Statement of Coalition of Iranian-American Organizations on Border Detentions

Reports of Mass Detentions of Iranians and Iranian Americans at the Washington/Canada Border 

January 6, 2020

We write to share extremely disconcerting news, and to share important information with you regarding new immigration incidents affecting Iranian Americans and Iranians in the U.S.  Please read the below carefully and share this information with your friends and family. 

What We Know And Don’t Know 

Over the last 36 hours, there have been alarming reports of more than 60 Iranians and Iranian-Americans being detained at length and questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Peace Arch Border in Washington State/Canadian border.  Many of the individuals detained were U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, including some of whom were returning after a short day trip from Seattle to Vancouver. Upon arrival, individuals were given an orange card, their passports were taken away and were directed to wait. After being detained for extended periods of time, some as many as 10 hours, the individuals were subjected to extensive questioning, during which they were asked invasive inquiries, such as their family and employment histories, and questions about the individuals’ and even their parents’ military service in Iran.  In cases where families arrived together, and one family member was of Iranian origin, the entire family was kept for questioning. Some families detained for extended periods were told that they had to undergo a background check, which needed to be cleared by Washington DC. Due to the large number of individuals arriving at the Peace Arch Border, and the long delays in processing, individuals were turned away and asked to return at a later time.

While our investigation has revealed the foregoing, there is still much we do not know. Across the country, we are hearing conflicting reports of Iranians and Iranian Americans being detained and questioned at other airports, while others are being admitted with minimal questioning.  As of now, it is unclear if there is a national directive from CBP to detain individuals with Iranian heritage. CBP has denied that there is a national directive, and CBP officers have indicated that, due to heightened security, they are conducting full background checks on individuals who are “suspicious or adversarial.”  However, given the reports received, including both geographically and of individuals being detained, further confirmation is required to determine if this is a localized or national directive.

Community Resources

As we continue to investigate and gather information, if you, your family, or your friends are traveling, and have been detained and questioned, please fill out our confidential intake form.

Know Your Rights

Despite the current political climate, Iranian Americans who are U.S. citizens, “green card holders” (also called “lawful permanent residents” or “LPRs”), and visa holders have rights at the border. Absent specific indicia of credible threats by specific individuals, your rights for being questioned and searched at the border have not changed. If you are traveling or have family and friends that are traveling, please review the Iranian-American Community Advisory- Know Your Rights at the Border and Airport available in English and Farsi. Please help us disseminate this information, as it may help your family, friends, and loved ones. 

We Are Here To Help

As a coalition of Iranian American organizations, we are committed to the community of Iranians and Iranian Americans in the U.S., and your families.  We will continue to investigate and monitor this troubling development, will provide you information and updates, and will continue to fight to protect your and your families’ rights and interests. Additionally, we will continue working with, and advocating before, our elected representatives and allies, not only to get to the bottom of what is happening, but to seek remedies to resolve it. Please stay tuned.   

For additional information, you may contact:

Iranian Alliances Across Borders, Mana Kharrazi (mana@iranianalliances.org
Iranian American Bar Association, Ramin Montazeri (ram7nyc@gmail.com
National Iranian American Council, Donna Faravard (dfarvard@niacouncil.org
Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, Ali Rahnama (Ali.Rahnama@paaia.org)

NIAC Statement on DHS Investigation into Detentions of Iranian Americans at U.S. Ports of Entry

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, January 7, 2020 
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

Washington DC – In response to reports that some 60 Iranian Americans were held for lengthy questioning by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at U.S. ports of entry, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) requested that the Department of Homeland Security open an investigation into the detentions and questioning.

NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement elaborating on the request:

“On Sunday, January 5, the National Iranian American Council requested that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties open an investigation into the detainment and questioning of Iranian Americans at the U.S. ports of entry. We are pleased that the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has opened an investigation into CBP’s potential discriminatory targeting of Iranian Americans at the border following our formal complaint. We will be working to ensure that the investigation is thorough, timely and results in the halt of this discriminatory treatment targeting our community. Detaining individuals on the basis of their national origin is illegal, and the Iranian-American community will not stand for such outrageous and discriminatory treatment. 

“Unfortunately, we continue to see discriminatory targeting of the Iranian-American community from this administration, which began on week one when it instituted a Muslim ban and spread fear and chaos across the country. Three years later, we are still battling to safeguard our community’s rights and won’t stop until everybody in our community and country is safe from discrimination on the basis of their national heritage.

“We will continue to work closely with other allied community organizations, many of whom helped in flagging these abuses. Moreover, we greatly appreciate the leadership of Rep. Pramila Jayapal who has been at the forefront of halting these discriminatory practices and bringing the truth to light.”

