Vahid Jahangiri has led an extraordinary life. Since his graduation from the University of Baltimore with a Bachelor’s degree in International Management, he has dedicated his life to improving the human condition in places where most people would never even think of traveling.
From a young age Vahid wanted to explore the world, but he didn’t know his travels would take him from Tehran to Idaho and Washington State, Washington, DC to Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the most violent, disease-stricken regions of Africa.
The former restauranteur currently works for the International Lifeline Fund, whose mission is to find low cost, high impact technologies that help people in need across the world. The ILF works with other organizations to address health issues on a variety of different scales, synthesizing programming and implementation with technology.
Vahid explains that the people in the villages and enclaves use the ages-old method of cooking food and keeping warm: an open fire. A bundle of sticks on the ground is literally the extent of the technology they use and understand, but this, coupled with furniture production, has led to rapid deforestation in many areas of Africa (West Africa alone has seen 90% deterioration). Children have to walk for 6 hours just to gather firewood and water as the areas in their immediate proximity have long since been cleared of potential resources. This also produces a conflict of resources – cutting down a neighbor’s tree or drinking from a neighbor’s well can quickly lead to a life-threatening dispute.
The story gets worse. The open fires present health issues, as the gases and Carbon Monoxide released cause respiratory and ophthalmological problems. Additionally, there is toxic waste present in their waters; waste that breeds bacteria and diseases that wreak havoc on the health of the consumers.
The solutions the ILF has produced are organically built stoves. Stones and bricks (made of rice husks) are synthesized to create a cylindered chamber. Vahid encourages the locals to paint their stoves as well, to give them a sense of belonging and love. Often times the team presents a tree seedling with the stoves, which the Africans take home and plant.
Teaching between 120-180 women a day to build and use the stoves, the constant humanitarian finds joy at the sight of the smiling people, the laughing children. In an area of the world ignored by most Westerners and exploited by multi-national corporations, there is some progress being made.
A major problem the ILF and individuals on the ground face is getting the message across to the locals. Many Africans persist in drinking brown dam water out of habit. Explaining to them that is no longer necessary because there’s a freshly dug well nearby (ILF is responsible for 120 wells in N. Uganda alone, providing 70,000 people with clean water) is an extremely difficult task – ages-old habits are tough to break. “Putting a hole in the ground and bringing forth clean water is a romantic idea, but it doesn’t mean anything without the proper sanitation training. When I’m on the ground, I start the sensitizing exercises with the children. It’s harder for the teenagers and adults to come to grips with the changes,” Vahid explains.
Humanitarian work is not his only love, however. Vahid has great passion for his Iranian roots and, simultaneously, the current and future place of Iranians in the world. He heavily emphasizes the importance of the younger Iranian American generation, as he believes his generation has become too jaded by bad experiences (and rightfully so). Even so, it is vital that both generations unite to present a unified face to those around us, no matter what our internal politics.
When Vahid first arrived in the US at the age of 14 there was “no trust between Iranians.” Since then, he has been involved in the Iranian American community, working to ensure the next generation does not suffer the same divisiveness as his, with people having splintered into sub-groups based on their political opinions. “The past is great, and we celebrate it accordingly. But it’s time to focus on the future. Forget the sub-labels - we are all Iranians.”
Vahid loves the US and the opportunities it gives its citizens and immigrants. Though he could “barely” speak English in high school, he was student body president, involved in theater, and captain of track & field.
So how does he survive in areas of Africa controlled by warlords and militias? “I don’t judge anything. I look at things in a comprehensive way – it’s crucial to keep your emotion out of it. Building trust and staying out of the local political arena is vital to our success on the ground.” He draws a line between this and the lack of emotion required to run a successful political organization in Washington, DC. The main reason he supports NIAC is because of its “clear and comprehensive direction – as a community that’s what we have to do, to examine the situation [between the US and Iran] realistically,” he states. “Organizations that let emotion control their path will not succeed.”
Vahid stresses that success is not easily attained; explaining organic stoves and building wells is extremely trying at times, just as is pulling a large, politically diverse community of about one million into a cohesive unit. But these are the good fights. “I only have what – twenty, thirty years left. I want to have made a difference in the end, not have sat all day in an office.”
