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Coffeehouse Stories: Crossing borders in Gaithersburg

“I came to the United States to pee on the ground, and then leave,” Mike Milano says, slamming his cup on the table and nearly spilling his latte.

He’s joking. Almost.

Who is this guy immersed in a book of Persian poetry at this coffee shop in a pristine strip mall in Gaithersburg? How does he feel about his adopted country?

Hard to know.

Start with his name. It’s not really Mike Milano. Try Mohammed Azami, a name he treats as a secret now. His boss in California made him change it after a customer asked him, upon introduction, “What are you, a terrorist?"

His profession? Real estate appraiser--that is, if there was something to appraise. The lousy economy took care of that.

So he’s spending the morning at a Starbucks, handing over a business card that includes only an altered name and a useless job title.

But where is he from? How did he get here?

“I’m from heaven," he says. "You don’t believe me? Do you know what that means--heaven?”
He furrows his brow. He squints his eyes. He tires of his own riddles.

“It was the middle of the night," he says. "We were on donkeys, crossing the border into Turkey.”

How he ended up in Gaithersburg starts a world away: He was a millionaire civil engineer at the time, fleeing from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after the country’s 1979 upheaval. “Our lives were beautiful," he says. "We were rich. Then came the United States. Then came Jimmy Carter. They kicked out the Shah and gave Ayatollah Khomeini whatever he wanted. That’s how the terror started.”

That terror set Azami, his wife and three children on a three-day journey to eastern Turkey. The family was spotted near a mountain pass and ran headlong into a dense herd of sheep. They managed to hide there for the better part of a night.

A month later, he woke up in California with nothing. He spent years trying to make use of his Iranian PhD, which meant far less in the U.S. than it did back home.

His three children are professionals now, with jobs that would make any immigrant beam. “But for them, Iran could never be home,” he says. “If they went, they would only be tourists.” As for his five grandchildren, he says, “The only thing Iranian about them is their last name.”

Azami, that is. Not Milano.

Over the last 20 years, Gaithersburg has attracted thousands of new residents whose stories sound like Azami’s. Once a rural outpost, the city has become a destination for immigrants escaping violence at home.

Across from Azami at the Starbucks was a man who had escaped the conflict in Kashmir in 1994. Another customer left Iraq in 2005. But here they all were, a mile from the Montgomery County fairgrounds, listening as Sam Cooke wafted from overhead speakers, singing of the moonlight and Vermont.

Azami’s story isn’t quite an expression of the American dream. He has written letters to every president since Jimmy Carter to express a single sentiment: It’s because of U.S. foreign policy that I’m still here. "It’s because of you and your predecessors that I haven’t seen my brother in 30 years,” he wrote. “Because of you that I missed my parents' funeral.”

The last response came from George W. Bush. Azami recites the president's words: “We appreciate your letter, but there’s nothing we can do.”

And that brings Azami to the joke that’s not entirely a joke. "I came to this country just to pee. To pee on a wall. To pee on the street.” He repeats the joke twice, beginning to smile. “That was thirty years ago.”

By Kevin Sieff  | July 28, 2010; 6:31 PM ET
Categories:  Local Life, coffee house newsroom  
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Next: Coffeehouse Stories: An awakening in Arlington


I found this totally amazing: there is a "pristine strip mall in Gaithersburg." Wow!

Posted by: CubsFan | July 29, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

i find the author skimmed over the part that really jumped out at me personally. mr. azami's employer in california MADE him change his name because of a racist and idiotic remark?!?! i would love to know who the employer is, and how many others he/she has 'made' do things against their will using the threat of losing their job...

Posted by: postreader55 | July 30, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

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