Senior Profile/A Cultural Touch: Pitt's Parvaneh Ahamussa Torkamani Aims to Create Sanctuary for Homeless Iranian Women in the United States

Issue Date: 
May 1, 2011
Parvaneh Aghamussa TorkamaniParvaneh Aghamussa Torkamani

Parvaneh Aghamussa Torkamani (A&S ’88) enrolled in the graduate program of Pitt’s School of Social Work with the goal of opening a shelter for homeless Iranian women. Graduating today with her master’s degree, Torkamani is one step closer to making that dream a reality thanks to her Pitt education.

Born in 1963 in Tehran, Iran, Torkamani said she enjoyed a peaceful childhood, surrounded by family and friends. However, peace gradually gave way to chaos in the years leading up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. By age 14, Torkamani became increasingly aware of the gravity of her country’s political situation: Iran was heading toward civil war as strong opposition to the nation’s monarchy gained momentum.

Torkamani remembers participating in her library’s modern poetry readings during this time. Older teens would give her and her friend controversial literature about the revolution. While her friend’s mother would take the literature away from her friend, Torkamani read the literature and became familiar with revolutionary thought. The literature focused on the plight of the poor, the ruling class’ exploitation of power, and the country’s wealth that led to a lack of resources and inequality for many. Torkamani developed extreme sensitivity towards these issues.

“It was very dangerous to be speaking out or thinking differently during the Shah’s time,” says Torkamani. “It is worse now. But during that time, they would search your house—and if they found banned literature, they would take you to prison.

“You would see graffiti on the walls one or two years before the revolution, encouraging people to resist and do something,” she adds.

It wasn’t long before the strikes and daily blackouts began. Soon people were pouring into the streets by the millions. Zhaleh Square, the main hub of the revolution, was located directly behind Torkamani’s house. “Lots of people were killed on that square,” she says.

Following the Shah’s departure from Iran in January 1979, Torkamani’s mother passed away from chronic bronchitis complications. Torkamani then began a life journey that took her to Los Angeles and Germany, allowing her to become fluent in both English and German. She was fortunate to connect with an established Iranian community in L.A., but despite having good friends and good grades as she finished high school in L.A., she struggled with homesickness and bouts of depression. Her father passed away in Iran in 1982 while she was living in Germany, and because Torkamani had siblings living in the U.S., she was able to obtain a U.S. visa from the consulate in Munich in 1983. She had friends living in Pittsburgh, so she chose to enroll at Pitt.

After receiving her bachelor’s degrees in English and philosophy in 1988, she spent time in Washington, D.C., and in New York City, where she was involved with poetry circles and the theater. Torkamani met homeless Iranian women in both of these large cities—leading her to believe there were many others like them in need of help.

“Iranian women require culture-specific help—help from people who understand them,” says Torkamani. “There are American social services that can help [them], but some things would be lacking.”

Torkamani explained that women who became homeless abroad were likely oppressed by their brothers, fathers, and husbands, who encourage them to stick to, their roles as housewives. For that reason, many homeless Iranian women may lack the ambition that most people would expect of American women—and thus require “a different kind of help,” she says.

“I started having a vision of setting up a shelter for these women that would be a holistic type of place—to teach them English; to help them stay with their kids and family, keep their family together, and develop self-esteem; to help them recognize that there are opportunities here that they can take advantage of; and to help them achieve those ambitions and eventually become independent.”

Torkamani explained that ideally, her vision would not be a short-term shelter. “This would be a place where some of these women would need to stay for long periods of time—because the process of self-realization for these women with such backgrounds of oppression and lack of encouragement is not a quick process,” she says. “It takes years.”

Torkamani returned to Pittsburgh in 1992 and again suffered from several episodes of debilitating depression. Once she recovered, she said, it was time to pursue her dream.

“I needed to know the ropes,” she says. “I realized that I had no idea where to begin. That’s when I decided I would pursue my graduate degree in social work at the University of Pittsburgh.”

Now that she is graduating with her MSW, her next step is to work at a nonprofit for two years to gain more experience with issues surrounding homelessness. In the meantime, she will begin the process of establishing her own nonprofit.

Torkamani says she would like to pursue a PhD to enable her to teach one day.

“I have gotten so much encouragement at Pitt from my professors, who recognized my talents and encouraged me in a direction,” she says. “Whether it was writing, philosophy, or social work—if it wasn’t for the positive ways that these professors approached me, I wouldn’t have gained the kind of confidence that I have in my academic career at this moment.”