Last summer the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies and the Iranian Alliances Across Borders partnered on a project to invite young high school students across the United States to submit their first-person essays for the first-annual Iranian Diaspora Youth Essay Contest. We wanted to give voice to the emerging generation of Iranian Americans who, in many cases, are the children of an earlier generation of Iranian immigrants and whose families and lives have been shaped by the larger historical tensions between the Iran and the US. We announced the prize winners in early December, and little would we know how the events of the last month have and will affect future generations of Iranian diaspora youth in both Canada and the US. While we are deeply concerned by the events of the past month, including the escalation of tensions by the two governments, we want to acknowledge, celebrate, and publish the work of the three prize-winning essays. We invite you to read about these young people, and read their work, here on our blog, “With a Trace.”
2nd Place Winner – Sam Bashiri
My Identity Adventure
There I was, completely enclosed, rapidly walking, desperately trying to find a way out. Every now and then I would catch a glimpse of light, not knowing what was to come, a true adventure. I was nervous, and my limbs were tense. The slightest mistake could change everything. I looked up and could not believe what I saw: a tunnel formed by human bodies. Who were all these people, awaiting my presence with welcoming arms? It was my first day at the sleepaway leadership camp, Camp Ayandeh, which stands for “future” in Persian. As I made my way through the sea of hands, I noticed each unique face. Like me, each person brought something special to the table. Ten years old at the time, I traveled across the country to Los Angeles, California solely for this camp. Camp Ayandeh sparked my appreciation for my heritage, giving me the courage to showcase my Iranian-American identity. Over 100 campers and counselors helped me realize I am not alone in trying to find my niche in society. I squirmed my way through the never-ending sea of hands, wondering what was to come.
We were split into groups of 10 and spent the week participating in a series of workshops about our future goals, Iranian history, and music. My family taught me about my heritage. Being surrounded by peers from similar backgrounds reaffirmed my appreciation for my roots. Hearing from other campers, I realized I was not alone in feeling the tension in my identity as an Iranian-American. As a second-generation American, I identify with the liberty and diversity America promotes. Nonetheless, some elements forming my persona were difficult to rationalize into my American identity. At Camp Ayandeh, I realized that I did not need to assimilate into a completely Iranian or American identity. Instead, my peers and I created a new blended identity; one capable of weaving these two pieces together and deepening my understanding of myself. Being surrounded by fellow Iranian-Americans made me finally feel like I belonged, giving me a sense of pride and purpose.
As I gravitated towards the end of the seemingly endless tunnel of hands, I knew I would be back; next summer will be my eighth and final year as a camper. Each year, I discover more about myself and the world around me as I exchange experiences with fellow Iranian-Americans. Although we all identify as Iranian in some way, every camper has a different background that I am blessed to learn about. By appreciating the diversity alive within the sea of campers and staff members, I have become more open-minded and aware of life’s complexities. Throughout camp, we collaborated with peers as we practiced public speaking, crafting posters, and engaging in team-building activities. We learned to actively listen and receive other people’s stories, allowing us to better understand where we come from. Through meaningful conversations, I learned that I was subconsciously judging others, without truly understanding their story; something that I now strive to avoid.
That very first day of camp, I went into the cave of hands feeling anxious, fearful, and uncertain. I emerged from the tunnel feeling motivated, confident, and grateful for the journey. Designed as a youth leadership camp, Ayandeh not only strengthened me as a leader, but also nurtured me to become a better human being; I look forward to returning as a counselor someday. I am inspired to share with future generations the lessons I have been imbued with. Camp gifted me with a strong sense of community, an enhanced understanding of myself, my Iranian-American identity, and my ability to succeed as a leader.
Sam Bashiri is a 17-year-old senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland. Inside of school he is a member of the Science Olympiad team, Track and Field team, and am the president of the Ski Club. In his free time, he loves spending time with family and playing the piano.