Hooman Ghashghaei displays resilience, embraces Iranian roots in life in US

By Emery Summey

On the other side of a Zoom call sits Hooman (Troy) Ghashghaei, a neurobiology professor, former college soccer player and the father of my gymnastics teammate. Looking at his life today, few would guess the hardship and turmoil Ghashghaei endured to get to where he is now.

Ghashghaei grew up in Tehran, Iran, during the Iranian Revolution, which lasted from 1978 to 1979, and he permanently moved to the U.S. 36 years ago, where he created a successful life for himself, his wife, Mette, and their daughter, Tina.

Childhood defined by two cultures

Ghashghaei’s earliest memory is his family’s travels between Iran and the U.S. before the Iranian Revolution started. Ghashghaei’s grandmother lived with them and would take care of him while his parents worked and attended school. His mother worked in a burn unit in Iran as the head nurse, and his father was finishing his Ph.D. in Boston, Massachusetts. Growing up as an immigrant and balancing American and Iranian culture was a challenge, but Ghashghaei said he thrived in the U.S.

During the time his family traveled back and forth between Iran and the U.S., Ghashghaei was in primary school, and he noted the stark differences between the two countries’ school systems. He attended a Montessori school in the U.S. and noted that it was laid-back compared to his private religious school in Iran. The Montessori school allowed for considerable freedom during lessons and playtime, but at his Iranian school, the staff were strict about what students wore, how they walked, and how they learned. Ghashghaei also remembers that the level of math and science work he was assigned at his Iranian school was far more advanced than what American children were studying.

This was the largest difference that Ghashghaei noticed between the U.S. and his home country. He also recalls how every day for about a year in Iran, he and his classmates would be forced to line up outside and told to stand completely still. As the students struggled to stay still, the sharp “BANG” of a gunshot would cut through the morning air, and if any students broke formation or flinched, they were forced to stand there even longer.

Finding refuge from revolution

In Iran, Ghashghaei’s family did their best to hide the conflict from him and his brothers, and he said he didn’t feel the effects of the Iranian Revolution until a few years after the following Iran-Iraq War occurred. Ghashghaei felt privileged to live in Tehran since it was not at the forefront of the revolution, and the war between Iran and Iraq mostly occurred far from his home on the border between the two countries.

However, despite his physical distance from the conflict, he and his family were not completely safe. As a nurse, Ghashghaei’s mother treated victims of the war, and she developed severe mental health problems due to the traumatic cases she encountered. Ghashghaei, with fear in his voice, also recalls the family members who were kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and executed after a civil war broke out and the Iranian government sought to push “Western-minded and progressive” citizens out of the country.

Meanwhile, a young Ghashghaei found soccer as a way to escape from this grim reality around him. Ghashghaei recalls watching the 1978 World Cup, which was the first time the Iranian soccer team had qualified to play. After watching his country play in the World Cup, Ghashghaei was inspired to pick up soccer as his new passion, and he started practicing every day.

Challenge and triumph in new country

In 1982, Ghashghaei’s parents decided to leave Iran and permanently settle in the U.S. They lived in several different states, including Massachusetts, Texas and Connecticut.

When Ghashghaei and his family first moved to the U.S., he was afraid of embracing his culture because of the backlash he endured for being Muslim. He was subjected to hate crimes and racist comments from Americans and said he felt ashamed to be who he was.

“I never felt like I fit in with my neighbors or peers in school. I was an outcast and it hurt to feel excluded for something out of my control,” Ghashghaei said.

While trying to hide his identity, he lost touch with his Irian roots and culture. Now, as a father, Ghashghaei seeks to carry on his family’s Iranian traditions. Ghashghaei’s family celebrates Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, with traditional food, clothing and music, and he taught his daughter Farsi, the official language of Iran, at a young age. He is now proud of his roots and his ability to embrace both Iranian and American cultures.

A difficult decision Ghashghaei faced in the U.S. was where he wanted to go to college. He was offered scholarships to play college soccer in the south, but he wanted to stay up north so he could be close to his family. Ghashghaei ultimately attended Boston University, where he was a walk-on for the soccer team. He was overjoyed to have gotten everything he wished for in a college experience.

However, Ghashghaei’s sophomore year brought a devastating turn of events when he tore his ACL and was not able to return to the soccer field. During this time, his grades and his motivation to continue his studies dropped. Once he was able to come to terms with the end of his soccer career, however, he decided to continue his education and get a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Ghashghaei found his new passion working in a lab and conducting research on the brain.

After graduating with his Ph.D., Ghashghaei completed his postdoctoral research at UNC-Chapel Hill. From there, he once again had to decide between staying and working in the south or moving back up north. This time, he chose to stay in the south, where he has lived ever since and now works at N.C. State University researching and teaching biology and neuroscience. There, he works alongside his wife, who is a math professor.

Ghashghaei has been back to Iran twice since moving to the U.S. In 2004, he went by himself to visit his parents, who had moved back to Iran in the early 2000s while he and his brothers attended college, and he visited again in 2008.

Since then, there has been devastating turmoil in the country, and Ghashghaei and his family haven’t been able to return, and they believe that they never will. While he may be unable to visit Iran again, Ghashghaei has built a life for himself in the U.S. that proudly embraces his Iranian roots.

Edited by Caroline Bowers