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  • Feet in Ashland, heart in Egypt

    Her adopted home in turmoil, SOU alumna wants to return to Egypt
  • While other Americans have fled the political unrest in Egypt, former Ashland resident and Southern Oregon University alumna Raya Shokatfard wants to return home to her adopted country.
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  • While other Americans have fled the political unrest in Egypt, former Ashland resident and Southern Oregon University alumna Raya Shokatfard wants to return home to her adopted country.
    Shokatfard, who has been staying in Ashland to see her 28-year-old son for the past six months, was scheduled to return to Cairo Jan. 10 but decided to extend her stay until Feb. 27, unaware of the wave of protests that would begin sweeping the country at the end of January.
    "My friends tell me, every single one, don't return," Shokatfard said. "'We want you back, but don't return. It's not safe.'"
    "I feel I will go anyway," she said. "I have adopted at least 30 sons and daughters there. I want to share their grief and happiness. I want to be a part of them now."
    The 63-year-old Iranian-American woman, along with her family, migrated to the United States 41 years ago, but the culture in the U.S. slowly eroded her family unity, she said.
    Her parents, who had been married for decades, divorced within four years of their arrival in America, and Shokatfard and all four of her siblings married, had children and divorced.
    Five years ago, Shokatfard moved to Egypt as part of an effort to dispel misconceptions about Islam and to connect with the close-knit, family-oriented society in the Middle East.
    The society in Egypt offered her a family she couldn't find in the United States, she said. Young people she's befriended there visit her weekly and call her in the United States to check up on her.
    Shokatfard was born a Muslim in her native country of Iran, but during her life in the United States, she dabbled in other religions, including a seven-year stint as a Christian.
    After a lucrative career as a Realtor, Shokatfard returned to Islam about 20 years ago.
    "Like all youth, I wanted fame and glory," she said. "I got everything I wanted. When I felt emptiness inside, I sought spiritual fulfillment."
    She explored Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity before finding peace in the religion of her birth, she said.
    The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. piqued her interest in challenging some of the ways Islam was portrayed in the media. She views Islam as a religion of peace.
    "I was giving public presentations about Islam to try to bring a better understanding of Islam to people," she said. "People were really, really receptive.
    "After 9/11, I really realized I didn't have enough communication tools and didn't know how to deal with mass media."
    So at the age of 56, Shokatfard went back to school.
    She earned a bachelor's degree in mass communication and journalism from SOU in 2005. Then she enrolled in the American University of Cairo and completed a master's degree in mass communication and journalism.
    "I wanted to go to a Muslim country, but an Arab one, so I could learn about the language and the society," she said.
    After graduation, she got a job as a contract editor of "Reading Islam," part of a larger website called islamonline.net, now called onislam.net. The goal of the website was to explain Islam to non-Muslims and new Muslim converts. She still writes freelance articles for the publication, she said.
    She resigned from the job about six months ago when she decided on an extended visit to Ashland to see her son, who is a student at SOU.
    She's working on a documentary called "Not Without My Son." The title is a play on the name of the 1991 film, "Not Without My Daughter," about an American woman trapped in Iran who kidnaps her daughter and flees the country and her Iranian-born husband after she learns he is entitled to custody in the case of divorce.
    As part of the project, she is interviewing and filming Middle Eastern families about their family values before and after immigration to North America, as well as American families about their values. The documentary also will follow her quest to reconnect her son with Islam as they travel through the Middle East and parts of Europe, where there are concentrated Muslim populations. The mother and son plan to travel to Egypt together and then visit other countries. She said the project would probably take two years to complete.
    It's still unclear whether Shokatfard will depart to Egypt on Feb. 27.
    "Every day, the situation changes," she said.
    Paris Achen is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.
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