There she sat reading, this young girl, not exactly dressed up, but rather dressed down. She had some dull colored sweat clothes on and a red bandana wrapped around her head. She stood out. There was this certain something about her; perhaps it was her jet-black hair poking out from her bandana or her great big eyes. Sure, she had this outer beauty, but there was an air about her. At the time I did not understand why, until I began to speak with her.
Her name is Shadeh and she is a 21-year-old student at a community college in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is an active member of the student body. She is an American and yet, she is Iranian in every sense of the word. She has spent nine years in Iran and 12 years in America, and not necessarily in that order. Perhaps this is part of her beauty; a blend I find so difficult to describe.
Her father passed away not long after she was born in Iran, prompting her mother to bring her to America. When Shadeh was 11, her mother thought it was important to take her to visit her birthplace and the family they had left behind. For Shadeh, the “visit” ended up lasting 8 years. Her paternal grandfather confiscated her passport and did not give permission for her to leave Iran. “What seemed to be the biggest misfortune of my life, turned out to be a gift,” Shadeh said. “I have learned about my culture, language and religion.”
She speaks to me of having to go through one class grade every few months in order to catch up — an American girl struggling to learn to read, write and speak Farsi for the first time. But she had a positive attitude, even when her classmates complained about having to wear a scarf in public. She wore it to get on with life, but in her heart she knew her life in Iran was temporary.
Some things about Shadeh are so Iranian and yet, so American. She seems to be such an unusual blend of flavors, as if she were some exotic tart. A fraction, only in reverse. When people immigrate here they try to Americanize themselves, and in the process lose some of their culture. But Shadeh saw herself as an American and had no need to shed her Iranian ways. She seems to have the best of both worlds. In Iran she might be considered blunt, perhaps even crossing the line into rudeness, but in America she is a straight shooting, honest, assertive young woman.
She was active in school before the September 11 disaster and became more active afterward. When she felt the Moslem world was being blamed, and some Iranian students were being discriminated against at school, she decided to do something about it. She organized a candlelight vigil at the college where many — including two mayors from neighboring cities, the president of the school plus representatives from the Society of Iranian Professionals — attended to light candles and share a moment of silence in honor of the victims.
“I feel bad that all these good things have happened to me out of this disaster that has hurt so many! They call me a leader and I don't even see myself as a leader!” she said. My response was, “You are looking at this all wrong. It is not the disaster that brought you good, it is the good you have done that has opened the door. If someone creates an event, gets the mayors of cities and the president of a college to attend, talks to the crowd and leads them in song, would you not call this leadership?”
This young girl cared enough to tell the world who she was: an Iranian who had grieved for what had happened, understood the loss of a loved one, and took a stand. She showed that she is someone with integrity. (She has since changed her major from computer science to English, as it should be.)
On a very personal note, Shadeh speaks of her grandmother in Iran with such love and connection. She seems to be a great figure in her life, one she has left behind, but never forgets to call and chat with. Another great figure in her life was her elementary school teacher, Mr. Green. When she returned to the U.S. from Iran, she discovered that he had passed away a few years prior. The school had built a bench in his honor. She sat there and thought of him. She remembered what he had once told her when she was only eight-years old, “You will make a great investment for this country.” Boy was he ever right!