Had I Been Born in Iran, You’d Do This to Me

To say I’m not surprised we’ve reached this point, this quickly would be an understatement. In fact, I’m more surprised it took this long.

The current President ran a campaign based on the dehumanization of virtually every possible group except white evangelicals (who still seem to overwhelmingly support his agenda). If you were a person of color or one of those who sits at the limits of whiteness, the target on your back only has only become bigger.

From immigration advocates, like my friend Pablo Manriquez, we heard dire warnings about what this administration (and even the last) was doing. To date, Obama deported more than Trump has. And to be clear, I was also critical of Obama on this issue. It was one of several disappointing calculations the 44th President made. More importantly, it created space for the sorts of actions we see today.

But the current state of affairs at the southern border constitute a severe moral erosion of American society. Far worse than anything Obama did, the current administration has decided to rip families apart as they try to cross the border. Most, if not all, made the difficult choice to trek hundreds of miles through inhospitable terrain in order to seek asylum in the United States. They are fleeing immediate threats of, among other things, violence, persecution, forced sexual slavery, forced labor, etc. in their home countries—not altogether different than why many of our ancestors came to this country.

You wouldn’t, however, be wrong to suggest that in order to claim asylum status one must cross formally recognized borders. But even as I write this, reports are surfacing that those borders are being closed to those seeking asylum. Additionally, a little over a week ago, the Trump administration announced that gang and domestic violence aren’t grounds for asylum. Thus, nearly every asylum seeker will be denied.

To describe the situation facing asylum seekers as anything, but Kafkaesque would be a travesty. To gain asylum you have to cross at a recognized border. But that option is shuttered. To turn back means, you’ll certainly be killed. To enter the United States at a crossing that isn’t recognized means possible detention, family separation, and eventual deportation, because of the new policies by the current US President.

I’ve seen some suggest this policy by the Trump administration is no different than what Obama did. Or that this is a law passed by Democrats. But, claiming it was Obama’s policy is simply not true. Neither is claiming it was a law passed by Democrats, who haven’t controlled Congress since early 2010. That said, Obama, in accordance with the Flores Settlement, did house unaccompanied minors in facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. But Obama did not separate families. In fact, he kept them together through the deportation hearings.

The Trump Administration seems confused, as well. On Sunday night, just one day after White House Advisor Stephen Miller was quoted defending the family separation policy, Secretary of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen tweeted that families weren’t being separated. On Monday, however, she defended the policy. Trump, himself, has blamed Democrats, while also suggesting it’s a negotiating tactic. Which is it Mr. President, a democrat law or a negotiating tactic to get your wall?

The policy to separate families, the one that has generated the heart wrenching pictures of children being ripped from the arms of their parents, has been Trump’s and Trump’s alone. The current administration bears the responsibility for the chaos, inhumanity, and moral depravity at the border.

To see many good people in Bardstown openly supporting this policy (using the same dehumanizing language the Nazis used to support and defend their detention of Jews) is at best rage inducing. But, I shouldn’t be surprised, as many of those I see supporting the policy to rip children from their mother’s arms are the same who defended the policy that prevents me from inviting my Iranian family to visit this country.

The bottom line is families should be kept together through the entire process—deportation or not. Separating them forces them to relive the stress and trauma they were fleeing.

Let me leave you with these two morsels. First, it’s important to remember the difference between us and them is we had the luxury of being born here.

And maybe the most disheartening thing is knowing if I had been born in Iran, many readers would have been content to do the same thing to me. Many you already feel that way about my cousins. That’s a shame.

America deserves better.

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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.

 

White Like Obama

One evening while walking through DC, slightly buzzing from consuming medium quantities of beer, I had an epiphany. Not the kind that politicians write about when they change course or the non-believers credit with turning them into zealots. But it was far simpler. One that summed up my whole quest for trying to understand identity, how we shape our own, but also how society shapes their perceptions and how that affects each person’s own self-identity.

I was considering the time my biracial friend had told me he hated white people. He apologized immediately. I had not scolded him, nor had I made some long speech about reverse racism. His frustration, was often my own and I totally understood why he said what he said. You see, his mother, like mine, is white. But because his father is black and he had a darker skin tone, society had put him in a box that refused to recognize his whiteness.

He and his younger sibling had dated white girls through high school—and even now they’re married to women who would identify as white. Unfortunately, some people in our town could not fathom interracial dating. And part of their inability to comprehend manifested itself through making remarks about how unacceptable it was or how it could ruin the white girl’s reputation.