#IAFilmmakers Series: Profile of Gobi Rahimi

Iranian-American director, Gobi Rahimi, immigrated to the United States at a particularly difficult time to be of Iranian heritage in America. Moving to the States shortly after Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Rahimi was exposed quickly to the challenges of a hyphenated identity often marked by hostility.

Yet in many ways, Rahimi embodies the American Dream: an immigrant story with trying times and adversity, but with the determination to follow his dreams, Rahimi found his way to art and directing, and worked with some incredible people along the way. Perhaps best known for his work with rapper Tupac Shakur, Rahimi’s path to the world of directing is a story itself:

“I was selling real estate for Century 21 in Irvine, California with a yellow jacket and a name tag knocking on 100 doors a day. I fell in love with an Iranian filmmaker, she was actually one of David Lynch’s ex-girlfriends. She would write film scripts thinking one day David is going to fund one of her movies, and I was like, ‘sweetheart I don’t think it’s ever going to work that way. Let’s do something, let’s create something.’ We knew a group that were also friends of our, I made a music video for them and I have to say for the first time in my life, I fell in love with a profession. I never thought that the arts could be a profession or a career choice so at that point I thought, ‘this is it, I found my passion’… A little while later I met Tracy Robinson, moved to LA and started off as a PA on Rap videos and produced about 80 videos with her, we worked with Erykah Badu, Queen Latifa, Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, and others. And I sort of fell into it, I fell into my passion and I never looked back.”

For Rahimi, his work in the rap music industry was formative to his art, he especially recalls his interactions with Tupac with a special fondness,

“His impact is 23 years on and it is still being felt. What I learned from him is that you can achieve anything if you set your goals on it and he was proof of that because he would visualize something and speak on it and make it happen. It was good to be in his presence, I felt like there was some sort of destiny to it. It could have been anyone that was there for the last year of his life and it happened to be me.”

But, like many Iranian-American artists, Rahimi senses the impact of his Iranian identity and heritage in his work as well,

“I think that being Iranian has a certain depth to it anyway, but being a displaced Iranian or being a part of the diaspora that is outside of the country, brings a deeper layer because you are sort of in no man’s land, looking to identify with a new culture or a new country… The two times that I went back to Iran in the last 10 years, when I came back I felt more Iranian. The scents, smells, textures, the grumpiness or irritability of Iranians, what they are going through in Tehran, the authenticity of that really affected me. Any culture, when there is adversity, adversity creates the best art, and I hope that eventually when I am able to make some films I can translate the depth of that or the truth of that in whatever project I decide to make.”

After all these years living in the United States, Rahimi still sees the caricatured ways in which Iran and Iranian people are viewed. If he had the opportunity to work in Iran, addressing the fallacies and bridging the divide of his hyphenated identity would be his subject of choice, “I would love to do a tour and documentary on Iran’s most beautiful and unseen spots. I think that would do many things. It would demystify and paint a more accurate picture of our country because many people think that it’s a big desert and that everyone rides camels over there. I think there is a lot of inaccuracies that need to be dispelled.”

When Rahimi describes what he loves most about Iran, it becomes clear that what draws him to his community and identity is a deep affection for people,

“I love the geography, the diversity of the cities, the warmth of our people, I think that we have some of the most big-hearted people on the planet and I take pride in that. I think that a lot of the ones that have not been back to Iran in over 40 years and have assimilated a little too much have maybe forgotten their roots. I guess that’s not my responsibility and people have to live their own lives, but I love the country and I love the people.”

This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

#IAFilmmakers Series: Profile of Soudabeh Moradian

An Iranian-American immigrant, Soudabeh Moradian spent most of her life in Iran where she went to school to study cinema at the University of Tehran. She immigrated to the United States in 2009, bringing with her years of experience working on films. As one of the most distinguished cinemas in the world, Moradian’s training and knowledge from Iran prepared her for a career in the United States.

Her films, whether documentary or fiction, often center on social issues such as war, inequality, and women’s rights. Of course, such subjects and themes are significant in contemporary Iranian society and prevalent in its art and films. In the U.S., Moradian has continued her already extensive body of work as a filmmaker with acclaimed films such as 2016’s Polaris, which gathered awards and screened at festivals across America, and in Canada and Europe. She also shares her passion for cinema with her students as a professor of film.

Moradian’s subject matters make clear that her desire for story telling was stirred by the hope to evoke change, as she explains her own inspiration to become a filmmaker:

“It goes back a long time ago because I went to film school in 1991, I was always interested in film and cinema, and I wanted to become a filmmaker so that I could be a voice for my generation. I went to film school in Iran at Tehran University School of Art and Theatre and started filmmaking in 1996. In those days we wanted to change the world through our films, which was a crazy idea and we were so young. After that I started making documentaries and the documentaries became my central focus point after that. I was interested in the psychological impacts of war and that was my main subject, that and women and social issues, and all human inequalities. The psychological impacts of war and those social issues were the main topics of my films and I started from there.”

