By Anne Callaghan, Consul General for Vancouver
One of my favorite movies this year was the Academy Award-winning Best Picture, Argo. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll try not to spoil it for you! But you know, it’s impossible to ignore the buzz surrounding this film and the incredible true story on which it was based. Like most people, I’d seen varying reports of how much of the film was fact, and how much was fiction; while I have met and worked with several of the former hostages in my 29 year career and postings in seven countries and Washington, DC, I’d yet to encounter one of those who escaped the Nov. 4, 1979 takeover of the U.S, Embassy in Tehran. So, when, during a media blitz following the Oscar win I heard that two of the six embassy staffers featured in the film live just a couple hours away in Washington, I thought, “I can’t be the only one who wants to know what really happened. I should invite them to Vancouver to tell their story!”
The Public Affairs team at the Consulate reached out to Mark and Cora Lijek at their home in Anacortes, and, despite their dance card being pretty full these days, they agreed to pay Vancouver a visit. It’s been a real pleasure for me to host them; sure, while they’ve met Ben Affleck and they are the basis for characters in the year’s biggest movie, they are so gracious and unassuming. They do our Foreign Service family proud!
Mark Lijek’s Foreign Service career had just begun, and Tehran was his first posting. For a while, it looked as if Cora would not even be able to accompany her husband, but she and Kathy Stafford, the other young woman escapee featured in Argo, had taken six months of Farsi and a consular course so they were able to adjudicate visas. She was given the green light to leave DC and join her husband. Mark arrived at post in July 1979; Cora two months later. They were in their mid-twenties, and certainly had no idea at the outset how their assignment in Tehran would take such a dangerous turn.
The Lijeks recounted their “real-life Argo adventure” for hundreds of people at events in Vancouver and Surrey, and also did several media interviews. The event at the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Vancity Theatre, co-sponsored by the Department of Canadian Heritage, kicked off with such a pleasant surprise: Ambassador Ken Taylor, who was Canada’s man in Iran at the time, wanted to come to Vancouver to be part of these events, but was traveling overseas. So, he sent greetings to the Lijeks and the hundreds of people in the crowd via a voicemail to a colleague. Hearing from Ambassador Taylor, who assumed great risks to shelter the escaped Americans, was an unexpected highlight, and a special moment for the scores of Canadian public servants in the crowd, who mark National Public Service Week next month. This year’s theme is “Proudly Serving,” and it was inspirational to hear how the Lijeks, the Canadians who helped shelter them, including John Sheardown, whose major role in their shelter was left out of Argo, and so many others did, and do, just that.
Mark and Cora recalled Nov. 4, 1979 and the days leading up to January 28, 1980, when they ultimately escaped with the assistance of the CIA’s Tony Mendez, with great detail, setting the record straight on some of what was overly dramatized in the film. Crowds at both Vancity Theatre and SFU-Surrey asked them scores of questions, from what was the scariest moment on the day of the takeover, to how they adapted to normal life in the days, weeks, and months following their escape from Tehran. They told us of the camaraderie built among the group of Americans and Canadians, who still hold “reunions” every few years.
The Lijeks finished their program with us at an event hosted by Canada International Council’s Vancouver branch. The Lijek’s story is one of the finest examples of unwavering friendship and commitment between our two countries; despite the great risk for Canada and the people involved, there wasn’t a second thought in the Canadians’ decision to put compassion first and help their six American brothers and sisters. This spirit is alive and well today, and Canada – the Lijeks, and we, thank you!