Iranian 9/11 Hero: STEP Act a Mistake


by arsalanb

New York - When Shahram Hashemi saw an airplane fly into the second World Trade Center building and smoke spewing from the first tower, he knew it wasn't an accident. So Shahram, a young Iranian university student who had only been in the U.S. for three years, made a remarkable decision. As others fled the scene, Shahram found himself running toward the epicenter of the worst terrorist attack ever seen on American soil.

"A few minutes after the first tower collapsed, I found myself in a war zone," Shahram said. In the middle of the chaos, he began helping move shocked and confused people away from the towers to a safe place.

Seeing him in his business suit, a local fire chief threw his heavy coat over Shahram's shoulders and handed him a mask. Just then, the second tower began to buckle and he sought refuge in the nearby AmEx Building. Emerging from the building, Shahram joined a group of civilian volunteers to extinguish fires and clear rubble for the search and rescue teams. All day he worked until the soot, dust and exhaustion took hold of him.

That day, Shahram helped save over a dozen lives - while here in America on a student visa.

Less than a year later, Shahram was distressed when he saw Congress consider the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, which imposed new burdens on Iranians seeking visas. "The massive hardship that this possible legislation will have on Iran's young generation and families is simply beyond measure," he wrote to President Bush and Members of Congress. "Denying future students visas and families the right to visit their loved ones here are certainly not steps in the right direction."

The number of visas issued to Iranians was almost cut in half in 2003, after the Act became law.

Eight years later, Shahram is even more disturbed by another piece of legislation in Congress. Congressman Gresham Barett's (R-SC) Stop Terrorist Entry Program (STEP) Act aims to deny any and all individuals from countries designated as sponsors of terrorism - and Yemen - entry into the US, with possible exceptions for asylum and emergency medical cases.

Had the STEP Act been enacted a decade ago, Shahram would have never been admitted into the US, and would not have been here on September 11 to save those lives and help put out those fires.

And again, Shahram refuses to be silent. Only now he has a megaphone. As Treasurer and Board Member of Amnesty International USA, Shahram is part of the group that oversees the organization's work to "protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied."

As such, Shahram - who is here on an H1 work visa - stresses the dangers of legislation like the STEP Act, and views it as a "mistake, through and through."

Shahram calls the Act "patently insulting" to both the citizens of the countries affected and American values. He also argues the Act is "ineffectual from a policy perspective, as it would only create the illusion of security."

But the broader message is important too, he says. "Iranian students, the core of the Green Movement, are currently shedding blood and tears to secure their civil liberties, with enormous implications for the entire Middle East. At this critical historic juncture, these noble advocates of non-violent resistance need to see America's outstretched arms rather than her cold shoulder."

Since Iranians are only given single-entry visas, Shahram hasn't been able to return to his native country for 10 years. But in that time, Shahram has fought to create a better world, from the burning, twisted metal of the World Trade Center nine years ago to the Board of one of the world's most respected human rights organizations. In his example, we can all find inspiration.

Arsalanb is program associate at National Iranian American Council.