These motifs are present in her film, Polaris, which follows the story of a half Iranian-half German war photographer suffering from PTSD. Moreover, Moradian made sure to tell a woman’s story with women behind and in front of the camera, showing that her works are not just stories meant for entertainment, but embody an outlook of activism and humanity that draws her to social issues:

“The documentary series I started with I focused on women who lived in an Iranian village around the country so I made those documentaries to show the hardship and the life and inequality between women and men and I wanted to speak about women’s rights. Actually, before that documentary, I focused on the psychological impacts of war which is called ‘Mahin’ it was about a girl who was affected in the Iran-Iraq war, it was interesting for me that there are some impacts of war that nobody is aware of.”

While Moradian recalls the restrictions on her work in Iran, especially because of its political nature, it also becomes evident that she was never shy about pushing the arbitrary boundaries set by authorities:

“I was commissioned by Iranian television to make a TV series about women in Iran and I was commissioned because they wanted a female director. I went around Iran to make the series about the hardship women face. They wanted to show the life and success of these women, but what I showed was their hardship, polygamy, and what they went through. Then when they showed it on TV, in the middle of broadcasting, I think it was the second time they were showing it, the series was stopped. I heard that it was a very serious order for it to have stopped showing because one of the episodes was about polygamy, so they stopped showing it.”

But her activism and concerns over war did not stop in Iran, instead, Moradian looked at the U.S. led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well through her films:

“In 2001, after 9/11, I decided to continue to speak about war so I went to Afghanistan and I made a documentary about war when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. I went there to make a documentary about the psychological impacts of war on women and children… I worked with an American filmmaker to make a television series about American soldiers in Iraq as well, to show another aspect of war in Iraq. On one side I was focused on the psychological impacts of war in general and on the other side women and social issues in Iran.”

For Moradian, Polaris was the culmination of her work and years of experience documenting women’s struggles and war:

“I am a woman and I was feeling responsible for telling all of those stories. I tried to reflect on all of those stories I had seen and, in my script as well, I combined those experiences for the narrative of Polaris, which I was able to make when I immigrated to the United States.”

This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

#IAFilmmakers Series: Profile of Caveh Zahedi

Born and raised in the United States, Caveh Zahedi is an Iranian-American filmmaker that found his inspiration in films as an outlet for his political interests and artistic expression. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in philosophy, Zahedi spent time in France pursuing his film career, eventually returning to the United States to attend film school at UCLA.

An independent filmmaker, Zahedi’s work is often experimental and explores a range of topics that challenge status quo thinking. As Zahedi himself states, he wants to push his audience, “to grapple with the ethical issues posed by the work.” He often immerses himself into his films as part of the subject matter, blending documentary, fiction, and re-enactments. His presence in his films are frequently self-reflexive and meta in nature.

For Zahedi, his Iranian identity was an important influence on his filmmaking, “Iranian culture that I grew up with made me not fit in with my peers, which is always good for storytelling.” The irony of the parallels in Zahedi’s work with those of Iranian auteurs such as Kiarostami, is that Zahedi became familiar with Iranian cinema after he began his career in films,

“I feel very close to Iranian cinema, but I feel that I discovered it after I started making films in that style already. So, I think that there is almost a genetic aspect to it. It is actually very weird how similar my films are to Iranian filmmakers such as Kiarostami and Panahi, and there are a few different filmmakers who sort of work in this documentary-fiction hybrid form that I also work in. I started doing that before I discovered their work and when I discovered it I was really like, ‘Wow, they are doing the same thing, that is very weird.’ So, I don’t know what it is, but it is weird.”

Zahedi recalls his visits to Iran as a child, “The last time I was in Iran I was 10 years old, but I love the food, exoticism, and the weirdness about the place. For me it was really strange and wonderful.” Despite his desire and attempts to travel to Iran in order to make a film, Iran’s government enforces strict restrictions on filmmakers. As he explains, the raw subject matter and style of his films are not welcome in his country of heritage,

“I was planning on shooting a project in Iran about 10 years ago. It was not focused on anything political. It was about horse racing in northern Iran. It was going to be a self-reflective film about going to Iran and making a film about horse racing, nothing politically related. But the producer had trouble with the government and her passport was taken away and then she was on trial and they basically told her that she could not work with me. She had a copy of one of my films in her apartment that is titled, “I am a Sex Addict”, they watched it and said that this guy is not welcome here.”

Though Zahedi is regrettably not allowed to make a film in Iran, he is still motivated by its culture. He is currently working on a project close to home for the Iranian-American community, a film about Rumi, “I love Rumi’s poetry, again I feel very close to it and Rumi’s poetry very much resonated with me. I feel like his mysticism embraces all of humanity, the good and the bad, and the light and the dark at the same time, and I like it. It is not moralism, it is very non-dualistic.”

