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.”
1st Place Winner – Sam Rahbin
My name is Sam, and I am a first generation Iranian-American.
I could have called myself a first generation American. I was born in Alabama and have lived across the United States for the entirety of my sixteen-year-old life. I had the privilege to learn English as a native, experience American culture firsthand, and circumnavigate the vivid and often confusing pop culture scene. Because I was born in the United States, I did not need to worry about issues regarding immigration, green cards, and complicated processes like my parents did. I focused on watching PBS Kids and riding my bike around the neighborhood.
My father escaped Iran at a time when the conscription age for the Iran-Iraq War was fluctuating. He went to France to finish high school, and then traversed the Atlantic to America. His uncle, the sole relative living in America at the time, convinced him that the transition would be worth it. My father was the first and remains the only member of his family to have traveled so far from home at such a young age. A couple decades later, my parents married in Iran and my mother came to America for the first time as a newlywed.
My father always tells me how lucky I am to be a “true American”. I was born in America, after all. My father faced unfair discrimination throughout his youth in America: from fine print in his visa which prohibited him from working as a waiter at TGI Friday’s in order to afford college, to an overall anti-immigrant sentiment rampant in the late 1900s throughout the South. My mother was forced to redo multiple years of residency even though she had graduated from medical school and had even began practicing in Iran. In an ideal world, no one should be restricted by their race, ethnicity, or immigrant status. In my parents’ eyes, they had been stalled by obstacles and undergone hardship so that my development as a youth in the United States would be all smooth sailing.
Many older siblings say that they are the “guinea pig” child. Since they are the first child, parents try a range of practices to determine their parenting style and what works best. Not only am I a guinea pig in this sense, but really, I am a double guinea pig of sorts. My parents learned so much about American culture, customs, and differences through me. As I grew up, my parents learned about writing letters to Santa Claus, dressing up for Halloween, and making cards for Valentine’s day. My parents arranged playdates, and through that process, socialized with other American families. My parents only recently learned about the SAT test and the college admissions process because I am just starting to go through it. This was in stark contrast to the Iranian konkoor. a test that determines college placement and the corresponding major. They were astounded at the amount of stress parents put on their children to pursue extracurricular activities. Lacrosse? College counseling? Speech and Debate? These might as well have been a foreign language. One of the things that surprised my mother the most was the amount of bullying that took place in American schools, and how kids could be mean and call each other names. I did not see anything out of the ordinary; I had just assumed bullying took place all over the world.
To this day, one of my favorite pastimes is pointing out words I know my mother, or any Iranian immigrant in America, will never be able to properly pronounce, such as “squirrel” and “quote”. My mother always emphasizes that my knowledge of the English language is more than hers, and that I should be the one editing her emails. Conversely, many of my friends have stay-at-home parents that graduated from law school who spend the evenings editing their children’s English papers due tomorrow while I am always left playing catch-up on thesaurus.com.
While I may have absorbed more American culture than my parents, I am not close to American at school. My earliest memory of me being out of the ordinary was when I was four years old. My swimming teacher asked me what I had for lunch that day. I, in my infinite four year old wisdom, told her that she couldn’t possibly know what I ate that day. She kept pressing, so I told her that it was something called kotlet. I do not remember the face she made, but the awkward silence signified that she had no clue as to what I was talking about. I had already known I was different; that other kids only spoke English and ate pizza and hamburgers for dinner. I remember bringing in Iranian cookies for Nowruz and telling the class about the haft seen.
One day in the fourth grade, something happened to me that unfortunately is a common experience for many of my fellow young Iranian-Americans. Someone called me a terrorist. At the time, I was upset. Not that someone had thought that I was a terrorist, because I am sure no nine-year-old is a terrorist, but because my fellow classmate did not recognize their hurtful actions. Iranians were already portrayed negatively in the media and anti-terrorist sentiment was aflame again in the emergence of ISIS. That afternoon I went home dejected, feeling as if everyone thought I was a terrorist from a terrorist family from a terrorist country. I wanted to stand on the roof of the school with a megaphone and tell everyone how much I love Iran and my Iranian-American identity, how loving the people are, how delicious the food is, how powerful its history is, how dazzling the scenery is, and how beautiful the people’s souls are.
