FORT WAYNE – Life began as a bumpy road for Golnaz Afarin Mathews, even before she was born.
Mathews’ mother, Banoo Namirian, later told her daughter that because she already had five sons, she had visited a doctor and considered getting rid of the pregnancy but decided otherwise.
I don’t know why she changed her mind, but that – my birth 54 years ago – was the first of a lifetime of miracles, Mathews said.
Born in India to Iranian parents, Mathews lives with her husband, Charles Chuck Mathews, and two teenage sons in a quiet, well-groomed neighborhood on Fort Wayne’s east side.
Golnaz Mathews works part time at Kohl’s department store, while her husband works for North Eastern Group Realty. Younger son Jarrod, 17, is a student at Blackhawk Christian High School while Justin, 19, is a student at IPFW.
Both are straight-A students, both volunteer in local hospital emergency rooms and both plan to become doctors, Mathews said with obvious pride.
Mathews had planned to become a doctor, too, but life dealt her another hand.
She has a daughter whom she met only once who lives on the other side of the world. Although Mathews longs to see her again, she is resigned to the fact that it may never happen.
Mathews’ parents were born and raised in Iran. Because of considerable unrest in the country, Mathews’ father, Behram Afarin, fled the country with his wife and sons and moved to Bombay, now known as Mumbai, India, before Mathews was born.
Mathews was born and raised in Mumbai and liked India well enough, but even as a small child, she always dreamed of visiting America.
The journey begins
When she was about 5 years old, Mathews and a brother ventured to a street fair just down the road from their home.
Amid a throng of people, a stranger suddenly grabbed the little girl and carried her away.
Although she does not remember many details, Mathews recalls the kidnapper kept her at a site that was near a tunnel train track.
I remember hearing the train’s whistle as it went through the tunnel, she said.
She also remembers repeatedly begging the man not to hurt or kill her.
Even at that young age, she was aware of the common practice in India of kidnapping children for the purpose of begging. The children were often maimed, blinded or had their arms or legs amputated so they would be pitied and therefore, more profitable, Mathews said.
Inexplicably, the man decided to return Mathews to her parents two days later.
I had no water or food for two days and was dehydrated but otherwise OK, Mathews said.
The family practiced the religion of Zoroastrianism, founded some time before the sixth century in the eastern part of ancient greater Iran, but Mathews’ mother also followed Christianity, her daughter said.
Her mother attended a nearby Catholic church every Wednesday. When her daughter was kidnapped, she prayed special devotions throughout the days and nights and ramped up her visits to the church, Mathews said.
We all knew it was a miracle and the result of my mother’s prayers that I was returned, Mathews said.
Mathews graduated from St. Anne’s High School, housed in a Catholic convent in Mumbai, in 1974. Although her parents were illiterate and never learned to speak English, they were adamant that their children were educated.
Mathews went on to attain a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology and English from Siddharth College in Mumbai.
Her parents had arranged for her to marry a man of their choosing, and since it was the custom, Mathews obediently complied. She knew the night of her wedding that it had been a mistake.
He slapped me across the face, she said. All I could think was, What did I do to deserve this?’
That was only the beginning. He isolated Mathews, not allowing her to see any of her friends or family. He repeatedly beat and raped her, she said.
When she became pregnant with his child, he battered her until she vomited blood. He accused her of being unfaithful and carrying another man’s child.
Her parents knew of the situation and felt bad but could do nothing, Mathews said.
Husbands take priority over parents, she said.
On Aug. 31, 1980, at age 22, Mathews gave birth to a baby girl she named Gugush, after a famous Iranian singer.
She never saw her baby. Her husband came into the hospital room and told her the infant had been stillborn.
Her sadness was overwhelming, and her life continued on the same path of terror, abuse and anxiety.
In 1982, Mathews and her mother hatched a plan to run away to America, where four of her brothers were already living. Mathews and her mother fled and went to live with a brother living in Fort Wayne. Her father would later join them.
She did not tell her brother why she was there without her husband or about the baby who had died.
He was of that conservative mindset, she said. I could not tell him.
