The Immigrant You Know

This piece was originally published in the Kentucky Standard on February 21st, 2018.

When my parents moved to Bardstown in the summer of 1973, they were welcomed with the sort of generosity that has made the community famous. Bardstown High School had hired my father to be the new Math and Physics teacher.

Two weeks prior to the move, my parents had returned from a month-long pilgrimage to my father’s homeland. It was the first and only time he visited Iran since coming to the US. Just a few short months later, my older sister was born. For my parents, 1973 was a busy year.

Fast forward 45 years and it’s safe to say that both my parents have fully integrated into the community. They came seeking fertile ground to establish roots and found a community willing to accept them.

There’s no doubt that Bardstown has left an indelible image on each member of my family. No matter how far away we live, Bardstown will always be home.

I can’t speak for my siblings, but I am thankful for having grown up in Bardstown. Definitely, I would have probably enjoyed growing up in place far more cosmopolitan (DC or some European capital), but my life would have been fundamentally different and my Southern sensibilities would be nonexistent. And that would be a tragedy.

Our experience in the community could be used as an example showing the virtues of immigration and integration. A Muslim immigrant from Iran marries an American woman, raises a family, becomes a highly respected member of the community, all within America’s heartland. Every time I tell that story, I get a wide-eyed “WOW” or “That’s so cool” from listeners.

There aren’t many opportunities for people in the community to interact with foreigners, much less immigrants from Iran. But through my father the community was able to have an overwhelmingly positive experience. He tore down the media and political narrative through his selfless giving of time and energy to the betterment of the community—and to a large extent he still does.

So, it came as a surprise, over the last few years, to hear some within the community voicing their support for a ban on Muslims entering the country. In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting in June 2016, a local educator claimed that guns weren’t the problem, but immigration from the Middle East was. I guess they had forgotten about the man who had been their soccer coach.

Then there were the claims by another Bardstown resident that Muslims are terrorists and Iran funds terrorism. Sure, Muslims have committed acts of terrorism, but so did white Irish Catholics. Did we ban them? Sure, Iran supports terrorism, but so has America. Needless to say, that local had forgotten about their Math teacher.

Still others have tried to assuage the pain, anxiety, and real fear we (still) have over the last three years since the current President began his campaign. While voicing their support for the vitriol facing American families like mine, they couch it in the cliché “but y’all are different”, which makes little sense when fully considered.

It’s great that we weren’t considered like “the rest of ‘em.” But what happens when we leave Bardstown and we become “the rest of ‘em” for someone else. For example, my uncle in Iran has been planning on visiting the US and possibly traveling the country with my father. But since the rise of Trumpism, my father has told him not to come.

“Can you imagine Amir and me traveling through the Midwest? He doesn’t speak English. Two Middle Eastern men traveling, speaking Farsi, isn’t necessarily the best idea,” my dad told me.

He’s right.

The problem also exists in two other concepts. First, the idea that we all live in a bubble. It’s hard for most of us to think outside the small context in which our lives exist. So, when we think about our neighbors, we think about them within our own bubble. We rarely consider the realities in which they live.

Second, something that is somewhat connected, is the idea that shared experiences should help us build bridges and forge lasting relationships. If this were the case, then many in the community who both know and respect my father and voted for Trump should have had a hard time doing so. They would have understood the words Trump uses and the forces he’s unleashed would have a negative impact on the lives of my father and his family. But that didn’t happen.

Too many within in the community not considering anything outside their own bubble found it easy to dismiss the bonds my family had forged with this community, in order to embrace a slogan their own experience should have told them was untrue.

And now my family and I are forced to reconsider those shared experiences and question the sincerity of those who know sold us down the river for the cost of a false salve.

America needs immigrants to survive. Bardstown needs people like my father in order to fulfill its potential. We should be doing more to be like we were in 1973.


Being American is About More Than Nationality

This piece first appeared in the Kentucky Standard Tuesday, February 7th 2017.

It was a Friday evening, and I had just finished a longer-than-planned shift at work. I was eager to make it home for dinner with my wife, who I don’t see as often as I would like. The screen on my iPhone was a mix of text notifications from my wife informing me about dinner and news updates regarding the current administration’s executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries — including Iran, where my father was born and where several of my relatives still live. A quick scan of Facebook told me that rallies were hastily being organized at international airports across the country, lawyers were rushing to the aid of detained persons, and numerous organizations were speaking out against the executive order.

Overnight, things got worse. In the chaos, many legally allowed to enter the country had been detained or sent back to their countries of origin. For some, the executive order had been implemented mid-flight, leaving them unaware of what awaited. Others were not allowed to board flights to the United States. Families were ripped apart by the stroke of a pen.

As I fumbled around searching for coffee, sliding through my Facebook feed, reading the heart-wrenching stories shared by people across the country, I realized that my worst fears were starting to become reality. My own family would be affected by the measure. My family living in Iran wouldn’t be able to visit this summer or attend my wedding celebration. My cousin living in Dubai couldn’t make a planned trip to visit her father in California. One close friend, a French-Iranian, wouldn’t be able to come to the U.S. in the fall. Another had to tell his father, a U.S. green card holder visiting relatives in Iran, that he might not be able to return home to Buffalo, N.Y.

I wanted to viscerally lash out at Trump fans, especially friends and members of my family, but I realized that wouldn’t be productive. I had to make an emotional appeal to those I knew. I had to show them that the Muslim ban affected people they knew, people they loved. I had to show them that it wasn’t just about preventing terrorists from entering the country, that it also prevented people like my father from not just living a life of their choosing, but also from having a positive impact in whichever community they settled.

Those of us who are Muslim- or Iranian-American are afraid and if recent days are any indication, we have every right to be. The current administration has followed through with one of its main campaign promises. What’s the next shoe to drop, forcing Muslims to register, forcing us to wear special ID badges?

And now, the White House’s chief national security adviser has put Iran on notice, threatening to attack if it continues to be provocative in the Persian Gulf. As an American, this is a worrying and unnecessary escalation. As an Iranian-American, this is downright scary. I fear, as many of my friends do, that our security in this country may be in jeopardy, that our lives in America may no longer be viable, especially if the current trend continues.

While I agree that religious extremists constitute a threat, banning immigrants and refugees from these seven countries benefits only the extremists. It validates their propaganda that America cannot be trusted, that America is evil, that America is at war with Islam.

America has always sought to be the city on the hill — a ray of sunshine for those living dreary lives in the shadow of dictators. And that goal is what gave many across the globe, not just in the Middle East, the power to rise up, to oppose whatever authoritarian they faced. They knew, at least, America would give them protection, would provide them with the opportunity to start over if all were lost. For some, that no longer applies as the current administration has done irrevocable damage to America’s image abroad and in the process endangered the very thing they sought to protect — our national security.

Being American isn’t just a nationality; it’s also a state of being. It’s a mindset that tells us we are all entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, along with a healthy respect for the rule of law. There are Americans across the globe, living in distant lands, with names hard to pronounce, wearing clothing we don’t recognize, worshiping a god that may not be familiar to us. We should be supporting them whether or not they’re fleeing their countries. And this executive order violates that very idea. Our country, and the American ideology, will only be strengthened by opening our doors to those in need.