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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Dr. Sonja Moghaddari

By Rameen Shafiee, Research Assistant for the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies

20170821©rebeccabowring0608webFor our third “Iranian Diaspora Spotlight,” I interviewed Dr. Sonja Moghaddari about her fascinating research on the experiences of Iranians in Europe and the migrant crisis at the borders of Europe.  Moghaddari, currently a visiting postdoctoral research fellow at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, will be one of our panelists at the “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” March 28-30th, 2019, at San Francisco State University. Her work traces the history of Iranian migration in Europe, a largely misunderstood group and phenomenon, and the patterns of settlement and how these immigrants have navigated life in their adopted countries and communities.

Moghaddari’s own experience as a second-generation German Iranian sparked her interest in understanding the experiences and perspectives of others like her who were born to Iranian immigrant parents. Having grown up in Northern Germany in one of the few Iranian German families she was aware of, Moghaddari said she “became well acquainted with the confrontations and conflicts that arise with defining one’s identity.” She recounted a powerful memory of having the side of her home being vandalized with anti-migrant/racist messages when she was only ten years old. “It was difficult to feel a sense of belonging where we lived,” Moghaddari said, while tracing the origin of her interest in refugee issues and socialist/leftist policies and movements in Europe. Because Moghaddari spent some holidays visiting her Iranian father’s extended family in Iran, she also had “the opportunity to witness how people can come together from different backgrounds, have different ways of thinking, and confront themselves in different cultural and national contexts.”

Moghaddari seeks to fill one of the greatest gaps she sees in Iranian and diaspora studies research today: that of Iranians living in Europe. As debates about immigration and refugees in Germany and other European countries become more visible and audible, research like Moghaddari’s is becoming increasingly relevant and sought after by both institutions and policy makers. “It’s also interesting to take into account that compared to the US, Europe is much closer to Iran and this has an important impact on Iranians lives in Europe. You can drive to Europe from Iran, after all! There are trade connections which are much older compared to the economic ties between Iran and the US.” Moghaddari explains that beginning in the 19th century, there were trade contracts and commercial contacts between Iran and Hamburg. “This means Iranians and migrants from that part of the world have had a longer presence in Germany.” In clarifying the urgency of her research, Moghaddari makes comparisons with the US “immigration crisis” on the southern borders, identifying Asian, African, and Middle Eastern migrants as the majority of those arriving in Europe, and she says many of them, like those from Mexico and Central America, are also seeking asylum and fleeing violence, war, and economic crises. “Naturally, the lives of already settled migrants are impacted by the fact there is a rise in populist and extreme right forces and ideologies. In Europe, it has become tolerable to have racist ideas, or to say racist things in public,” she adds.

Although Moghaddari’s work is urgent and necessary, it is complicated to create knowledge about the experiences of groups that are currently in the political hot seat. As an ethnographer and anthropologist, Moghaddari is exposed to many situations that are as difficult as they are instructive.  For example, Moghaddari worked as a waitress in an Iranian restaurant in Hamburg to examine in-group dynamics between Iranians in Germany, yet she experienced discrimination over being the only worker with a German passport and parent. She ended up getting fired because she refused to marry the restaurant owner’s nephew who needed a fast track to citizenship. It is experiences like these that have taught Moghaddari that even though many Iranians may settle in Europe, some still live by traditions and expectations of their original communities. This is especially divisive in the context of women trying to unite under the feminist movement, as migrant women who still live by the religious guidelines from their homeland clash with German leftist ideologies that, for example, might view wearing a veil as oppressive. As an academic with a wide audience, Moghaddari notes that it can be very difficult to know what knowledge will be helpful or hurtful to the communities she is trying to understand. Would disseminating her story of being exploited while working at an Iranian restaurant provide useful knowledge, or just feed into already negative stereotypes about migrants?

“I don’t think migrants are seen enough as self-interested agents,” Moghaddari says. “Often in migration research we have the tendency to see migrants as the poor people who are the subject of power struggles. They have more restrictions on their agency, but they have power relations among themselves, and those are important to take into account. So I try to navigate between giving space to this agency, offering an understanding of the complexity of migrant positionality, and at the same time acknowledging their limitations in the wider society, and giving a complex account that strives not to nourish already negative images. It’s a complex issue.”

Moghaddari’s forthcoming book, “Internal Diversity: Iranian Germans between local boundaries and transnational capital” is a compilation of all of her research. By utilizing the term, “Iranian German,” Moghaddari is already making a political statement in a part of the world that generally doesn’t like to think in racial and ethnic paradigms. Moghaddari aims to place her readers in the shoes of the people she meets in the field, offering a broader perspective on people whose  stories are frequently drowned out by negative media narratives. To get a taste of Moghaddari’s work and perspective, check out some of her blog pieces from 2018 including, “On (Not) Being There: Affective simultaneity across place and time” and “Fieldnotes on Interpretation and the limits of activist-research.”

We are excited to have Dr. Moghaddari join us for our conference “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” this upcoming March 28-30th, 2019! For a full list of speakers and the conference schedule, go to:


Rameen Shafiee is an interdisciplinary academic born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He received a B.S in Applied Psychology at New York University, and recently completed two years of service with City Year San Jose/Silicon Valley. Shafiee is working as a research assistant at the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies and is deepening his understanding of the diaspora experience and how it affects him and others in his community.​

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