On November 9, 2016, an Iranian man arrived in the United States on his search for freedom, only to be welcomed by the sight of tens of thousands of Americans exercising their freedom of speech and assembly in protest of the results of the presidential election from the day before.
William Mehrvarz, 26, had just fled for his life from his home country of Iran when his Muslim family found out he planned to convert to Judaism.
In an interview with The Daily Wire, Mehrvarz recounted his journey — one that is far from over.
At 13 years old, Mehrvarz obtained a Farsi Bible from a Christian friend at summer camp and was immediately drawn to the Old Testament.
“It was something I’ve never seen before, and as a Muslim, it’s forbidden to read holy books for other religions,” he said. “I was fascinated by the Old Testament… it really resonated to me while Islam did not make sense to me.”
When Mehrvarz told his dad about his “new discovery,” his dad, a lawyer, immediately dissuaded him and told Mehrvarz about the penalties for his actions.
As a senior in high school, Mehrvarz became part of the “Green Revolution,” a movement that protested the results of an Iranian presidential election in 2009 in which a moderate candidate was defeated.
“I saw with my own eyes, the Green Revolution fail,” he said. “I invested so much emotionally and I also participated in the protests. I saw people getting shot. I cried from tear gas attacks. And it was terrifying.”
Mehrvarz told Yeshiva University’s school paper, the Commentator, that this put him into a state of depression. He then started exploring his passion for Judaism and became a vegetarian to avoid non-Kosher meat.
“Judaism started with Abraham arguing with God,” Mehrvarz claimed. “Every Jew argues with himself or herself. The idea of questioning is a core value. There is Jewish ideology that says if you have a question ask, I’ll answer you if I can and if I can’t, we can sit down together to try to find an answer."
Mehrvarz later married a woman from a deeply religious, Muslim family who also had a secret: She was not religious. She kept his practice of Judaism a secret, he kept her lack of religious observance a secret, and they initially had a happy marriage. But after his wife had a miscarriage, the marriage fell apart. She asked for a divorce, and they planned to discuss the logistics after his sister-in-law's wedding.
But while they were in Mehrvarz’s in-laws’ apartment preparing for the wedding, he and his ex-wife got into an argument and she blurted out his secret.
“I never expected her to say it,” Mehrvarz said. “But she did.”
Mehrvarz said his ex-sister-in-law called him a “filthy Jew” but said it was a relief.
“Someone saw something in me — that I’m a Jew — it was an acknowledgment but then I realized what that acknowledgment meant — the death penalty.”
His in-laws locked him in a room and called his parents. As soon as his parents arrived, he dashed out the door and into his car, drove to his apartment to pack a suitcase, and fled on a bus to Armenia. In his suitcase he had clothes, a kippah, a prayer book, and a Hanukkah menorah.
“I was terrified, I was empty,” Mehrvarz said. “I had no clue what would happen.”
Luckily, he had several friends through an international organization to which he once belonged. They let him stay with them until he was able to travel to the country of Georgia and apply for a U.S. tourist visa. He applied for asylum shortly after arriving in New York.
When Mehrvarz first entered the U.S., he was able to stay with a friend he had met on CouchSurfing.com while traveling with his former international organization. After two months, he felt he had to move on and went to live in a homeless shelter until a couple from his new synagogue opened their home to him. He began conversion classes and was accepted at Columbia University.
After a couple of months at Columbia, however, Mehrvarz dropped out due to the high cost. He is now a political science major at Yeshiva University (YU) in New York City. Although Mehrvarz said he was upset about leaving a school with such a “fancy name,” Yeshiva University has been a perfect fit for him due to political diversity.
“YU is this giant orthodox community, and unlike Columbia, there is a whole spectrum of political opinion on campus,” Mehrvarz said. “I understand that it was not good or healthy for me to be on Columbia's campus.”
Mehrvarz claimed he questions why he paid tuition to a school “that has so much trouble hosting American conservatives yet welcomed a former president of Iran,” referring to the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was invited to speak to the school by Columbia University’s president n 2007.
