Wrestling Into America: The Heroic Story Of Reza Abedi
The story of Reza Abedi is about a man who bravely escaped his home country Iran while training and competing as
The story of Reza Abedi is about a man who bravely escaped his home country Iran while training and competing as an elite wrestler. He bravely made it to America during the revolution and later his family as well. The famed wrestler was kind enough to share with CELEB the vulnerable parts of his story and the challenges he and his family faced in their efforts to become free.
Kristin Orloff‘s book, “American Wings Iranian Roots”, tells the story of Abedi’s escape from Iran alongside her learning about it herself, as an American. “My book is the book written by an American and it includes the American journey within the Iranian journey,” she told CELEB.
“When I wrote the book, I write one first-person chapter of me and it’s about a page in a half maybe two pages. And then I do two chapters of Reza’s story in third-person in the past. And then a couple of pages of me, first-person present tense. And then a couple of chapters of Reza.”
Abedi is one of ten children. And, when he decided that he was going to use wrestling as his way out of Iran, he kept it a secret from all of his siblings as well as both of his parents. “I only told my aunt about my plan. I didn’t tell anything to my mom, and obviously, that was the last time I saw her. I didn’t tell anything to my mom, my siblings, nobody. Nobody knew except my aunt,” said Abedi.
Abedi had joined Iran’s Air Force and his plan was to make their wrestling team to then escape while traveling for the world championship competition. He shared, “After the revolution everything was very expensive and it was really hard to leave the country. I mean, I was young. I didn’t know what to do. So I’m like, the only way I can get out is somehow with these guys. So, if they can buy my ticket and take me out then they do almost all the work. I’m just gonna not go back.”
He explained that his aunt was excited for him in the sense that there was nothing left in Iran for him, “What are you gonna do there? You either have to put your head down and just do what they want you to do. Or, if you say something, they’re going to arrest you and all that. So really there was nothing for me there. So that was the best thing for me,” said Abedi.
His escape was the last time he saw his mom but he was reunited with his dad and siblings later in time.
Abedi found out about his youngest brother, Hooshang, being placed in jail in Iran at the age of 12/13 while he was away for competition. “They said that he was helping the opposition. They stormed in and raided our house,” Abedi told CELEB. “Imagine what they do here but 10 times worse. Because over there they don’t really think about your rights. They just tore everything apart,” he added.
Hooshang spent about a year and a half in an Iranian jail and was later snuck to Pakistan by his family where he got caught with false paperwork. He was in jail over there for six months which Abedi explained was even worse. Luckily, the brothers look almost identical, and Abedi’s older brother was able to give their younger brother his passport so he could escape to Sweden. Abedi shared, “When he was on the airplane he tore the passport, flushed it down the toilet and when he got to the airport he said ‘I don’t have anything. I want to be a refugee.’ So right there they accepted him because they couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t send him anywhere. So he stayed there for a few years.”
In 1987 Hooshang traveled to the United States to visit him. Abedi shared the news with his mom who shared the excitement with him, but, shortly after, she passed away, and that was the last time he talked to her. “When that happened I said, ‘You’re not gonna go back [to Sweden] you’re gonna stay here.'”
His younger brother got his green card by “marrying” Abedi’s girlfriend at the time in Las Vegas because according to a lawyer, that was the best, easiest, and cheapest way. After 8 months they divorced and he was able to stay in America after that.
Trekking To Freedom
Unfortunately, the life of his family became miserable back in Iran after the flee of Abedi and his younger brother. Naturally, this forced his family to have to leave Iran as well and find their way to a better life. With the help of smugglers and Abedi, they made their way to Belgium first.
Following some troubles Reza had to travel back to Europe to help out his father and sisters. This was a time when Abedi’s fame for wrestling saved him. He had been caught trying to smuggle his family and was placed on hold behind bars for what was supposed to be the weekend. It was at this moment that he could have been locked out of America for good but, the universe worked its magic and saved him with a crazy coincidence.
“When the shift changed, a guy came over, another officer, who was a wrestler,” said Abedi.
“He looked at me and we talked about wrestling, he goes, ‘Why are you here?’ I kind of explained it to him and he goes ‘Pfft, this is none of our business.’ He tore everything, he threw it away, he gave me the key for the car, he gave me my passport and he said, ‘Just go.'” Abedi explained to CELEB, “Because we had common interests. And then we talked about a few very well-known wrestlers that I knew and U.S. wrestlers and the guy loved those guys. The guy goes ‘You know what, this is nonsense, just go.'”
Abedi continued the journey to save his family which involved sneaking them out of the refugee camp and trekking in the cold snow with his dad, who was old and sick at the time, and his three sisters, one of who had a broken foot. The five of them attempted to make their way to the car together but for the sake of time and survival, Abedi chose to have them wait while he continues his way to the car. “I said ‘ok guys, you guys are gonna sit here. I have one hundred franks.’ Hundred Franks was maybe like 80 dollars USD. I said, ‘Here’s one hundred Franks. If I don’t get back in hour, hour and half you guys walk down, there is a train station there, buy your tickets and just go to Frankfort.’ I said, ‘Here’s a phone number. call our friends.'”
Abedi fought his way through the obstacles of the weather and made it to his car about 45 to 50 minutes later. He drove through the Austrian border, German border, and then to the village where his family was waiting. “I picked them up and put them in the car and I said, ‘Ok guys, just lay low. There’s some nose people. I had an empty car and now I have a car full of people so they’re gonna call the police so just lay low.'”
The five drove to Frankfort and checked into a hotel where they were able to relax, get warm, shower, and have breakfast. After this, they made their way to Holland with no money. Abedi shared, “I ended up taking them all the way to Belgium and then I called my sister, she’s like four years older than me. I called her up and her husband and she came and picked us up. I paid 50 dollars and literally two days later I came back to LA and I’m back at school literally on Tuesday.”
Reza Abedi Gains His American Wings
“In 1989 I became a citizen,” Abedi told CELEB.
We asked Abedi one final question, “Now, looking back on it all, how would you say it shaped you and the life you created for yourself here in America?”
Abedi responded, “I often think about this. Because, I think about it, ‘What if I had gone back? I could’ve been a world champion at least a few times. Possibly an Olympic champion. But when I think about the things that I have gained…. So, if you look at it. Of course, I could’ve done that but a personal life? No. I would have probably gotten married and had kids and that’s it. But I have done so much so since I left, you know, for myself, professionally, I mean, any way you look at it, my life has been amazing. I coach all these years, many kids, I have a good life, I can’t complain. I’m gonna retire with a good retirement. And, you know, I have been traveling everywhere and I’ve gotten to know so many people. And, my experiences helped me to be who I am and what I am. So, I think that it really had a huge impact on my life, in a good way.”
“I’m free,” says Abedi. “I can do so much, I’ve done so much. I have two great kids and so, I can’t complain.”
Abedi has been coaching wrestling in California for 39 years now. His story has truly resonated with us at CELEB and this is only one out of the many who escaped Iran.
“American Wings Iranian Roots” is available here.