It took the biggest prize on Oscar night, but the real stars of “Argo” — the people who lived through the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Iran — will be center stage at the 61st annual St. Clair Shores Memorial Day Parade May 26.
With details of the events that led to six Americans being smuggled out of revolutionary Iran, with the help of the Canadian government and the CIA, first declassified in 1997, the story has sparked new interest since Ben Affleck’s “Argo” won Best Picture at the 2013 Oscar Awards.
And now, two of the six “houseguests” of the Canadian Embassy in late 1979 and early 1980 — Mark Lijek and his wife, Cora Amburn-Lijek — will be making their way down Jefferson Avenue as part of the St. Clair Shores Memorial Day Parade.
Lijek and his bride were in their mid-20s and newly married when his first assignment for the U.S. Foreign Service had him stationed in Iran. His wife of just over two years at first wasn’t going to be allowed to travel with him to the country. But, he said, the U.S. State Department had just decided to begin reissuing tourist visas in Iran — a practice suspended after a Valentine’s Day protest by revolutionaries in 1979 — and needed workers to interview and process applications.
When the government got “zero responses” to requests for volunteers, Lijek said they asked Amburn-Lijek and the wife of a new visa officer if they would go to the country with their husbands on a temporary assignment.
That is how Lijek and Amburn-Lijek, along with their friends, Joe and Kathleen Stafford, ended up working in the consular building near the west-side wall of the 26-acre compound on Nov. 4, 1979, when demonstrators first entered the embassy complex requesting to stage a sit-in. Lijek said the demonstrators headed for the chancery building of the complex, where the majority of the Americans worked.
At their building, he said, demonstrators only tried to break in once.
“For whatever reason, they left us alone,” he said.
After hours inside, the decision was made for the dozen Americans to break up into two groups and try to leave.
“We let ourselves string out to try to look less conspicuous,” Lijek said.
His group eventually made it to one of the members’ homes and were holed up there for six days — one night was spent at the British Embassy, but the group was told they had to leave after a mob arrived at the residential compound. But on the fifth day, a senior Foreign Service employee called his counterpart at the Canadian Embassy for help.
“He was ready for the call and he had already decided he was going to offer to take (him) in,” Lijek said.
The Americans were all able to make it to the Canadian Embassy, where it was decided that one couple would stay with the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his wife, and the rest would stay with another embassy employee, John Sheardown, and his wife.
“We eventually picked up a fourth who had been hiding with the Swedes (and) that became the six of us as the houseguests,” Lijek said. “We stayed there almost three months until Tony Mendez came along.”
Lijek describes their life at the Canadian Embassy as comfortable and low-key but said, by January, he and another employee asked the ambassador to send a telegram to the U.S. State Department because “we felt that we needed to go.”
With the focus on the more than 50 hostages taken from the American Embassy, he said they never dreamed that the “CIA was already working on it, and nobody had told us.”
The eventual CIA plan to have the group pose as Hollywood types in the country scouting movie locations in order to leave inconspicuously was “brilliant,” Lijek said.
“It kind of really made sense, mostly because Hollywood people are a little out of touch with reality (and) wouldn’t react to the idea of going to a country in the middle of a violent revolution the way normal people would,” he explained.
The whole evacuation from the country happened very quickly, he said. Mendez arrived on Jan. 26 and laid out the plan. The six had Jan. 27 to “memorize our identity information and tasks (and), on the 28th, very early morning, we left.”
In watching the Affleck-directed film, Lijek said he thinks the most true-to-life portions of the movie are probably the ones that take place in the U.S.
“The part about us is pretty much dramatized,” he said. “They don’t mention the Sheardowns, they have all six of us living with the ambassador. They have us living under a lot more pressure and tension than we actually did.”
Nevertheless, he said he feels the movie was well-done.
“My main objection, really, is that the Canadians don’t get the credit they deserve, I don’t think. With a little bit of effort, they could have … mentioned the fact that all the IDs we had” were manufactured by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he said. “Just to give them a little pat on the back.”
Although he and Amburn-Lijek now live in Anacortes, Wash., Lijek was born in Allen Park in the 1950s and still has family in metro Detroit.
“So it was kind of a kick when I got the call from Dave (Rubello),” he said. “It seemed like a nice opportunity.”
“It’s an amazing story,” said Parade Committee member David Rubello, a C&G Newspapers employee. “I think it’s exciting; it’s great for the parade. I think that it’s a part of American history that needs to be told, and they were part of the struggle for the freedoms of America, and I think they belong in a parade.”
The pair will be riding in the parade in a Cadillac from Don Gooley Cadillac in St. Clair Shores, which sponsored the travel costs for Lijek. Residents who want a chance to meet the couple in person can do so from 4-6 p.m. May 25 at the VFW Bruce Post 1146, 28404 Jefferson Ave.
Lijek said he enjoys the opportunity to tell the story from the perspective of someone who actually lived through the event. He has also written a self-published memoir, “The Houseguests,” to tell more from the their perspective. It is available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.
The details of the incident, he said, were classified until 1997. But in the years after the incident, Lijek said he remained with the U.S. Foreign Service with tours in Hong Kong; Nepal; Washington D.C.; Warsaw, Poland; and Frankfurt, Germany.
“The rest of my assignments were nice, so I think it was right to stay around,” he said.
He’s now been retired for 16 years and is looking forward to coming to St. Clair Shores for the parade and then vacationing afterward with Amburn-Lijek.
“I think the movie’s great, but the real story is interesting, too,” Lijek said. “Nothing would have happened without the Canadians who stepped up and took a risk.
“We wouldn’t have been able to hang around long enough for the CIA to rescue.”
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