Zahedi’s films are marked by the sort of open candor that defies an Iranian cultural proclivity towards saving face, his work challenges not only taboos within the Iranian-American community, but society at large. His advice for fellow filmmakers and hopes for his own work are to encourage that kind of frankness, “I would urge up-and-coming filmmakers to practice meditation in order to find an inner stillness from which their work can flow honestly and organically. I hope to inspire people to be more honest with themselves and with those around them.”

This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

#IAFilmmakers Series: Finding Farideh – A Search for Home

Sitting in a small theater in Southern California, I watched the Iranian documentary film, Finding Farideh, amongst a theater full of fellow Iranian Americans. The film was shown as part of the University of California, Irvine’s ‘Docunight’, which invites people to see and understand Iran through documentary films. It may be ironic that in the United States we find a group of Iranians watching such films to familiarize themselves with a part of their own identity. But in fact, it is perfectly fitting for a diaspora, disconnected from its country of origin and heritage, to partake in this sort of exploration.

A mix of nostalgia, some simulated and some real, with self-reflection filled the auditorium as an audience of Iranian Americans watched a story in some ways akin to their own. In the documentary, young Iranian filmmakers, Azadeh Moussavi and Kourosh Ataee, tell the story of Farideh, a 40-year old woman that was abandoned as a baby in Mashhad, Iran, at the holy shrine of Imam Reza. After being found and taken to an orphanage, Farideh was adopted by a Dutch couple and subsequently raised in the Netherlands. The film follows Farideh on her journey back to Iran, as an adult searching for her biological family and fulfilling a lifelong dream to travel to Iran in a sort of homecoming for someone who has no actual memories of the place.

For Farideh, growing up in the Netherlands posed its own challenges, she recalls feeling out of place and different from the other girls at school, an impression that was exacerbated when she was bullied. Despite loving her family, Farideh bemoans the sense of loneliness she felt growing up, and the feeling that she was never a good daughter, which added to her sense of guilt for wanting to find her biological family. Eventually, with the support of her family, Farideh sets out to find her biological family. When three different families respond to her story, Farideh sets off to Iran to meet them in Mashhad and reveal her family through a DNA test.

Farideh’s mix of fear and longing is common among diaspora Iranians who wish to visit Iran, but are often worried because of the images and depictions of the country from the outside. In Farideh’s case, her adoptive parents thought of Iran as dangerous, but as she arrives in Iran and begins to explore the country and get to know the families that claim her as their daughter, she feels nothing but love and belonging, “I am being touched, kissed and embraced by all these families, in my heart I am home.”

The crux of Farideh’s journey is not in finding her family, but in finding herself. Part of that self comes from a sense of belonging to a family, to a country, and to a culture and heritage. Though she grew up in Holland with a Dutch family, the hyphen in Farideh’s identity could not be ignored. As Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

As I’m sure many in the Iranian diaspora can relate to, for Farideh, those roots were in Iran. After visiting, she stated, “I feel that I have awakened a part of my heart.” Iranian Americans flock to cultural and community events like the screening of an Iranian documentary to keep awake that part of their heart and satiate the need for connection that we all crave. For immigrants and diasporas, the notion of ‘home’ can be ambiguous, but our sense of belonging can always be found in community.


This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

#IAFilmmakers Series: Celebrating Iranian-American Filmmakers

Films are a universal medium, a way to communicate across groups, barriers, and borders. They are simultaneously an expression of an individual person and a collective group. Though set in different places and spoken in different languages, films have the power to captivate and connect people in moving ways. Despite the Iranian government’s restrictions and censorship on art, Iranian cinema has played a significant role in elucidating Iranian culture and contemporary life to audiences worldwide.


Transcending Borders: Talking Art & Identity with Kour Pour

 

NIAC Calls for Treasury to Protect Iranian Americans from Bank Account Closures

فارسی

For years, Iranian Americans have had their bank accounts shuttered as a direct result of their Iranian national origin or heritage. This is a form of discrimination that is profoundly damaging, throwing individuals into financial limbo while they wait to see if and when the bank will release their life savings. If you have faced discrimination from a bank account or had your account frozen, consider sharing your story so that we can build a documented case for why these discriminatory actions need to halt. 

Banks cite this as precautionary efforts to abide by U.S. sanctions that prohibit individuals from operating bank accounts in Iran. While not technically required by law, many of these banks judge that the risk of running afoul of sanctions outweighs the risk of engaging in discrimination against Iranian Americans. 

This is why NIAC is petitioning the Department of Treasury for a formal rule change to license Americans to operate bank accounts from Iran. We believe that we can change this rule and end these bank’s discriminatory actions against our community. 

