So, I thought I saw another Iranian American’s face on that Avenger’s Time magazine cover and found out it was Shireen Ghorbani. She is a congressional candidate running for Utah’s second district. Once again, I was fascinated. Why would an Iranian American woman run in a red state?
Shireen’s family story is right out of a movie. Her mom was American – a teacher raised in Bismarck, North Dakota. Her mom joined the Fulbright US Student program and ended up in Pakistan. She later landed a job in an American school in Tehran and met her husband – this was in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, she had to evacuate the country and ended up in Frankfurt. There she worked to get her soon-to-be husband a visa and they went to the US together and got married in the farmhouse where she grew up.
Shireen’s father left when she was six years old, but she has beautiful memories of his love of the arts and poetry. She also remembers having her grandmother on her father’s side come for a visit and spending time with her. In August of 2016, Shireen lost her mom to pancreatic cancer…just a few months after she was diagnosed.
How did this Peace Corps volunteer get into politics? What was it like growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota? What is it like knocking on doors as an Iranian American in a red state? Interview below.
Irandokht: Shireen, I’m so sorry for your loss. I can tell the wounds are still very raw for you… Do you think your mom would approve of you getting into politics?
Shireen: Yes, I do. I think both of my parents would be proud.
In 2012, my mom decided to run for state legislature in North Dakota – I was so inspired by that, and so proud and hopeful. She was a lifetime educator. I helped her knock on doors when she was running. Now, I’m knocking on doors and having conversations about what’s important to my community including our healthcare system. It is such an amazing honor and experience. People are so open to a conversation.
I know first-hand what happens to a family when you get a horrible diagnosis like cancer. If you don’t have the right kind of insurance, it can destroy the entire family. My opponent voted against Affordable Care Act over 50 times. When you go through an experience like this, the topic of access to healthcare becomes crystal clear. It’s about taking care of our citizens and our community. Everyone needs access – including those with preexisting conditions. And we must improve patient safety in our hospitals.
Irandokht: How did you feel when your heard about the Muslim/travel ban?
Shireen: This was a wakeup call for me. I couldn’t stand on the sidelines anymore. I started paying even more attention to the political process and since I didn’t see anyone advocating for my values in my area, I decided I needed to step up and be that person. My grandmother came to visit me from Iran when I was six and it is one of my cherished memories. My heart breaks to know that family members, grandparents, parents and kids cannot travel freely and visit their family.
Irandokht: Shireen, it’s so amazing that you connect so deeply with your Iranian side. I’m guessing there wasn’t a large community of Iranian Americans in Bismarck – am I right?
Shireen: You are right – there was one other Iranian American family where I grew up and there wasn’t much diversity. I think I was the only child with a parent that was from a different country. My mom was pretty amazing – she loved the Iranian culture, music, poetry and artwork. My father introduced me to it when I was very young, and my mom made sure I never forgot and continued to be proud of my Iranian background.
Irandokht: You came to Utah a while ago. I watched your latest debate and it’s like you have been here your entire life. Is there an Iranian American community in Salt Lake City? Why do you love your district and the people in it so much?
Shireen: My district is one of the most beautiful and stunning areas of America. It’s one of the best places to raise a family. My husband and I are raising our son here. The people here are incredible. They are very welcoming and inclusive. They don’t stand for hateful rhetoric of any kind and pro-actively work on global issues like the refugee crisis. They have strong core values and focus on compassion, doing right and being good. Yes, there is a very active Iranian American community in Salt Lake City and they have been very kind to me.
Irandokht: What would you say to Iranian Americans that shy away from voting or politics?
Shireen: When I decided to get involved, I thought a lot about how important it was to have have a seat at the table and be present when decisions were being made that would impact my community.
Wherever you are, just make the small transition to the next step.
I would tell my fellow Iranian Americans that it’s about small transitions. Any type of engagement matters. Join the school council, run for Mayor or state legislator. Go from just voting to volunteering with a campaign. Wherever you are, just make the small transition to the next step.
It’s been such an amazing experience for me because before I started running, I saw things happening at the national level that were very out of touch with my values. After speaking to the people in my community, I quickly realized that I was not alone.
There is so much to be celebrated. There is more that unites us than divides us. We have to do our part. We have to do our homework. We have to get to know our candidates and let them know what is important to us. Don’t let the small stuff keep you from exercising your vote and making sure the representative you choose is at the table for you.
I hope this story motivates you to get involved and vote.