This was an experience of outright racism, whether intended as a joke or as a hurtful comment. To this day, my mother claims that my friends’ parents intentionally left her out of the loop on things like basketball camps during the summer and Spanish classes before school out of xenophobia. Mothers of some of the kids I called my friends would not even acknowledge her presence when she sat in the stands of my soccer games or cheered at my swim meets in the summer. I may live in liberal metropolitan DC now, and not in Alabama, but I am still surrounded by close-minded people who will never understand that humans are more alike than different.
It was two weeks into middle school when I came across another “T-word” incident. He was a funny person, beloved by everyone because he always delivered a good laugh. I do not believe he is a terrible person, or that he meant me harm. The environment we are brought up in can influence awareness and open-mindedness. Moving forward, we should be teaching our youth that such comments have such a high effect on their targets, and that we should not be making anyone feel this way. I went home and told my mother about it. She smiled and replied, “They must have never had a good kabob.”
I am not fully American in the eyes of my peers, my teachers, my coaches, my managers, or the public eye. I looked around, and I saw people different from me: nobody spoke Persian, nobody celebrated Nowruz, nobody shared the Iranian values my family and I did. For this reason, I was ecstatic whenever I had the privilege to travel to Iran. While my friends hung out with their cousins regularly, I only did so every few years. All my cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and relatives would always be so happy that their cousins from America had returned. Out in the streets, people asked where I was from, expecting to name a nearby street or neighborhood. “Where do you go to school?” they ask. Their faces light up when I say I go to school in America, in Washington DC. “Lucky you,” they tell me, “You speak excellent Farsi for an American.” This happened again and again, from my aunts to the taxi drivers.
Across the 20-hour voyage from DC to Shiraz, I felt my identity shift. I went from being an Iranian in America to an American in Iran. I went from being called “Sam” as in Samuel to being addressed by my given name, pronounced “Saum”. Anywhere I went, I was out of place, in between two worlds I loved so dearly. I thoroughly enjoyed both but felt that I belonged to neither. Yes, there was a difference between my American friends at school and me. However, that same difference paralleled in Iran, between my cousin and me.
I am grateful that my parents embraced their Iranian roots even in America, and that they taught my brother and I to do so as well. I have remembered my Iranian family friends throughout three different states and countless moves. I have been celebrating sizdah bedar since I was an infant. Some of my fondest memories include playing with my family friends during the numerous and energy taxing eid didanis of Nowruz. I remember the adrenaline rushing through my blood during chaharshanbe suri, and the ensuing smell of smoke trapped in my clothes.
I have devoted my Saturday mornings to Farsi school for more than 10 years. I got the full experience, from reciting Sa’adi poems to performing Iranian dance. I remember seeing the older kids sing the Iranian soccer team song at the end of the yearly Nowruz ceremony, and wanting so badly to be up on that stage singing it too. I have made some of my best friends at Farsi School. They are Iranian-Americans like me. I spend my summers going to camps for Iranian-American youths such as IAAB’s Camp Ayandeh. I spend a week camping with my friends from the Farsi-school community. These weeks are the best weeks of the year, not because I get to set up my own tent or learn about the Iranian diaspora and its history (although those are very fun and interesting), but because I feel at home, within a beautiful community who I share part of my identity with. I am not an outsider in someone else’s turf–I am in my own territory, where no one can question my belonging.
I realize that I have created my own home, my new place of belonging halfway between America and Iran. Within my Iranian-American community, whether at Farsi school, at my parent’s mehmoonis, at Nowruz and sizdeh-bedar ̧ or with my Iranian-American friends, I belong. I have found my home.
Sam Rahbin is a 16-year-old junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. In school, he is a president of the Model UN club and also a member of the cross country team. He enjoys playing basketball and spending time with friends and family in his free time.