A significant majority of complaints we have received come as a result of actions from Bank of America. Despite multiple efforts since 2014 by NIAC to engage Bank of America to fix their policies, Bank of America continues to engage in account closures of Iranian Americans.

That is why NIAC has again sent a letter to Bank of America clarifying that sanctions do not obligate them to close bank accounts of individuals ordinarily resident in the United States, while holding the option open to take legal action to protect the interests of Iranian Americans and bring an end to their discriminatory treatment at Bank of America.

Know that NIAC will not stop fighting for you, whether we are up against Trump’s Treasury, Bank of America, or anyone else harming Iranian Americans.


Download a PDF of the letter here

July 19, 2019

Re:      Request for Rulemaking—Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations

            31 C.F.R. Parts 501 and 560

Dear Ms. Gacki:

The National Iranian American Council (“NIAC”)—the largest grassroots organization in the United States representing the interests of Iranian Americans—respectfully petitions the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) for the issuance of a rule providing license authorization for certain transactions prohibited pursuant to the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”), 31 C.F.R. Part 560. This request is made pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 555(b) and 31 C.F.R. § 501.804(b), the latter of which is applicable to the ITSR by virtue of 31 C.F.R. § 560.101.

NIAC requests that OFAC promulgate a rule providing license authorization for U.S. persons to operate accounts of persons in Iran consistent with license authorizations that have been promulgated with respect to other U.S.-embargoed countries and jurisdictions, including, for instance, Syria and the Crimea region of Ukraine. We believe that such a license authorization will help resolve a problem that has become endemic to the Iranian-American community—namely, the difficulties Iranian Americans have had opening and maintaining bank accounts at U.S. financial institutions. 

Over the past few years, NIAC has heard from countless Iranian-American citizens and Iranian nationals in the United States who have faced continuous harassing inquiries from their banking institutions regarding their legal status and physical presence in the United States and have had their banking accounts shuttered and their life savings mailed back to them via the postal service. Such actions cause tremendous disruptions in the lives of U.S. citizens and Iranian nationals present in the United States, impacting their finances and very well-being, for no reason other than their Iranian heritage. Some individuals who have had their bank accounts shuttered have never even traveled to Iran. 

Banks have justified their behavior with near-unanimous resort to the requirements of U.S. law under the ITSR, including, for instance, the prohibition on the provision of financial services to Iran. While NIAC has repeatedly pointed out to U.S. financial institutions that the ITSR does not require them to deny financial services to Iranian Americans who are neither ordinarily resident nor physically present in Iran, this has not mitigated banks’ practices. U.S. banks have made a ‘risk-based decision’ based on U.S. sanctions under which servicing the accounts of Iranian Americans is not worth the risk inherent in falling afoul of the law.  

We believe that it is OFAC’s responsibility to remedy this situation. We are herein proposing that OFAC adopt a rule similar in scope of that found in the Syrian Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. Part 542, or the Ukraine-Related Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. Part 589. For instance, § 542.515 of the Syrian Sanctions Regulations authorizes the operation of accounts in a U.S. financial institution for an individual in Syria other than a blocked individual, provided that transactions processed through the account (1) are of a personal nature; (2) do not involve transfers directly or indirectly to Syria or for the benefit of individuals ordinarily resident in Syria unless otherwise authorized; and (3) are not otherwise prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations. We believe that such a general license authorization can mitigate the risk that U.S. banks believe to be associated with handling the accounts of Iranian Americans.  

We also believe that this proposed license authorization is an important starting point with which OFAC may consider a remedy to this ongoing problem. NIAC welcomes the opportunity to start a dialogue with OFAC regarding the best path forward to ensuring that Iranian Americans are not unduly harmed by the U.S.’s trade embargo with Iran. Being unable to procure basic banking services in the United States—a country in which Iranian Americans live (and for some, have only lived)—is understandably an issue of immediate concern, and we trust that OFAC will dedicate the necessary resources to working towards an imminent solution.   

As part of this request for rulemaking, NIAC also intends to provide supplementary materials to OFAC to underline the immediate nature of the problem and to provide additional proposals to resolve the issue. This may include testimony for members of the Iranian-American community who have been especially affected by the practices of U.S. banking institutions. NIAC is also prepared to respond to any inquiries or requests for clarification that OFAC may have regarding this matter.

We thank OFAC ahead of time for its consideration of this issue, and we look forward to being in touch with the agency regarding a mutually satisfactory path forward.  

Sincerely,  

Jamal Abdi

President, National Iranian American Council

On Being Iranian-American & Pride Month

Pride. For countless Iranian-Americans, a hyphenated identity can be a great source of pride, an appreciation of the opportunities afforded to them in the land they live in while simultaneously a reminder of the deep cultural heritage of the land from which they came. However, that pride becomes complicated when we bring in another kind of pride — that of sexual identity.