Saeed Toossi has always taken the road less traveled. In 1995, the proud Iranian American announced he was planning to climb Mt. Everest – the highest peak in the world. This decision came as no surprise considering how he originally departed from Iran. Instead of waiting for a visa, he took matters into his own hands by trekking east to Pakistan before going to Switzerland – by way of Turkey – where he waited three months for an American visa.
Over the course of the ensuing three years, Saeed kept a strict regimen of weight training, running and climbing as many mountains as possible – in the Andes, the Alps and the Western United States. He also held fundraisers and spread awareness of his goal to climb Everest in the Iranian-American community and in sporting goods stores. He even changed his license plate to read “IWTCME” (I Want to Climb Mount Everest)!
This mission, Saeed decided, was to be a climb for peace, and he promised to take both the American and Iranian flags to the peak as he “had the support of both [nations].” He also dedicated the climb to his mother, who has “been a point of inspiration for me - she raised a family of seven.” His father had passed away not long after the Revolution.
In 1998, Saeed successfully climbed Everest over a two and a half month period. He attributes his achievement to climbing alone. “The experience was very spiritual. Afterwards I saw a big change in myself – for the better. I gained patience and dealt with everyday problems a lot better,” he said. He even changed his license plate to read “29,390” – the number of feet from sea level Mt. Everest stretches into the sky.
Once Saeed’s dream was realized, however, he “lost his point of focus.” So he began brainstorming his next move, and sure enough, another adventure was just around the corner: he bought a fixer-upper! Fixing and remodeling a house filled the vacuum, and he has since turned his attention back to the Iranian-American community – a community he joined over two decades ago.
In 1983, at the age of 23, Saeed was reunited with his siblings as he began studying engineering in New Jersey. His arrival in the US was a mix of both culture shock and excitement. “I really enjoyed the straightforwardness of American culture. Iranians possess a culture of survival, so people are used to hiding their true feelings,” he recently said.
By the end of 1992, Saeed had firmly rooted himself in Washington, DC and was an active member of the local Iranian-American community, which, he says enthusiastically, “was natural because the community was so large!” Even so, he believes the Iranian-American community has an identity crisis that organizations such as NIAC help rectify. “The large majority of the community wants Iran to be something it’s not and then they don’t participate in American civic life … and they feel marginal; they have no impact on the United States and they have no impact on Iran and that’s why I have found NIAC so suitable for me and most Iranian Americans. I see NIAC as an organization who wants Iranian Americans to play an active role in American civic life … No other organization has such stability and clarity of mission.”
If democracy is the greatest form of government in the world then running for political office is the purest form of civic participation. And that’s exactly what attorney Amir Farokhi did.
Born and raised in Atlanta, Amir spent much of his youth surrounded by Iranian Americans. The community in Georgia’s capital was small at the time, but there was a real sense of unity, due in part to the Persian Community Center, which Amir’s father was heavily involved in. Amir is very proud of his heritage, and has long promoted the community’s participation in American civic life.
In 2009, Amir ran for the Atlanta City Council At-Large Post 2 seat. Building a campaign from scratch, Amir won over 41% of the vote in November, earning a spot in a December runoff election, where he unfortunately fell to a longstanding public figure in a very close race. He did, however, join an ever-growing number of Iranian Americans courageously putting themselves on the line in the pursuit of a higher cause: serving their communities. “I had a very positive experience. I loved every minute of it and am very proud of the campaign that we ran. We won nearly 36,000 votes and generated support from traditional voters and from people who typically don’t pay attention to city politics,” he said.
Today, Amir is continuing this trend by managing an unprecedented effort in Georgia’s history – a conference of business, political and community leaders, from the cities to the rural heart of Georgia, for the advancement of a common statewide policy agenda. “Georgia suffers from a rural-urban divide that makes if difficult for major policy efforts to gain traction. Despite this divide, there are common interests that all Georgians have regardless of where they live or what they do. We hope to find that common ground.” Amir said recently.
The nonpartisan effort hopes the summit will result in the articulation of common principles that can be used to help Georgia move beyond political inaction or deadlock. The rural-urban divide creates an environment in which major policy challenges, like transportation or job creation, are often not addressed because of political expediency.
