By Persis Karim
Samira Saffarzadeh is no stranger to boundary crossing. Her life and that of her children are infused with the story of her moving between, across, and inside the concentric circles of belonging she’s made. Saffarzadeh was born and raised in Fresno, California to Iranian immigrant parents. She completed her Associate’s degree at Fresno City College and began taking classes at Fresno State University as a chemistry major, where she met her then soon-to-be husband, also the father of her two sons, Nuri and Mansoor. Initially, she bonded with him over the fact that he was Muslim, and she had been curious about and was learning about Islam. “I was very young, a senior in high school, and my family was in the midst of big changes,” she says. “My parents were dealing with their divorce, and my mother had embraced Christianity; I was embracing Islam after leaving the church to look for something more structured. Saffarzadeh says her family struggled with her about her relationship with an African-American man. “They were worried about us getting married so young, about my embrace of Islam and wearing the hijab,” she says. Saffarzadeh’s parents were also concerned about her then-husband’s conservative family, and the challenges they would face as a mixed couple that would be raising biracial children. “They definitely had some biases because of his race and were uncomfortable with their daughter turning toward a religion that they felt was being used to oppress those in their homeland, Iran,” she adds.
Saffarzadeh has made peace with all the ways her youthful search for belonging gave her tenacity and a way to straddle all the worlds she inhabits. “I have done my best to raise my two sons to be open-minded and to love all their identities–Iranian, American, African American, and Muslim,” she says. “Norooz is their favorite holiday and they love Iranian food!” She also started teaching them Persian at a young age. But despite her optimism and determination, it hasn’t always been easy. After 9/11, her husband was laid off; as a student, she began taking vocational classes to become a licensed pharmacy technician. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband moved to Houston, Texas with their older son, Nuri , and in 2005, they welcomed their second son, Mansoor. During their time in Texas, Saffarzadeh worked as a pharmacy technician until she was offered a job at a startup as the administrative assistant to the CEO/Founder.
While working at the startup, she quickly started to support all of the departments from HR, IT, training, and sales. Then one day the project manager walked out and they had a hard time finding someone to replace her. “I approached the director and said, ‘If you’re willing to mentor me, I can be the project manager.’” She met with the officers and they agreed to give her the opportunity. Within a year she was able to obtain her PMP (Project Management Professional) certification and then within 18 months graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Technical Management and a concentration in Operations Management.
Although she was advancing professionally, her family life was under great stress. Eventually, she and her husband separated, and Saffarzadeh took her sons and moved back to San Jose to live with her family. Since then, she’s been working at Pacific, Gas & Electric (PG & E) as a project manager and now is a supervisor of a business systems team. While she’s been actively engaged in her professional life, she’s found other ways to raise issues about cultural, religious, and racial differences, as well as to promote cross-cultural understanding. Along with her PG&E colleague, she hosts the podcast, “We’re Not So Different.” Saffarzadeh says the podcast grew out of her own work as the founder of the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa (MEENA) Employee Resource Group (ERG) at PG &E. She and her colleague, who serves on the board on the Black ERG, used to “hang out after meetings and talk about all the issues we couldn’t talk about in the office, and we did it with laughs and we kept saying, ‘this is what we really need to be talking about!’” Eventually, they decided to start a podcast so they could share their experiences as professionals, parents, and as an Iranian-American woman, and an African-American man. The more they talked, the more they saw how much they had in common. “That’s why we started this podcast—so people can listen and learn more about our cultures and how to engage better with each other. We talk about family, health, politics, entertainment, and how to be allies and make a difference in the world.” During the past 100 days of shelter-in-place, they have been hosting an Instagram live event every Thursday from 5-6pm.
Saffarzadeh’s been very conscious about race and the ways it impacts her sons’ lives as well as her own. She’s also watching how the events of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives protests are affecting them as young men. “I’ve encouraged them to see their complex heritage and to decide for themselves how much they want to be involved In these protests. They’ve had to deal with challenges from the Iranian-American community, from white society, and they’re keenly aware of the perceptions others have of them,” she says. Saffarzadeh describes one particular experience that has occurred more than once, when a fellow Iranian American looks at her with a quizzical look or has had to confront her a statement like “Dokhtar beh een khoshgeli chera ba yek sia poost rafti?” (with your beauty, why did you have to get involved with a black man?). Saffarzadeh describes feeling that all four of her family members frequently felt like “outcasts.” She says that despite being Iranian, her ex-husband’s family still viewed her as “the white girl,” and had to break through to develop a deeper connection with them. Eventually, the differences between their families and their expectations contributed to the dissolution of her marriage. She says that her resilience and that of her heritage has helped her. “It gave me something to go to when things started to fall apart.” When she moved back to California, she quickly enrolled her sons in Persian classes and started dancing with different dance troupes and volunteering with the Persian Center in Berkeley. “I met a lot of wonderful people that embraced my sons and me. I think that this has helped my kids be more confident in themselves and feel comfortable in their skin.”
Even with her deliberate and thoughtful parenting, Samira says that it is painful to encounter racism for both her children and her. “Sometimes people don’t believe they’re my kids. I’ll never forget the first time someone called my son the N-word at school and when I showed up, you should have seen the look on people’s faces. They didn’t know what to say. It’s difficult to know that people won’t give them a chance or may target them in a violent way because they’re biracial, and have dark skin. They’re amazing boys and they deserve better than that.”
Despite these challenges, and the ways she tries to support her sons—particularly at a time like this—Saffarzadeh says she draws strength from the resilience of Iranians and the community they’ve built. She says she talks openly with her sons about issues of race and identity, and is invested in letting them decide for themselves whether or not to participate in the protests. “But they also know how to enjoy themselves, and for that, I am grateful.” She credits some of that to her Iranian heritage. “I appreciate how we can manage to find joy and humor and beauty in the face of darkness and hardship. Our music, art, comedians, and activists have really inspired me. Iranian women are warriors! We continue to overcome so much and still we rise and we do so with grace.” We so appreciate Samira Saffarzadeh sharing her story and insights with us. If you want to follow her podcast, go to: http://www.wnsdifferent.com