Fifty years have passed since the Stonewall Riots, which sparked the gay rights movement in the United States. While the resistance efforts of the LBGTQ community have claimed victories and losses, we have seen enormous progress both legally and socially. Pride month is a time to reflect on this history and as its name aptly indicates, proudly express one’s identity. Unfortunately, this evolution has not been universal and some nations, like Iran, continue to criminalize homosexuality and threaten the lives of their LGBTQ citizens.

Starkly different trajectories illustrate some of the complications for queer Iranian-Americans. Much of the writing concerning this group is highly politicized and often grounds the narrative based on the queer experience in Iran. The reprehensible persecution of the queer community in Iran must be condemned. However, the stories reflecting the everyday struggles and experiences of the Iranian-American queer community warrants their own telling.

Some may experience multi-faceted marginalization and have both parts of their identities — being Iranian-American and queer — caricatured. What is lost is the nuance of their character and the variety of ways these identities are manifested. For many Iranian-Americans, their queer identity has not been defined by the political context of Iran or the riots at Stonewall. In order to understand the range and complexity of their experiences, we must listen to their own unique stories.

The following vignettes by queer Iranian-Americans offer a lens through which to see this community — a view that is divorced from the tumultuous politicking that marks the relationship between the U.S. and Iran. This community is not a monolith but is as varied and complicated as their own stories:

 

Vignette 1:

Identity is a truly fascinating thing, it is both entirely made up and profoundly real. How can such a paradox exist? Growing up in the U.S. to Iranian immigrant parents, I watched as they protected what they saw as their most important legacy and life lesson, pride in my family’s heritage. I was inundated with stories of Iran’s history, anecdotes about my family back “home”, and Iranian music and art. We spoke only Persian in the house to ensure fluency in my mother tongue and celebrated traditional holidays from Iran. Sometimes as a child these things felt like an imposition, especially car rides listening to my father’s tapes of Shajarian, but as grew older I came to adore all the parts of that identity. Somehow never quite feeling “American” enough, my Iranian identity and growing up with Iranian-American friends gave me a sense of belonging when the idea of home felt obscure. For me, home became this small world that we had carved out for ourselves.

It seems odd now, that it was this sense of belonging that made coming out such an anxiety inducing prospect. It wasn’t that I was ashamed or that I felt I would be shunned for loving who I loved, my true fear was the loss of the identity that had protected me all my life. Could I be Iranian and queer? Nowhere in my upbringing, in all of my lessons, were these ideas presented together. I wasn’t frightened for my safety and I knew my family would love me without condition — which they have proven to be true — I was afraid of losing my concept of self.

As I write this, I must confess, it’s an issue that remains unresolved. Have I relinquished one identity, or one community, for another? Is there a way to really belong to both? So, while I can reasonably comprehend that identities are dynamic and constantly evolving, the child that grew to love the voice of Shajarian still tugs at my heart strings.

Vignette 2:

It was a cool winter night in Santa Monica, California. We were just a couple of hours into the New Year, covered with streamers and confetti, when you pulled me aside to reveal your truth.

I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took for you to come out to me as a bisexual man. Your revelation was, regrettably, met with confusion and questions. In that moment, I was both shocked — because there was no evidence that would have led me to believe that you were bisexual — and scared because I knew that this would be a long and difficult journey for you.

I also imparted some bitter advice to you, which was that you shouldn’t reveal this fact about yourself to others — particularly our family members and the greater Iranian-American community — until you were absolutely sure about your sexuality. My advice was rooted in the fact that the Iranian-American community would not be open to your sexual identity. However, I was guilty of spreading the same message that we in the community have been programmed to respond with in such situations: keep your personal details close to the vest and don’t embarrass the family. In my defense, I didn’t want you to be hurt by your own community. I didn’t want you to be judged or gossiped about based on your sexual preference. I wanted you to be accepted for your accomplishments, your good nature and your contributions to both our family and community. In hindsight, I should have communicated these messages more tactfully. If I had the opportunity to do it all over, I would have embraced you and conveyed my love and support for you — and then asked how I could best help you on your journey of self discovery and appreciation.

A few days after this all unfolded, I began to reflect on our childhood. I tried to scour my mind for any vivid memories that could illustrate your newly revealed sexual identity. As I was reflecting, it dawned on me that I couldn’t see the signs because I was blinded by a fierce unconditional love for my sibling. The truth about unconditional love is that it allows you to see the whole person and appreciate them for who they are, which leads to acceptance for what they want or do. The truth about acceptance is that it makes for a stronger and more inclusive community.