Amir is long-time member of NIAC and a vocal advocate of working to curb political apathy. “I hope that Iranian Americans continue to branch out into public service and policymaking. It is long part of the American experience that immigrant groups find a political footing and voice in their second and third generations. NIAC’s reasoned and thoughtful voice is evidence of that and should continue to encourage Iranian Americans to get involved in whatever issues inspire or concern, whether they be local, state or national.”
Unlike many Iranian Americans of the same generation, Forough Parvizian-Yazdani was not born in Iran, but just across the river from Washington, DC in Arlington, Virginia. While other Iranian Americans were enjoying their childhoods in the late 1960s, early 1970s in Iran, Forough was in Maryland, struggling to define her identity as the daughter of immigrant parents in a place where there were not many people of Iranian descent.
But growing up in America has great advantages, and from a young age Forough was exposed to the limitless possibilities presented to individuals living in a democratic society. Her father was very active in their local political community, and often hosted fundraisers for candidates he liked.
Thus, Forough realized the importance of civic participation early on, and set about engaging in ways she best saw fit (she worked on several re-election campaigns for Congresswoman Connie Morella). On her family’s annual trips to Iran she would describe America and our politics to her relatives, just as she would describe Iran and the people to her American friends back home.
“In that sense I was an ambassador for both countries, constantly defending and praising each one to the other. People have conceptions of the opposite culture that are completely warped and wrong, and I would have to try to clear these misconceptions.”
In 2002, Forough was at a barbecue with her husband, Shahram, in Northern Virginia when the host made an announcement about a new organization dedicated to promoting Iranian-American participation in American civic life. The speakers that day – who remain active in the organization – stressed the need for the community, which had been so successful in business, medicine, science, and technology, to expand their influence and speak up for what they believe.
“We were immediately sold,” Forough said. From that day to the present, they have been active members of NIAC and have worked as ambassadors from the organization to their local community, in a bid to further Iranian-American participation in politics and civic life. “I really love NIAC because the organization allows me to speak up for what I stand for without dictating to me what to say, and it encourages individuals of Iranian heritage to be more responsible citizens of the US. We should acclimatize to civil society here, but maintain our roots and the culture of our ancestors.”
NIAC members are individuals from across the political spectrum who support the organization in an effort to give the community a voice. There is a very real diversity among the members – diversity in beliefs, ideas, political affiliation, etc., but the goal remains the same.
“NIAC is one of the best things that has happened to this community. Every organization takes on the personality of its members. Don’t sit there and criticize without getting involved - become a member, bring in others like you, and the voice will shift.”
A graduate of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and Columbia University’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery, Forough now has a private dental practice in Northern Virginia. “I love being a dentist, I love working with people,” she says. She also coaches two soccer teams and is involved in her three kids’ schools (perpetual ambassador indeed!). Still, International Relations remains her passion; when she retires, she plans on returning to the Elliott School for classes and continuing her life-long mission of promoting understanding between cultures and societies.
If you Google “Roya Behnia,” you’ll find that she’s profiled in Forbes magazine for her work as Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Secretary and Chief Privacy Officer at Rewards Network Inc. However, her success is masked behind her modest demeanor.
In fact, Roya cites her teaching experience as the biggest accomplishment of her career – not her business background. “After my parents came to this country and had to succeed on their own, I navigated through my childhood and career independently as well.” After maneuvering through the male-dominated environment of law and its tough culture, she now pays it forward, particularly to women who aren’t confident in their own abilities.
Born in Miyaneh, Iran, Roya moved to the United States at the age of 4. One of her earliest memories is in Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport on the day of her departure from Iran. She remembers not wanting to board the Pan Am flight to Chicago, where her father was due to complete his residency in medicine.
When they first arrived in the US, the Behnia family did not find it hard to assimilate to the American culture, as a local family was quick to assist them. Roya grew up among other Iranian immigrants, which helped her to stay true to her heritage.
Although her family was part of a group of Iranian Americans who created an organization to teach children the Persian language and culture, Roya recalls many times in her youth where she felt the need to play-down her Iranian background. This was most obvious for her during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis. While she was just a teenager at the time, she understood the great implications for US-Iran relations. It was then that she also realized the different factions of Iranians. “I remember how some of my peers said there were going to go back and start a new technocracy.”