She managed to enroll in a few classes at IPFW, which is where she caught the eye of her second husband. He was also going to school while working at Kroger.
I had seen her at IPFW and then I would see her when she came into the store to buy things, Chuck Mathews said.
Through a cousin in India, Golnaz Mathews learned that her first husband had taken a female whom he claimed to be Golnaz to the courthouse in Mumbai and demanded a divorce because she had changed religions, a justified reason in India.
Golnaz and Chuck Mathews were eventually married, but she did not move in with him for two years.
I was terrified to tell my family, especially my brothers, that I was married, she said. It was very frustrating for both of us.
When they eventually began living under the same roof, Golnaz Mathews was tense.
I was always ready, especially if we differed on something or argued, she said. I would prepare myself mentally to get beat up, she said.
She did not tell her husband of her past, and he did not ask.
I thought if there was anything I needed to know, she would tell me, Chuck Mathews said.
Years later in 2001, Golnaz Mathews applied for and received American citizenship, wanting to prove a point to those who accused her of marrying to obtain a green card.
Two years later, a cousin called from Mumbai.
Remember your daughter that you were told died in childbirth? She is very much alive, the cousin told a stunned Mathews.
Gugush wanted to visit her mother in the United States.
At first I thought it might have been a joke, Mathews said. Then it hit me. I had finally settled down and quit being afraid, and now this. All I could think was, how in the world would I explain this to Charles?
But she knew she had to.
As a mother, I wanted desperately to see her, Mathews said.
Her husband was shocked but was prepared to welcome the young woman into his home.
Someone gave Mathews the contact information for U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh. Once he got involved, things started happening, she said.
In December 2003, after many letters, phone calls and a DNA test to prove maternity, she met the girl she thought had died 23 years earlier.
Gugush stayed three months, and then one day, after talking to her father on the phone, Mathews said, her daughter packed up and left abruptly, heading back to India.
Mathews has not heard from her since.
Mathews is no stranger to racial profiling. It started Sept. 11, 2001, and continues to this day.
She was working as a manager at a fast food restaurant on Spy Run on that infamous September day. It was busy, and she had no idea of the terrible tragedies unfolding in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
As Mathews walked by the counter, a man threw a cup of coffee in her face and yelled, It’s all your fault!
It was no use to tell him she was an American citizen and her ancestry was Iranian. He was gone.
That’s how I found out about 9/11, she said.
A newscaster heard what happened to Mathews and interviewed her on television. The newscast prompted an outpouring of support for Mathews, who received many cards and letters, particularly from students in and around New Haven and her neighborhood.
Mathews, who speaks six languages and has a degree in English, still encounters strangers who tell her to learn to speak English or to go back to the country you came from.
She produced an anonymous note written as recently as Nov. 7 that was dropped off to one of her supervisors: The manager was nasty and did not understand English. She needs to go back where she came from, the note said.
It happens all the time, she said. It’s so frustrating.
Her husband has witnessed the hurt inflicted on his wife because of her ethnicity.
It bothers her a lot, he said. I try to tell her there are always going to be those kinds of people who are biased toward anyone who is different from themselves.
I explain we are all immigrants and came from another country, and I try to get her to let it go and not to hold everyone accountable for the wrongdoings of a few. Of course, it’s easier for me to say that, since I’m not experiencing it.
Fortunately, their sons, who look a lot like their mother, have not run into that kind of prejudice, he said.
This is a new generation who has grown up with diversity, and there does not seem to be an issue at all, he said.
Mathews’ parents and three brothers have died. The remaining brothers live in Florida and Iran. She has relatives in India and Iran whom she keeps in touch with. She has visited India with her sons but is afraid to visit Iran.
It’s hard for her brother who lives in Iran, as well as his wife and son and daughter, because they are non-Muslims, Mathews said.
I would like to visit, but I am married to an American and have my citizenship. I have no idea what they would do to me, she said.
Every year at Christmas, Mathews places a glass angel ornament on the Christmas tree – a gift from Gugush – and hopes her daughter will call.
I know she may never call, Mathews said sadly.
But Mathews is a survivor who fervently believes in miracles.
I’m proof, she said. I’m still standing strong.