By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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We left before they told us to evacuate. I saw the smoke over the hills, knew the ferocity of the Santa Ana winds, and figured it wouldn’t be long before the fire would reach us. I packed a small suitcase. A change of clothes for my husband and me and two for each child. Bathing suits, in case we decided to go to the beach. The essential toiletries. A flat iron. The dog’s harness and leash. I packed without much thought, as if detached from the experience. We loaded that small suitcase into the car and told the girls we were going to have dinner in Santa Monica. It was a treat, a special outing. Then, we thought, if things were OK, we would drive back home. And if not, we’d drive south and stay in a hotel on the beach. A little vacation, we told the kids. Don’t worry about school.
I drove the canyon road down to the beach because it was farther from the flames. A couple of years earlier I had seen video of a wildfire on a highway, with stranded motorists fleeing burning cars. I drove through those mountains toward the Pacific and imagined what it would look like if the road caught fire as I was driving. Weeks later I’d come back to find the canyon burned completely, the ancient oak trees gone, the mountains charred black, buildings destroyed, cars melted on the roadside. But that day at dusk, as I drove out of town with the windows down, the mountains smelled like sage.
It wasn’t long before our phones began buzzing with texts from family members about mandatory evacuations. My mother, my sister and her family, my aunt, my ninety-six-year-old grandmother, my cousin. We all lived within a few blocks of one another. We had landed in that suburb of Los Angeles after we’d emigrated from Iran decades ago. My sister and her husband and their little boy escaped as embers were flying by on the wind. My mother and my aunt loaded their elderly mother into the car while the flames surrounded their neighborhood. We all went in different directions that first night and stayed in whatever hotels had vacancies.
I stopped watching the news. Every time I did, I recognized the place that was burning. I knew those hills. The house across from the preschool my children had attended. The church on the corner. The ranch where we went for the Banjo and Fiddle Festival each May. It was all in flames. I had seen other California towns burn on TV, read of the devastation, and worried that one day it would find my town. And now we were running.
We ended up in San Diego, where we rented a house and made the best of it, though my husband and I were terrified of what we would go back to. What if our home had burned? What if we lost everything? And even if the house was still standing, and the street and the school, what about next year, when the fires could return? My mother, my sister, and the rest of my relatives, we were all in purgatory, waiting at the edge of an inferno.
To lighten the mood, we joked about what we’d brought with us. My mother berated me for not packing the computers. My brother-in-law had taken a couple of random works of art from his walls and later wondered, Why those? I thought, with anguish, about the irreplaceable collection of books I had been gathering to research a novel I was writing: ten years of searching for out-of-print books, little-known essays, and letters from a century ago. I didn’t even know all their titles. I had no catalogue. All that work would be lost. My nine-year-old daughter said, if she could save anything from our home, she wanted her drawings. My six-year-old wished she had brought her stuffed bunny. We’d left him behind on her bed. She said he would be frightened of the fire, all alone.
I knew this feeling. My family escaped from Iran when I was her age, fleeing a different kind of fire, the Iran-Iraq War. We left with a single suitcase. My parents told me we were going on vacation. They smiled and hid their fears, their sorrow. I was allowed to have two dolls. My mother insisted I bring a doll an aunt had given me. She had golden hair, a velvet dress, and a fine porcelain face. I didn’t like that doll very much. In fact, it terrified me. But it was valuable, and I was an obedient child. I got to choose the second doll, a gray monkey in a blue vest with a little red fez on his head. He had been a gift from my nanny, the woman who’d raised me while my mother was at work.
We moved from hotel to hotel in Europe for a while. One day we had to leave even that single suitcase behind. We wore clothes on top of clothes. My mother told me I could have just one doll from now on. I picked the monkey. Not that one, she said. The other, the valuable one with the golden hair. We were staying at the home of a young man who was helping my parents in some way. I stood on his foyer steps, weeping. I wanted to take my monkey. I was six years old. My parents were anxious. We had to leave quickly. They did not have time for a child’s tears. The young man knelt and gently took the monkey from my hand. There was a tremendous wooden armoire in that foyer, and he said to me, I will put him in here, to keep him safe until you return. He opened the door to that cavernous armoire and placed my monkey inside. I knew he was lying. We would never return. I imagined the darkness of that closet as though it were me in there, confined, alone, waiting.
Our California home did not burn. We were among the lucky ones who came back a couple of weeks later to find everything as we’d left it, save for the smell of smoke that still lingers after a rain and makes me feel as though I am suffocating. I now keep a suitcase in the trunk of my car, already filled with essentials. My daughters talk at dinner about what they will grab if we must run again.
What would you choose to carry if you had to leave your home behind? Items of necessity, certainly, but other things, too. Perhaps a book of poems that belonged to a great-grandfather. Wedding portraits, sepia toned and fading. Handwritten letters. A sweater that might, if you placed it close to your face, carry the scent of a deceased loved one. A tattered doll you loved as a child. Smooth pebbles your own children collected on a trip to the seashore. Their small handprints in clay, a Mother’s Day gift. Or perhaps none of that. When you are escaping, when you must fit life into a single suitcase, when the threat is imminent, you would be surprised by what you take with you.
Those days of our displacement in San Diego were strange ones. The news showed our town burning, and the fire in the town of Paradise, too, fiercer and even more terrifying. And there was talk of a caravan of people approaching this country’s southern border, walking toward the very city where we waited to learn if we could return home. They, too, were fleeing for their lives, looking for safety. What do you carry, I wondered, if you must walk thousands of miles? When even a single suitcase is too heavy? Which photograph do you place in your pocket? Which doll do you allow your child to keep?
Parnaz Foroutan’s story of how she escaped the Iran-Iraq War [“A Single Suitcase,” July 2019] brought back memories of my own family’s escape from communist Hungary in 1956.
We, too, hurriedly packed one suitcase and slipped out of our house at dawn. I was twelve and my sister was eight. We were walking — and silently crying — in the forest between Hungary and Austria with a group of strangers when we heard shouting and gunshots. The Russians were following us.
We left the suitcase on the forest floor and ran, in our one pair of shoes and our three layers of clothes, to what we hoped would be safety. We were lost in the dense forest when we saw an old lady gathering firewood in her apron. She motioned for us to follow her.
After we arrived at a small Austrian town, she vanished. No one knew who she was. My mother was convinced she was an angel sent to lead us out of oppression.
Three months later we landed in New York and began new lives.