At the event, Ahmadinejad questioned whether the Holocaust happened and denied that there were any gay citizens in Iran.
Mehrvarz says Ahmadinejad has the blood of “liberal Iranians, moderate Muslims, feminists, the homosexuals he insisted do not exist in Iran, students who marched in the streets in favor of free and open elections, and so many more decent, innocent people on his hands, wrists, arms, and beyond.”
“Columbia University is very left,” Mehrvarz added. “I was basically the wrong kind of refugee for people to be interested in. I come from a decent upper-middle-class family in Iran. My father taught me to wear a suit and comb my hair. I always try to look presentable. Some students at Columbia’s campus seemed disappointed I didn’t try to escape starving or bombing, though starving is a concern in Iran now.”
He said one of the things that most surprised him was the difference between Republicans and Democrats.
“In Iran, the government and media don’t really distinguish morally or politically between American Republicans and American Democrats: All are agents of Big Satan, looking to destroy Iran and Islam,” Mehrvarz said.
But after being in the U.S. for two years, Mehrvarz said he considers himself a conservative. He said he appreciates being exposed to diverse people in New York, but was surprised by the rhetoric from leftists.
“There is a lack of nuance in U.S. politics,” Mehrvarz said. “I am adjusting to a climate where people think white power or white supremacy is the most terrifying thing and while I understand the fear people may have about white supremacy, it does nothing to negate my anxiety about radical Muslim power as someone who would face the death penalty if I was deported back to Iran.”
When I asked him what “conservatism” meant to him, Mehrvarz emphasized he would only label himself “conservative” in the U.S., but in Iran, he would call himself a “radical progressive.”
“My understanding of conservatism is that it means to seek to hold onto something, to preserve it,” Mehrvarz said. “ I understand that not everything in the United States is perfect or even good, but there are certain American values that are unique or close to unique from a global perspective. When I consider my political conservatism, I am thinking of things like the Bill of Rights, particularly the right to religious freedom and the right to a free press — both are rights which I did not have in Iran.”
“I'm not a big fan of tyranny, having grown up under it, and I think that holding to those rights, even when it makes us uncomfortable, prevents the rise of American Ayatollahs and similar,” he added.
When it comes to President Donald Trump, Mehrvarz said he appreciates his toughness on Iran.
“The policies I care most about, for obvious reasons, are sanctions on Iran,” he said. “A new government is the only thing that is going to help the Iranian people, in the long run. Sanctions at least stand a chance of provoking change.”
Mehrvarz said he considers himself a religious and ideological refugee.
“I was faced with a choice: either accept the values that I reject in my core or forfeit my life," he said. “That was not the story people wanted to hear.”
“I am not an ex-Muslim, I am a former Muslim because ‘ex’ has a negative connotation,” Mehrvarz told me. “But I really think that Islam and its current form is very very dangerous. Not just for the rest of the world, but for themselves.”
Although there has not been an execution in Iran for apostasy since 1990, Mehrvarz said he believes there is a strong chance he could be executed if he returned home.
“When my ex-wife sought divorce in my absence, she was able to have our marriage nullified by accusing me of apostasy,” he said. “This, in turn, opened up a case against me. It is true that Iran has not executed anyone with the state crime being officially listed as apostasy since the ’90s, but this is sheep's clothing used to appease the West. It's an established fact of Iranian culture that the government makes use of "proxy charges," executing homosexuals for "rape," political dissidents for "espionage," et cetera. And it's not as though anyone gets a fair trial.”
“We even have a term in Farsi that means something like, ‘he was suicided,’ which is to say that everyone knows that the regime is responsible for someone's death, but it was officially reported as a suicide,” Mehrvarz added.
As for his family, Mehrvarz said he does not keep in contact with them.
Mehrvarz is waiting for his asylum request to be approved.
“In the United States, there is so much good available in the political system,” he said. “Seeing what my politically active peers are capable of in local and regional politics is mind blowing, coming from a country where my politically active peers were gunned down in the streets.”