Mapping out her Future
Sport Clips franchisee, Shahin Ebadi Urias discovered America as a land of opportunity for herself—not just her children
In her senior year of high school, Shahin Ebadi Urias ran out of options.
“We had freedom—life was like here (the U.S.),” she says. “Then overnight we had no choices.” The Shah, who had encouraged the modernization of the country, fled Iran in 1979 when the clergy began rioting. The new regime used religion to control the people. Suddenly, women had no rights. They had to cover their hair. They could no longer wear nail polish or opened-toe shoes or go out alone, she says.
Breaking the rules could mean jail—or death. “Justice was in the streets,” she explains matter-of-factly.
Shahin Ebadi Urias lived for years under a shroud of worry, constantly dodging bombs while living in a city under siege. It wasn’t until she came to America that she realized what the land of opportunity really meant.
For Urias’ family it was even more terrifying, because her father was in the military. Exactly what he did, Urias says she never really knew. But during those early transition months, her father left for work at odd hours, never in uniform and always with a driver.
Dreams of going to college were dashed, because the universities were closed. She stayed at home and continued to take care of her three younger brothers, and soon her step-siblings. “You couldn’t just move out and get a part-time job,” she points out. The rules had changed.
Urias was no stranger to hard work. After her mother died at age 32, during what should have been a simple surgery, Urias took on the role of caregiver at the young age of 10.
When they received the news about her mother, Urias remembers they were standing in the street. “We were all crying,” she says. “I grew up right then.” She cooked and baby-sat, and had to polish her father’s boots and ensure his uniform’s creases were razor sharp.
Her father remarried a short time after his wife’s death. The stepmother was just a few years older than Urias’ older sister, and wasn’t about to raise another woman’s children. It was painful, Urias admits, to see a new “mother” wearing her mother’s clothes and jewelry. And the workload didn’t decrease.
It was a modern-day Cinderella story. Urias tried to show her stepmother she was helpful, but it didn’t stop the woman from spinning tales about imaginary slights and misbehavior to Urias’ father, who would then punish her. Years later, her stepmother called to apologize. Urias says she told her she forgave her. Forgave, yes, but she’d never forget, she adds.
Life didn’t get much easier when she married in order to leave home. By then Iran was at war with Iraq and Urias’ family lived in Azerbaijan near the border of the two countries. When the bombers were so close Urias could see the pilots’ faces as they flew over her backyard, her husband moved the family to the countryside, where they had family. She and her son Elias lived in a mud basement without electricity or running water, while her husband returned to the city to work in the electronics store of which he was co-owner.
The city may have been dangerous, but life was primitive in the country. “You had to break ice in the river to get water to wash your clothes,” she says. There were no toys for her son to play with and minimal food to eat. She was also pregnant with her second child. She returned to the city long enough to give birth to her son, Edris. Warplanes were bombing the city, targeting hospitals and schools. Urias literally pushed the baby out, was cleaned up, given pain meds and sent on her way. It was the middle of winter and she sat shivering in the front seat of the car, bleeding and exhausted with two crying children and a city in chaos around her. She returned to live with relatives.
As young children, Edris, left, and his older brother Elias were never sure when they would be pulled from their beds at night and hustled down to the bomb shelter in their basement.
“You get in a survival mode,” she says. So much so, that she remembers hanging pictures on the mud walls to try to make the basement feel like home. Their bed wasn’t even a mattress, just rags and clothes to keep them from lying on the dirt floor.
“I couldn’t take it,” she says. A few months later, she moved her family back to their home in the city—knowing it wasn’t the safe thing to do. The city was semi-shut down, but even so, she had to cover the curtains on the windows with blankets so that no light from the candles could alert the bombers that people were inside. The family slept in their clothes, even shoes, in case the sirens went off and they needed to grab the kids and run. “Technology was not good,” she says, and often by the time the sirens sounded the planes were already overhead. They had a makeshift bomb shelter in their basement, because the nearest shelter was a mile away. “We had water and food,” she says. The windows shattered, but the house didn’t crumble.
Her son Elias Yousefi remembers being hurried down to the basement on a regular basis. In this basement, however, they had books and toys and crayons to entertain them.
“You lived minute to minute,” Urias says. “My kids were with me 24/7. They never went anywhere without me because I didn’t want to be separated (permanently). When my husband left for work, I’d think, ‘Am I ever going to see him again?’”
The bright side, if it could be said that there was one, was that people were generous. “Everyone helped to be sure everyone had food,” she says. There were long lines at food delivery spots, and feeding a family was a combination of government staples, the black market and a small garden in their backyard.
“I came out knowing that I can survive any situation,” she says. “Nothing scares me. I never let it get me down.”
The two boys have been back to Iran with their father, and Elias, right, wants to honor his culture.
Moving to America
Good thing, because she was about to be tested again. In 1991, her husband decided they should join his brother in Houston, Texas. “I was hesitating at first because it’s a different country. I had no skills; I didn’t know the language,” she says.
In the end she had once again run out of options. In Iran, the husband has all rights to the children. If she wanted to stay with her children, she had to move to the United States.