Today, Roya enjoys traveling back to Iran to visit family and experience the “blending of all cultures.” It is obvious when speaking to her that she has a lot of passion for her homeland and is dedicated to creating more political awareness in the Iranian-American community. “I’m proud. The community is maturing into responsible civic participants.”
Before the 2008 election, Roya says she felt “disillusioned with politics.” But she did her part to step out of her cocoon by hosting an ‘Iranian-Americans for Obama’ Fundraiser. “We’ve matured and we can show our might,” she states resolutely. According to Roya, organizations like NIAC that work to increase Iranian-American civic participation are vital to amplifying the voice of Iranian Americans like her.
At the tender age of 14, Abbas Zeineddin and his family decided to leave the turmoil in Iran in pursuit of a more stable and secure life in the United States. They came to Atlanta, Ga. where Abbas started junior high school, became a U.S. citizen and, thus began his new life as an Iranian American.
While Abbas never lost a deep appreciation for his home country, he found himself looking for ways to get involved in and give back to his new country. “I still have emotional ties to Iran. I still have many wonderful memories from my childhood, but it’s imperative that I participate in the American civic process. We, as a community, have contributed so much to the United States in intellectual capital and economic gains by living and working here. Now, it’s time for our voices to be heard and for our community to be recognized for all the benefits we bring,” said Abbas.
Abbas joined NIAC in 2004 and has been an active member from the outset, volunteering his time for efforts like voter registration drives and fundraising events. He also participated in an introductory breakfast series meeting where a group of NIAC members had a private audience with Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif. in order to discuss issues of importance to them. Abbas looks forward to helping NIAC by reaching out to his fellow Iranian Americans in and around Atlanta. While he already has a Masters degree in Public Policy from Georgia Tech and a background in community development work, he is also working on completing a Masters degree in Criminal Justice and will eventually start his next – and final – educational venture in law. “I believe that the best way I can help advance the Iranian-American cause is by having knowledge of how the policy and legal processes work. I look forward to completing my Masters, so I can begin law school,” says Abbas. In his spare time, Abbas likes to travel, read, and spend time with his family.
When he’s not studying to earn his Ph. D in physics or teaching undergraduate classes at the University of Texas in Austin, Neil Behzad Fazel trains for triathlons and competes in the races whenever he gets the chance.
In 1999, Neil participated in the Ironman competition in Kaernten, Austria and finished the race in 13 hours and 45 minutes. More recently, he finished the Austin 70.3, which is a half Ironman. “It’s very challenging,” he said. But Neil is not the type to turn down a challenge. With Masters degrees in physics and computer science and a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation in finance, his ambition never seems to be in short supply.
Born in Tehran in 1965, Neil was raised in Iran’s capitol while the country was going through vast social and political changes. In his early teenage years, he straddled the old and the new regime and witnessed the country’s many transformations. In 1988, after completing his Bachelors degree at Sharif University in Tehran, Neil left Iran to continue his education in Vancouver, BC.
Neil is committed to improving dialogue between Iranians and Israelis and, when he gets a chance, attends J Street meetings, where he shares his insights on Iranian culture and politics. “I was the only Iranian and one of only a handful of participants who were not Jewish. But I felt they appreciated it.” He hopes his involvement will help develop “a better understanding between the two nations.”
It is that same commitment to understanding and improving the civic process that led Neil to join NIAC. “By not being involved in Iranian-American issues, I let other people make decisions for me,” he said.
“Our history has been filled with experiences of loss and disempowerment, and I believe getting involved in our community can help us work through some of the adverse effects of our recent history and to gain a stronger sense of belonging,” said Nasrin Rahimieh, NIAC Ambassador.
As the Maseeh Chair and Director of the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture, and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, Nasrin engages with various communities to learn about their goals and aspirations.
Nasrin coped with the upheavals of the revolution and the war in Iran by immersing herself in the world of literature after leaving Iran to finish her studies in Canada.
“I was drawn to Comparative Literature because it made it possible for me to read and study Persian literature and relate it to other cultures and histories,” Nasrin said. “I felt that I needed to make sense of the way my world had changed and I wanted to understand my own culture better.”
Nasrin was originally interested in NIAC’s Ambassador Program because she said it offers the resources to engage the younger generation of Iranian Americans. As a NIAC Ambassador, Nasrin works to foster discussions among the various generations of the Iranian-American community in an effort to engage them more with their historical culture. She probes the question of our collective identity by focusing on the different expectations and political views found within the community.
