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From immigration to discrimination
An American story

By Jim S
June 24, 2004

Have just finished reading Ahmagh Khan's, "Worse than Blacks". I felt that the author seemed to believe that there was something unique about the discrimiantion that some Iranians have found in America. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Iranian experience in America is the immigrant experience in America. It is a story that has repeated itself over the past three hundred years in the country. Each wave of new immigrants has faced exactly the same kind of discrimination and hardship which Iranians have faced in their adopted home. Immigration and discrimination are as American as apple pie. This does not mean that I agree with it or condone it in any way, but it is a historical reality that is beyond dispute.

Whether one wishes to discuss the German-American experience in the New World in the 18th century, the Irish-American or Chinese-American experiences of the 19th century, the Italian-American and Polish-American experiences of the early 20th century, or the Iranian-American experience of the late 20th century it is the same story of discrimination and social rejection played over and over and over again.

While I do not doubt that the writer feels that America has not been the most welcoming of places, he ought to keep in mind that it usually takes an ethnic group two to three generations to find economic prosperity and social acceptance in America. The discrimination felt by Iranian immigrants is no different from that experienced by the ancestors of today's native born Americans.

If history is repeated in the same way that it has always been repeated then the grandchildren of Ahmagh Khan will most likely be discriminating against some other poor immigrant in thirty of forty years from now. If any of you still think that the discrimination experienced by Iranians has more to do with your native nationality than the fact that you are immigrants please read the following. Maybe, you will come to see that discrimination against immigrants is something that has plauged our country for a long time and will continue to do so after we've all passed on.

It began in 1845 when acre upon acre of Irish farmland ended in black rot. In the next seven years over 1 million Irish would immigrate to the United States. Wave after wave of them came in what came to be called "coffin ships".

"Already weak from hunger, these unfortunate souls were packed into overcrowded, squalid ships for the voyage across the Atlantic. The close quarters, unsanitary conditions, poor food, and weakened state of the emigrants created the ideal conditions for the propagation of typhus, an infectious disease caused by fleas and lice."

"The decision to leave Ireland was only the beginning of a long and difficult journey. Once aboard the ship that would bring them to America (a 2-3 month trip), the emigrating Irish found almost intolerable conditions. The steerage compartments were about five feet high with two tiers of beds. Men, women and children (sometimes as many as 900 people) were crowded together with room only for themselves and their belongings rolled up next to them. A narrow cot was provided for each person but often it was not even wide enough to turn over. Beds and bedding were not aired out or washed until the day before arrival and inspection by government officials. The only air and light available was through a hatchway, which was closed during stormy or rough weather. The air became increasingly filthy and foul as the journey progressed. Food was often insufficient and not cooked properly. Grain, hardened and served as a lump, was common. Clean water was also insufficient for the needs of the steerage passengers. Toilets were inadequate for the number of people aboard, and stench permeated the air."

Sometimes these ships would arrive in port with less then half of their original passenger list. Even so, the ships represented hope, for in Ireland the Famine was so severe that entire families would eat the last of their food then board up their doors and windows so that no one passing by would be subjected to the sight of their dying. To stay was sure death. To go was a risk but there was hope at the end of the voyage if it were survived.

The two main ports of entry into the United States were New York and Boston. Once there the vast majority remained in the port city where they landed, mainly because they had little money to travel any further. It strained the resources of those two main cities to have such a large influx of immigrants and caused mounting discrimination. Housing was limited and, according to census records of the period, as many as nine people would be sharing one room. Competition for employment with the existing population was fierce and employment discrimination against the Irish became common.

As a result it became acceptable to discriminate against the Irish and newspapers depicted them as lazy, stupid and dirty. Newspapers ads for employment would end with "No Irish need apply." and restaurants and hotels would display signs saying "No Irish permitted in this establishment."

"In 1851-1852, railroad contractors in New York advertised for workers and promised good pay. When mostly Irish applied, the pay was lowered to fifty-five cents a day. When the workers protested, the militia was called in to force the men to accept."

Many of the Irish reacted to the discrimination by deliberately getting rid of their accents, changing their names and even abandoning Catholicism. Others left to go work on the railroads, canals and in the mines where jobs were to be had but where they were also discriminated against and forced to work for lower wages and in harsher conditions then other workers were expected to accept.

The departure of the Irish from their stricken land was a mass migration on an epic scale, and in the villages and towns of Ireland a way of life, a communal culture, and an ancient language were wiped out. At the same time, the arrival of the Famine Irish in America transformed the young republic so profoundly that the flight of the hungry from Ireland became a milepost in U.S. history. The Famine Irish immigrants were the original huddled masses. They came not with dreams and plans, but with the modest goal of staying alive.

The departure of the Iranians from their land stricken with another kind of scourge, has left many in your community feeling that an Irishman 150 years ago could understand clearly. It is ironic that the descendants of many of those first immigrants from Ireland are probably guilty of discriminating against Iranians nowadays, but that is the way the story goes. While it has taken many ethnic groups generations to find success and prosperity in America's melting pot, Iranians have done it with remarkable speed.

Perhaps, there are those among you who continue to feel the sting of prejudice and discrimination, but if it is any comfort all, you should know that your children and grandchildren will no longer have to endure its pain because you took it all for them.

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Book of the day

Spirituality in the Land of the Noble
How Iran Shaped the World's Religions
by Richard C. Foltz

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