried this might be a bad memory forever."

Again, he was right. The memory of that day floods over me whenever I speak my native language on the subway; when I walk to work and pass the men dressed in similar SWAT gear patrolling the World Trade Center. I am reminded of it each time my flight lands at LAX, when I fly home to visit. Despite missing my family, I frequently make excuses not to go home. It's too expensive, I say, or, The flight is too long. What I don't say is that my house feels like a museum filled with artifacts of the day that never happened.

"You might hate this country because of that [day]."

This was my dad's biggest fear — that the country he had uprooted my family for, the place he had sacrificed everything to bring us to might become the object of our hatred.

Despite everything, I don't hate this country; even when it has made me feel small; even though I am entitled to. I have changed my appearance and lowered my voice, even tried to believe that one of the worst days of my life never happened, all in service of loving this country. One day I hope this country will try as hard to love me back.

Farnoush Amiri is a journalist at The Associated Press, based in New York City. Previously, she worked as a digital reporter at NBC News and now serves on the board of the South Asian Journalists Association. You can find her on Twitter:@FarnoushAmiri .

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Farnoush Amiri