Vulnerable states: on being Iranian in America

Come, for the House of Hope is built on sand:

bring wine, for the fabric of life is weak as the wind.

– Hafez

There’s a strange sort of surety that a lot of folks in countries like Australia and the United States carry from birth. It begins with the words: ‘that would never happen here.’ It’s couched in the sense that only a really flawed society would descend into the types of totalitarian regimes that plague nations in the Middle East. Last night, my cousin Shirin in North Carolina told me America is reminding her more and more each day of Iran. ‘And, I don’t mean in the good way,’ she said.

Strangely, my entire existence can be attributed to the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent mass exodus of Iranians to Australia, North America and Europe.

My mother was an Iranian diplomat in the mid-1970s, before I was born. My family was posted to Canberra where my mother worked at the embassy, while my father completed a degree in computer science and my brother went to primary school.

When the Islamic regime overthrew the Shah, my parents returned to Tehran only to discover that both of their careers were effectively over, and the schooling system had become compromised by religious ideology.

The impossible decision was made: my family would return to Australia, this time as immigrants, and start over. My father used his computer science degree to get a job in the public service, and for the first time in her life my mother wasn’t working.

I was born in Canberra, the daughter of two brand-new Australian citizens. I grew up with Farsi lessons, khorshe fessenjoon, and Fale-Hafez on the Persian new year. At school I was usually one of only two or three non-Anglo kids and I worked double-time to blend in.


What was supposed to be a month-long writing sojourn in 2010 turned into a three-year period of swinging back and forth between Australia and NYC. I could have worked illegally and overstayed my visa, but I chose to do everything precisely by the books – I didn’t want to jeopardise my chances of eventually becoming a permanent resident.

On the Lower East Side and Brooklyn I found a genuinely diverse community: musicians, artists, writers, and filmmakers. I felt truly at home in a place for the first time in my life.

In 2013, I petitioned for permanent residency. The process was arduous. My visa class was so rare that most of the immigration administrative staff I spoke with had never dealt with a case like mine before. I self-petitioned, I didn’t use a lawyer, and I wasn’t sponsored by family or an employer. It took about two hundred pages of supporting evidence, two years, and twenty thousand dollars. Whenever I went in to the immigration office in downtown Manhattan, I observed all the other hopeful immigrants: they were nervous, stressed out, confused, afraid. As hard as the process was, I kept thinking, ‘imagine if I wasn’t a writer, with English as my first language, and two advanced degrees, and skills of research and persuasion …’

I received my green card in 2015. Now I am not only the daughter of immigrants, I am an immigrant in my own right. The hardest thing was leaving my parents behind in Sydney. (My brother had also relocated overseas immediately upon completing his PhD back in the 1990s, and now has a family in Japan.) I reasoned that I could always come back and be with my mom and dad whenever they needed me.

My cousin’s immigration story is very different from mine. Shirin applied six times for student visas to come to the US to study film and cinematography. Five weeks after she was finally granted a visa, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and scheduled for emergency surgery. She was in her twenties and all alone in Arizona. Her parents were frantic and stuck in Iran – a nonimmigrant visa would have taken six months to obtain.

Following that first surgery, Shirin was in remission for years, during which time she married an American man and had a baby – and then the tumor came back. By that stage, her father, my Uncle Ehsan, had been on the waiting list for a visa for ten years: that’s how long it took Iranians to obtain green cards before this week’s executive order.

As a result of the order, there are now thousands upon thousands of individuals with legal visas who are displaced and have no idea when they can return to their family, their job, or their school.

There are people with fiancé visas, temporary work visas, visas for artists, crewmembers, media, medical physicians, and students, many of whom left the US for a quick business trip, to go to a funeral or a wedding, to visit family overseas – and now they are banned from returning to their lives.

There are people who have family in the US who have been on waiting lists for a decade, who thought, ‘2017 is my year!’

There are people who are now separated indefinitely from their children.

The National Iranian-American Council is collecting personal stories of people who have been separated from loved ones as a result of the order.

The ban extends to people who have dual citizenship. Iranian citizenship is inherited as a default if a child’s father was born in Iran. Iranian nationals who have Australian citizenship are, for the purposes of this executive order, Iranian.

My parents tried to assure me I have special circumstances, having been born in Australia, to Australian citizens, never having held an Iranian passport, and never having traveled to Iran. And, despite yesterday’s news of a sixteen-year-old born in Australia to Iranian parents who was denied a visa to go to the US to attend space camp, it now seems this is true: Australia has negotiated a deal for its dual citizens.

Uncle Ehsan is in Iran as I write this. He was due to return in six weeks to help out with Shirin’s kids when her semester teaching starts up again. When I asked Shirin about it she said, ‘Well, at least he’s not stuck in an airport somewhere.’

Allegedly my parents and my brother can now enter the United States; meanwhile, the White House has indicated that they will rescind the ban on permanent residents – but the order itself and the rhetoric surrounding it are so haphazard and fickle that it’s very difficult for individuals to establish a clear understanding of exactly how they are affected.  Even those who are clear that they cannot travel to the United States to return to their families or jobs, for example, have no idea how long they might be stranded. The order is set for ninety days, but the likelihood some agreement would be reached between Iran and the US in that time is almost inconceivable.

I’ve had numerous friends reach out from all over the world to ask how I’m doing this week. A dear friend called me up yesterday morning, furious. He asked me how this is real, how this is happening. ‘I thought this could never happen here,’ he said. He asked me how I felt, how disrespected, how hurt. I told him I felt hurt in some ways, and heartened in others. Never have I seen so many people mobilise so quickly in aid of a cause that doesn’t necessarily directly affect them. The American Civil Liberties Union’s late-night triumph in federal court granting visa holders a stay, the White House officials blundering to take back the green card holders’ ban, the massive turnout at JFK and Battery Park, the cab drivers who refused to take passengers in protest – I never expected so much empathy and incisiveness.

Shirin protested during the student movements in Tehran before coming to America – she has the scars from tear gas to prove it. Uncle Ehsan recently admitted that the reason he supported her desire to go and study in the US was that he was terrified she’d one day be arrested. Shirin was ready for a few years of respite with her family and her work. I guess she also thought for a moment during the Obama years, ‘that could never happen here.’ It’s easy to forget that democracy and human rights aren’t a given, even if you’ve already witnessed their demise once in your lifetime.

It’s true that it requires a fundamental flaw in society for reason to be expunged from its governance, but no society is immune to that flaw. Hafez reminds us that nothing is certain, hope is a vulnerable state, and that there is only this moment in which to unite and act.


Image: ‘Tehran city of lights’ / Arash Razzagh Karimi

Tara Mokhtari

Tara Mokhtari is a Persian-Australian poet and screenwriter based in New York. She is the author of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing and Anxiety Soup.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. “There’s a strange sort of surety that a lot of folks in countries like Australia and the United States carry from birth. It begins with the words: ‘that would never happen here.’ It’s couched in the sense that only a really flawed society would descend into the types of totalitarian regimes that plague nations in the Middle East.”

    Which is all the more incongruous seeing it has often been the US doing the destabilising to ensure the totalitarian regimes, Over, and over, and over and over.

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