“I have been struck by the range and diversity of the Iranian-American community in Southern California and yet I have found it difficult to break through some misgivings and suspicions individuals have of groups,” Nasrin said.
Nasrin grew up in Iran, but she got her first taste of life in America her last year in high school when she lived with an American family. Upon graduating from high school, she attended college in Switzerland for one year before moving to Canada to finish her B.A., M.A., and PhD. Before leaving Canada, Nasrin was the Associate Dean of the University of Alberta for three years and the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at McMaster University for three years. When arriving in Irvine in 2006, Nasrin made an effort to connect with different communities by attending events and fundraisers held by different charities and organizations.
“My decision to continue in higher education was deeply connected with being away from Iran when the revolution happened. I felt that I needed to make sense of the way my world had changed and I wanted to understand my own culture better,” Nasrin said. “Through these experiences I have met a remarkable range of individuals and have come to know equally amazing groups.”
If you were ever confused on the political process, Yasmin Radjy is your go-to-girl. Yasmin began her political pioneering shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania where she received a B.A. in Spanish and Urban Studies. She worked as a Field Organizer for the Obama Campaign in Ohio, where she organized a team of volunteers to get-out-the-vote for Obama supporters living in “swing” districts. After the election, Yasmin worked for Southwest Industrial Area Foundation (SWIAF), in both Des Moines, IA and then in San Antonio, TX. In both cities, she worked closely with the leaders of diverse institutions (congregations, schools, unions, non-profits), with the goal of teaching the average voter how to build political influence around the issues that most matter most to them. Yet, she found herself wondering what it would be like if she were to teach organizing skills to the Iranian-American community. She then proceeded to move back to San Francisco where she currently works as an analyst for a private consulting firm specializing in international issues and sociocultural research. Now in her spare time, she can finally combine her passion for Iranian-American issues, international affairs, and political engagement by participating as a NIAC Ambassador.
As a NIAC Ambassador, she believes that our community should influence the policies that affect them. She hopes to spend more time building stronger relationships and figuring out what interests and values our diverse community shares. She hopes to spend time looking for fellow Iranian Americans who want to learn how to channel the talents they already have to becoming effective advocates for political change. With her three and a half years of experience working as a political organizer, she is greatly equipped with the knowledge and experience of how to help grassroots constituencies successfully leverage their political agendas to achieve concrete change.
Besides her campaign for change in our community, she remains active by swimming the San Francisco Bay with her father, discovering new restaurants, and watching foreign films.
At the tender age of nine, Christina Ashtary first experienced political injustice when her father embarked on a visit to Iran and never returned. His unjust detainment profoundly affected Christina and was the catalyst behind her determination to study government and social accountability. It’s also the reason why she has dedicated her life to promoting civic engagement and ethical, transparent governance.
Christina’s mission began by studying Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where she learned about democratic power balances and government infrastructure. After matriculation, she moved to Washington DC and worked with both policy think tanks and international development initiatives, where she respectively acquired a deep appreciation for factual, unbiased research and technical association building as vehicles to strengthen political accountability and promote civic dialogue. She then pursued a master’s degree in Democracy and Political Institutions from the University of London, University College (UCL), studying grassroots institutional empowerment and community mobilization. While at UCL, she worked with Relief International (RI), an international development and relief organization founded by an Iranian American. Among several projects, Christina helped RI, one of the sole NGOs allowed to operate in Iran, launch an economic development program to support Afghan refugees in Tehran, Mashhad, and Kerman. She also simultaneously volunteered with the London-based group, Iranian Youth Development Association, which provides community support for Farsi speaking immigrants and refugees.
Christina spent Summer 2010 with RI in Kabul, Afghanistan supporting governance, civil society, and economic development projects, and recently moved to San Francisco to use her experience in capacity building and passion for association development here at home to build a vibrant, interconnected Iranian-American community. She believes the Iranian-American Diaspora is a powerful one. As a NIAC Ambassador, she wants to unify the Iranian-American community into a stronger, more cohesive network, and strives to find common ground in our shared culture and heritage while addressing pressing concerns of the Iranian-American community.
In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, jogging, and the great outdoors. She also enjoys good conversation from politics to community engagement initiatives.