The couple sold everything they owned, bought three-month visas and went to Austria, where they started the process to come to America. At the time they believed their savings would cover expenses until they could immigrate. However, it took 11 months (rather than three) and they were denied work visas. Her brother-in-law sent money to keep them afloat. As official refugees, the U.S. government eventually paid their airfare, but they had to pay every penny back.
A month after arriving the Texas, her husband found work in Austin at an electronics company owned by Iranians. She wasn’t so fortunate.
Urias applied numerous times, before she was hired at Luby’s Cafeteria. Speaking no English, she was given the job of handing out bread, which should have been simple, except there were nine different kinds of bread. “I felt dumb because I couldn’t respond to the questions,” she says. People had to point to what they wanted. “I thought if I could just learn the names of the bread, I’ll have accomplished a lot.”
Ironically, one of the hardest parts of the job was cleaning up after families. American children came through the cafeteria line and ordered what they wanted to eat, not what they planned to eat. Throwing away uneaten or barely touched food pained her—especially since just a few months previously her family barely had enough to eat. Waste is still something that bothers her.
The start of something new
Urias didn’t know many people in her new country, but she wasn’t entirely alone. Luby’s kitchen manager befriended her, asking what she wanted to do. Using her limited English, Urias told her she wanted to go to beauty school. The manager took her to a nearby school to enroll, but she was told she’d have to take English classes first.
Shahin Urias still enjoys cutting hair and can talk sports with the best of fans.
“I was earning $4.35 an hour, I had no car, two kids, and could only speak ‘restaurant English,’” she says. Taking English classes wasn’t an option, but it also wasn’t the only way. Urias learned by checking her sons’ school work, watching TV and volunteering to place the plastic letters on the old-fashioned menu board each day so that she could learn to spell—on her own time.
Elias Yousefi, who was 8 at the time, says his mother was a huge supporter of education and “pushed us hard to read, memorize state capitols” and learn math. “In return this was our turn to help her out,” he says about translating so she could learn to read and speak.
A few months later the owner of the beauty school came through the cafeteria line and Urias decided to go over to his table. “I figured at least I could say ‘hi,’” she says. Impressed by her improved language skills, the owner agreed to enroll her in the school. The kitchen manager accompanied her once again to fill out all the paperwork.
Every morning for 11 months, Urias walked three miles to the school—rain or shine—walked home, took care of her children after their school day and then went to work at the cafeteria until 10 p.m. “I never missed a day of school,” she says, proudly. “I have a perfect-attendance pin for each year.”
At the same time she was working two jobs, so was her husband, and there was just one car. Yousefi says his mother made the trek each day with a duffle bag filled with her school supplies. “It wasn’t like walking through a neighborhood,” he says. “It was walking on a highway.”
People here may have choices, unlike her home country of Iran, but you still have to do the work, she says. At the cafeteria, she became the “right-hand of the manager.”
Urias and her husband divorced in 1997, and she took on a new role as single-mother. Newly graduated, she took a part-time job as a stylist for the company that grew into Sports Clips, a franchise specializing in men and boy’s haircuts. “I love cutting hair,” she says. To supplement her income, Urias joined a computer company, working her way up into the management ranks. When the company closed, she concentrated on Sports Clips, becoming a manager. Her salon was the No. 3 store in the system.
As someone who once sold everything she had to make it to America, Urias isn’t taking any of her success as a Sport Clips franchisee for granted.
“Shahin has a can-do attitude, she’s positive and willing to go up and beyond,” says Gordon Logan, CEO of Sport Clips. What made her successful as a manager, he says is that “she instills confidence and sets an example with her work ethic.”
Urias put her social life on hold so that her two sons could finish high school in Austin. When her youngest graduated, she married her long-distance boyfriend, Larry Urias, and moved to Tucson. With her new husband’s financial help, she became a franchisee with Sport Clips, with two stores opened and a third down the road. It was a move Logan supported—she’s someone you definitely want to keep in the system. When things got tough at her corporate location, Logan says she used to respond, “This is nothing compared to Iran.”
Today at 47, Urias looks every inch the successful franchisee—from her spotless black Mercedes to her polished appearance. She’s unemotional when she talks of the past, and doesn’t routinely share it with her stylists. And although she appeared no-nonsense while being interviewed in the empty bar at the Ritz Carlton, as soon as she entered her new salon, she warmly greeted the customers and stylists alike. She had volunteered to drive the 25-minute trek out to Dove Mountain to pick up this reporter to take her to see her new location. I found her sitting at the bar at 3:45 p.m.—15 minutes early for our appointment—hurriedly trying to eat lunch before I came down. It was her first break of the day.
“She’s the hardest worker I know,” said Yousefi, who now at 25 and a college grad, is in the Air Force.
Besides liking the social opportunity cutting hair affords her—she can talk intelligently about any sport now thanks to listening to sports on TV all day—it’s a recession-proof business. The 700-unit chain has seen 6 percent same-store sale increases in 2009 over the previous year and so far those increases are up 9 percent this year, according to Logan.
Some would say Urias is living the American dream. If so, it wasn’t by design. “I came for my kids, so they can have a future,” she says. “I didn’t have dreams for myself.”
But in some modern day tales, there is such a thing as a happy ending.
“I can’t count my blessings enough,” she says.