Vignette 3:

I am bisexual. I first came out in 2016 to my then-boyfriend, but I had probably known since high school, seven years prior, that I was attracted to both men and women. There’s a heavy stigma around being bisexual — that we’re just confused, “easy” and promiscuous, or even bandwagoners. On top of all of that, being Iranian-American, I grew up hearing the judgement of Iranians towards the queer community. Things like, “How could they live their lives like that?” “That’s disgusting,” “They should be ashamed for doing that in public” were sentiments I often heard directed towards a same-sex couple or a trans person. For a long time I felt that I should stick to dating men because it would be easier than telling my family the truth about my sexual identity. But I couldn’t keep living a lie. So in 2019, I finally came out to my parents. I was surprised to find that the look on their faces was not the one of disgust that I had feared, but instead a look of anxiety. I heard the usual remarks — that I’m just confused, or I’m just sympathizing with the LGBTQIA+ community. But the thing that stuck with me most was when they said: “We don’t want your life to be hard. Wouldn’t it be easier for you to just keep dating men?” That’s when I knew that their reaction came from a genuine concern for my well being. Though their reaction hurt and was far from perfect, I knew it came from a place of love and not rejection. I’m not sure how much they’ve truly accepted it, but I know that I’m lucky to still have my parents’ love. I was told not to tell my family or really talk openly about it — this is my first time doing so. But I’m queer, I’m here, and I’m proud of who I am.

Vignette 4:

My mother is Finnish and my father is Iranian. It was a struggle sometimes to be raised in such different cultures. One thing they agreed on was that being gay is not normal or what God intended. This is what I was raised to believe, but everything changed when my best friend told me she fell in love with a girl. Being close to someone who was bisexual was an eye opening experience that gave me the chance to confront my own feelings. I never thought about my identity or who I was back then more deeply, but I realized I had feelings for someone close to me that went beyond friendship. Though I had these feelings for a long time, it wasn’t until we were both in our 30s and more comfortable with who we were that we finally chose to be together. We knew that coming out to our parents would be hard and that we would not necessarily be accepted, but in the end we decided not to let fear dictate our choices.

To my surprise, my mom has struggled the most with this revelation. I expected my Iranian father to have a harder time, thinking that he would be embarrassed of me and not see me the same. Fortunately, I was wrong, though he doesn’t understand my life he still loves me as his daughter. While I may have their love, to this day, I do not have the support of my mom and dad. I hope that one day they will come around, and be a part of my life in the same way they would if I was with a man. Even as an adult, having your parent’s approval is important, without it I fear that some part of me will always be missing. I have been fortunate enough to be accepted by my partner’s parents, who are also Iranian. I am amazed at their ability to transform their mindset and embrace me as part of the family. Their kindness gives me hope that someday my parents will do the same, because they are also missing a part of their lives, whether or not they know it.

Vignette 5:

The morning I decided to come out to my parents, I vividly recall looking at two things:

  1. A check-list of items I had to be prepared for without the financial or moral support of my parents.
  2. A family photo to remember the things I had to be willing to give up in order to finally be who I am.

Family and my parents are the most important thing in my life. So even though I finally came to terms with being gay when I was in college, it took me six years to come out to my parents. It took me six years to persuade myself that I would rather give up the things that are most important to me, than to change who I am. The only other gay Iranians I knew had lost all contact with their families. While this experience is not exclusive to the Iranian-American community, it was the only blueprint of consequence I was familiar with.

With my finances in check, I drove home to surprise my parents for breakfast. I told them I needed to talk to them about something important. In my “best-case” scenario, I had envisioned that my mom would be understanding, even comforting, and I would have bet everything that my dad would cause a scene and ask me to leave. I was shocked to find that my dad was as understanding as I have ever remembered. I clearly recall him saying: “You have to excuse us. We don’t know much about this. We need some time to learn.” My mom on the other hand, reacted, as I’ve come to understand is a standard “mom-like” reaction, by blaming herself and not talking to me for weeks.

Looking back, I know it could have gone much worse. But I still wanted them to be as happy as I was and embrace that part of me. Maybe even host a BBQ with kabob and all the traditional foods we serve. But what I did not consider, is what my parents, specifically my mom, would be thinking about the moment she heard the words: I am gay. All she could see in that moment was the possibility of my dreams slipping away.

Fortunately, both my mom and dad have witnessed that their son’s sexuality does not build walls or barriers keeping him from his dreams, but rather puts him on a path to live his most authentic life. So if there is some piece of advice that I can give to others: try to find a perspective, one that is different, uncomfortable perhaps. Really explore that view and all the lenses that come with it. I am not naive and recognize that this may not yield a “kumbaya” moment. But hopefully it will stop young women and men from having to choose between losing their families or being their authentic selves.