I understood what he was going through. At the same time, I was dating a black girl. Some parents of my white friends would make remarks about interracial dating to me too. Although, it would not be directly addressing my own relationship, their point was clear—interracial dating was bad.

When my friend made his comment, I simply told him we were both equal parts white, but that there was no need to apologize—except maybe to his mother.

I dwell on that interaction often and have longer piece dedicated to it–coming later. But on this evening, high on the effects of several half liters of beer, walking home from my favorite beer garden, I was struck by this thought: ‘Genetically speaking, I’m just as white as Obama. He and I (and even my friends mentioned above) will always have that in common. But only one of us will ever be perceived as white by society. Only one of us will benefit from white privilege.’

What sort of identity crisis does that create for my friends and President Obama? Have they ever sought acceptance from white society? Or did they give up? How would their mother’s feel about that conversation? Did my perceived whiteness have any sort of impact on the experience I had in high school? Does my own desire to embrace my Iranian-ness stem from this feeling that being called white is not enough? What is the genesis of the push back from my friends at home who cannot accept me being anything else but white?

My experiences as a perceived white kid growing up in central Kentucky imparts on me the recognition that white privilege (or advantage as my astute professor friend likes to say) does exist. The perception of being white insulated me from having to face the sorts of venom thrown at my friends and President Obama. It was only when I started embracing my otherness, that I started to receive the same sorts of messages from my hometown.

Dinner Decorum with My Father

For as long as I can remember, Thursday was pizza night at my dad’s house. On Fridays, our ritual was equal parts Viking, Persian, and American.

If there was not a home football or basketball game for our high school, regardless of the weather my dad would fire up the grill. Pork chops (which is where I developed my love of them and why I thought it was okay to out my dad as a closeted pork eater), steaks, chicken, you name it we grilled it.

Inside, on the stove top, we always had a pot of rice—polo not kateh for those of you Iranians keeping tabs. And there was usually a salad of sorts or some greens and radishes.

“In those days, my house was like Grand Central Station for the neighborhood kids,” my dad told me.

We would do our running around the neighborhood, but by dinner time we would all be back for whatever my dad was prepping on the grill.

Most of our friends were regulars, so they understood the decorum. Which wasn’t much more than ‘try a little of everything, AS IS, if not Mo Daddy will find a way to squeeze it on your plate.’

Newcomers would often violate corollary (asking for condiments with your food), we would try to stop them, but we would not be fast enough.

One such occasion came when I was in high school, one of my less experienced friends joined us. Grilled meats, rice (one bowl of plain rice, another bowl of rice with egg yolk), and salad. We had all spent much of the time after school playing basketball. Needless to say, we were famished.

The veterans and I had already scooped up our plates, piled them high with food, and were taking up our spots in front of the TV. Some were on the couch, some sat on the floor. All were busy scarfing down whatever was on our plates. Seconds were a must.

One of our friends, the rookie, was a little slower. As he walked the ten steps into the living room from the kitchen, he mumbled something about soy sauce and turns around to go back to the impromptu buffet line.

As he gets back into the kitchen we hear him start, “Hey Mo Daddy?”

“Yes, my handsome man,” responds my father.

We all know what is about to happen and are powerless to stop it.

“Do you have any soy sauce?”

‘Shit,’ we all look at each other, thinking the same thing, ‘he’s got no clue.’

“My handsome son, do you not like my rice?”

“No, I don’t eat rice without soy sauce.”

“My rice isn’t just any rice, you don’t need soy sauce. Try the rice without it, son.”

At this point, my dad has given my friend two opportunities to walk away without any repercussions.  He has failed to see the clear signs that the road is ending soon and he needs to respectfully exit. For our part, we are powerless to stop the impending train wreck.

“I need the soy sauce.”

“SON! Eat the rice as it is, there is no soy sauce. If you don’t like it, then you can put it back.”

You should realize that my dad was not sitting with us. He was in a nearby room, sitting and eating like a king, happy that his vassals were supplied with all they needed. His contentment was destroyed by the crime of asking for soy sauce with Persian rice. It was something you neither did, nor insisted upon. Decorum was breeched.

Cognizant he would not win, my friend ended up adding some more butter and salt. When he sat down, we all looked at him as if he had committed high treason. All we could do was shake our heads and hope he does not make the same mistake twice—or at least brings his own soy sauce, even then he would be courting disaster.