A journey to freedom

Mahshid Hager

A journey to freedom

By Ashley Shah

The year was 1981, post-revolution Iran, a time of uncertainty for many in which more than 2 million people fled the country in search of a better life. 

Mahshid Hager, a resident of Scripps Ranch, recounts her experience as a young girl confused by the conflicts in her country, Iran, in the play “No Way Back.” 

“No Way Back,” released on Nov. 14 for online streaming, is a solo show performed by Jessica John and directed by Fran Gercke, presented by The Roustabouts Theatre Company. 

The play begins with Hager as early as five-years old describing her thoughts and conversations as she grows older and watches her life in Iran fall apart. 

She quickly takes the audience back to a happier time in life before the revolution and war with Iraq prior to bringing us along on the brutal and painful journey from Iran to Turkey and then finally Germany.

“Once we arrived in Germany, we didn’t have time to process and we were still in survival mode. We were trying to build a new life and establish ourselves,” Mahshid Hager said. “We didn’t have time to talk about the journey and that’s how trauma works because you’re still in survival mode and you don’t have time to process.”

Hager stayed in Germany from 1981 to 1991. She came to the United States in December 1991 on a student visa. After completing her undergraduate and graduate degrees in America, she became a therapist. In 2009, Hager began training in somatic experiencing therapy. 

Somatic experiencing therapy is a body based, naturalistic approach to healing trauma. 

“I was in training and it all just came back to me. I had tried writing about my experience in years prior, but my language would just fail me and I would get flooded with emotion, so I never finished it,” Hager said. 

In 2016, Hager began trying again to recount her journey out of Iran. 

“I really wanted to share my experiences because I thought it would be helpful for those suffering with mental illness or (for) other refugees. For the first time, the story just flowed on its own. It was five pages long and in a poem format. I was surprised because this time it was so raw and emotional,” Hager said.

After showing the piece to her friend, Marni Freedman, part of San Diego Writers Ink., she submitted it into a contest in 2017 called “Memoir Showcase.”

“That was the first time that I had ever published my story. There were 10 finalists and I ended up being one. I got a lot of positive feedback on the piece,” Hager said. 

Phil Johnson of Roustabouts Theatre noticed Hager’s piece in 2017. He approached her with the idea of making it into a solo show, and she accepted. 

“I had to learn how to be a playwright. It took about a year, but by 2018, I entered it in the Roustabouts solo show contest and won first place,” Hager said. 

In 2019, Johnson asked Hager to revisit the piece and expand it. The play was set to be performed in full in September this year.

“At the beginning of this year, when the pandemic hit, I thought that it would be over. However, in summer Phil contacted me and told me he had a director and actress set up. It just felt right at that point to hand it off so it could be performed,” Hager said.

The play spans about an hour and is performed solely by Jessica John. 

“It’s uncanny how good Jessica is at using different mannerisms and language. She never misses a beat. She performs it through my eyes, but she plays all the parts that include my mother, father and more,” Hager said. 

Hager explained the main purpose of publicizing her story. 

“I think there is a huge misconception about refugees. We have this image of them in our heads, but we have to understand that these people don’t just leave their homes because the grass is greener on the other side. There are circumstances that are just so bad that they are forced to leave their home,” Hager said. “Most refugees are really leaving everything behind that includes their family, lifestyle, assets and more. How we receive these people really matters because it will determine if these people will eventually become productive members of society.” 

If more opportunities arise, Hager would be open to expand on this story. 

“This piece had really taken a life of its own. It was just supposed to be a short story, but I am grateful with all that’s happened. I would love to do more with the piece if I can,” Hager said. 

She is currently working on a memoir that will include this piece. 

“My biggest inspiration are refugees and the millions of young children who are not able to live their lives in their homes. This story has really shown me how impactful it is to share these experiences,” Hager said. 

The show has been extended through Dec. 20. Tickets to stream “No Way Back” can be found at theroustabouts.org/nowayback.

Jessica John as “Young Mahshid” (courtesy of Mahshid Hager)

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