NIAC Seeks Swift Resolution of Sanctions Hurdle for Iranian Doctors in U.S. and Canada

 
Press Release - For Immediate Release

 

 

Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council issued the following statement regarding the decision of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (“ECFMG”) to suspend the processing of requests to verify educational credentials of Iranian physicians seeking to study or work in the United States:

We have received a number of inquiries relating to the ECFMG decision and are deeply concerned by this development and its impact on Iranians and Iranian Americans. NIAC is urgently working to foster a resolution to this pressing issue. Until this situation is resolved, Iranian doctors cannot take exams, seek residency, or practice medicine in the U.S.

NIAC is seeking an explanation from ECFMG as to the specific basis for its decision and conducting outreach to the U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) to resolve the issue. NIAC urges U.S. authorities to provide quick guidance to ECFMG so as to permit it to continue processing such requests.

NIAC looks forward to an expeditious and satisfactory resolution of this situation. We note, however, that so long as the comprehensive U.S. trade embargo with Iran remains in effect, problems like these will continue to arise for Iranians and Iranian Americans.

ECFMG is a private non-profit organization that certifies and evaluates the qualifications of international medical graduates entering the U.S. to provide medical services. ECFMG performs this role by “verify[ing] the authenticity of credentials related to physicians’ medical education, training, and registration/licensure directly with the institutions that issued the credentials.” For physicians from Iran, this means contacting and interacting with Iranian educational and medical institutions to authenticate physicians’ credentials.

Due to apparent concerns over the permissibility of such interactions under U.S. law, ECFMG has suspended “processing requests to verify credentials issued by institutions in Iran,” until such time as U.S. regulatory authorities provide guidance as to the legality of its interactions with Iranian institutions.

This has created significant problems for Iranian physicians seeking to authenticate their credentials so as to practice medicine in the United States. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Medical Council of Canada (“MCC”) utilizes ECFMG to verify the credentials of Iranian physicians; and, as a result, MCC has also suspended processing requests to verify Iranian physicians’ credentials from Iranian institutions as of last month.

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Following Outcry at UMass Amherst, Another U.S. University Revises Policy on Iranian Students

Washington, DC – In response to outreach from the National Iranian American Council, one more university is taking steps to ensure that its enforcement of sanctions and other restrictions against Iran do not unduly discriminate against Iranian students.

Following up on a successful campaign to help press the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass-Amherst) to reverse an exclusionary policy towards students of Iranian descent, NIAC contacted Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) regarding a policy that appeared to block Iranians from certain programs. VCU has responded and demonstrated that it is taking action to correct the issue.

NIAC wrote to VCU President Michael Rao to express concern with language on VCU’s Graduate Admissions webpage stating that the university barred Iranian citizens from admission “in the graduate fields of mechanical and nuclear engineering or in programs that have nuclear content.” NIAC’s letter questioned whether the adoption of this policy was based on a flawed understanding of relevant U.S. law and urged VCU to overturn the unnecessarily discriminatory policy. NIAC urged that the issue be examined and offered its support in addressing the policy.

VCU’s President Rao responded to NIAC’s letter, indicating that the university would work to resolve the issue. President Rao wrote that the school decided to remove policy language suggesting it would deny Iranian citizens entry into certain graduate programs and would now link directly to the State Department’s visa information homepage. Moreover, President Rao suggested that the university is working with outside legal counsel “to develop appropriate guidance for [VCU] so that the opportunities for students from countries under State Department restrictions are maximized to the fullest extent.” President Rao also emphasized that VCU has “many valued and successful Iranian students…, including many in [VCU’s] School of Engineering.”

Under current law, persons from Iran on a student visa are authorized “to carry out in the United States those activities for which such a visa has been granted by the U.S. State Department…” However, a sanctions bill passed in 2012 requires the State Department to deny student visas to an Iranians pursuing studies for a “career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.” The provision has been a major source of confusion for universities, some of whom have unnecessarily read this provision as an obligation imposed upon the schools themselves and have thus restricted their educational offerings to Iranian students. NIAC will continue to provide clarification as to the applicable law to these schools, but issues like this are likely to arise until such time as sanctions on Iran are lifted.

Nonetheless, VCU’s decision is testament to the tremendous work of all groups, including students on campus at UMass-Amherst who successfully fought back against the discriminatory policy there. The outcry over UMass Amherst’s decision to bar Iranian citizens from certain programs had the effect of warning off other universities from adopting similar policies and certainly played a significant role in VCU’s decision to resolve concerns about its own policy. The episode is further evidence of the enormous value of Iranian Americans engaging in civic life and playing a role in shaping the policies that affect them.  NIAC will continue to follow-up with and assist VCU in narrowly tailoring its policies regarding non-U.S. Iranian citizens to meet the demands of relevant U.S. law.