Escaping Iran: A True Account of the Best Bad Idea

Mark Lijek was born in 1951 in Detroit to a Polish-American father and a Polish mother. They had met during World War II in Algiers where she had come as a refugee. Perhaps it was this international background that sparked Lijek's interest in the Foreign Service. He attended the Foreign Service School at Georgetown University after graduating from Seattle Preparatory School in Seattle, where his family had moved when he was six. Following graduation from Georgetown, Lijek served as an officer in the US Army. He was assigned to Washington, DC and took advantage of the location to obtain a Masters in Business Administration from American University.

Lijek's interest in the Foreign Service dated back to his high school days. He took the examination several times, passing both the written and oral portions on his second attempt. Fortunately the timing of the Department of State employment offer coincided with the end of Lijek's military service and he joined the Foreign Service in October 1978. Less fortunately, he was asked to volunteer for assignment to Tehran just as the political situation was seriously deteriorating. He nevertheless accepted the job and the possibility of a separation from his wife, Cora. Shortly afterward, family members at the Tehran embassy were evacuated because of increasing chaos and instability. Many employees were also withdrawn, including much of the consular section.

Lijek with President Carter in 1980

Despite the abdication of the shah and the assumption of power by the virulently anti-American Ayatollah Khomeini, the US Government was determined to rebuild relations. One aspect of the process was the return of normal tourist visa operations to Iran, which created an opportunity for Cora to accompany her husband while working in the visa unit. In late October 1979, the US admitted the shah for medical treatment, resulting ultimately in an attack on the embassy compound and the capture of most Americans. Lijek and his wife escaped, initially the compound and later Iran.

Lijek today

Although this was not a good beginning to a Foreign Service career, Lijek decided the law of averages should work in his favor. Future assignments to Hong Kong, then still a British colony; Kathmandu, Nepal; Warsaw, Poland and Frankfurt, Germany proved him correct. He also served several tours at the Department of State in Washington, DC. The Iran experience remained a constant in his life. While media interest came and went, Lijek never forgot the selfless help provided by Canadian Embassy personnel during the crucial months following the takeover. He remained in touch with several of the Canadians and served as the US-side coordinator for the periodic reunions hosted by the Canadian side.

He also gained tremendous respect for the work of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), going so far as to interview for a position there. Although he remained with the Department of State, he and Cora continued their friendship with Tony Mendez, the CIA officer who masterminded their rescue. Both have been involved on the margins with the film Argo, a dramatized version of Tony's escape plan.

Following retirement the Lijeks returned to the Pacific Northwest. Cora, who had to sacrifice her career during their Foreign Service years, went to work while Mark took care of the house and their two children. He has been treasurer of the Anacortes Sister Cities Association for twelve years and has from time to time dabbled in local politics.