I am usually weary of charity functions. Being an Iranian, I have a genetic predisposition to doubting the integrity and legitimacy of charitable organizations, particularly (and ironically) if they are run by my compatriots. This is a sad aspect of our culture that makes us automatically distrust the good intentions of our fellow countryfolk.
I always imagine my Doubting Iranian persona as a pudgy little goblin with green skin, yellow eyes and matching teeth, wearing a top hat and tails. He holds a shiny golden baton that he likes to poke me with whenever I let my guard down and begin to believe in my fellow man again. Always, the Doubting Iranian pops up when I am on the verge of making a charitable donation and no matter how worthy the cause, this little creature will exclaim: “Halla che joori motmaen beshim in pool miresseh be oonjaaye ke baayad beresseh?”
If the charity is aimed at helping people inside Iran, the Doubting Iranian gets very excited and starts doing a soft shoe routine on the edge of a Baby Grand he has magically conjured up for better effect. He has now the perfect setting to make up yet another conspiracy theory: For example, he will claim that the charity whose goal it is to help people inside Iran is nothing more than a front for supporting this or that political faction.
On the other hand, if the Doubting Iranian finds out the charity is getting funding from a foreign government or a political entity, he will still become overjoyed and begin chanting “Moment! Moment! In kaar, kaareh ingillissaass!
Thus, the Doubting Iranian, living and breathing inside all of us, is the single biggest obstacle standing against Iranians getting involved in public interest work. This is all the more astounding given that in other aspects of our life, I truly believe we are very compassionate and generous people, willing to help our neighbor, friend, or relative on a person-to-person basis. It is the specter of an “organized” structure that seems to wake the Doubting Iranian from his slumber inside our souls.
So you can imagine the mixed feelings I had when a friend invited me to attend a charity fundraiser on this November 9th. The organization, Child Foundation (Bonyade Koodak), had at first glance, all the characteristics apt to trigger the worst of the Doubting Iranian: It is a young organization, started by Iranian-Americans. The donations are spent outside of the U.S. It's office is in Orange County, California, with all the negative connotations usually associated with this location. Of course by people who have never lived nor know anyone from there.
But my trust and admiration for my friend, who has volunteered for the foundation for over two years now, stifled the initial whining protests of the Doubting Iranian inside me. I grabbed him by his ankles and told him to shut up. I quickly bound his hands and feet, even as he was kicking and writhing, and I smacked some adhesive tape on his mouth full of bile. For now, I would try to stay rational and logical. Give the Child Foundation a chance. And what better way to allay my fears than to become a volunteer myself?
Even though I came in the picture very late, when most of the work and efforts had been accomplished for the fundraiser, I was still able to experience first-hand the amazing dedication and commitment of the members of the foundation. These are people with busy professional and personal lives, who every day take out a substantial slice out of their time to work towards one goal: To give some freedom of choice to children living in Iran, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world.
Poverty is more than just the lack of food, more than child labor, more than being forced out of school to marry. It is all that and more, but most fundamentally, it is a violation of crucial human rights and valuable freedoms that are at the core of our humanity: The freedom to have control over your own life, rather than let circumstances control it for you. Poverty leaves you not only with physical needs, but deep emotional and mental scars: a feeling of helplessness, depression, a loss of hope in yourself and in others around you.
Furthermore, without food, education, and other means, how can the children of today possibly be expected to become full participants in their society? Instead, they will continue to inflate the ranks of the marginalized and the hopeless. Poverty is a cycle that repeats itself viciously, and members of Child Foundation have recognized how the tide can be changed: The children and their education.
I found the fundraiser gala to be very informative. Usually, I am weary of glamorous and glitzy affairs where fabulous entertainment is provided to an elite audience of socialites and movers and shakers. When I see some of these $5000 a plate events on TV or in the gossip columns, these do-gooders look so smug and self-congratulatory, standing there in their designer gowns and tacky jewels. It is a field day for my Doubting Iranian, who jumps up and wags his finger at me with an “I told you so” attitude.
Nevertheless, in the Child Foundation fundraiser, the attendees were not paparrazi-hunting vanity cases but ordinary, hardworking people who came because of a genuine interest in the cause at hand. I personally saw many of the guests sponsoring children, some for the first time, others for the second or third time in their lives.
The celebrities, who attended, such as Shahrzad Ardalan, Doctor Holakooyie, and Behrouz Voussoughi, did not grab the spotlight for themselves but were there solely to lend themselves to the cause as best as they could.
The minimal entertainment remained peripheral to the main task of the evening, which was to provide information on the hundreds of children who have thus far succeeded in their education and life because of the efforts of the foundation, and the thousand more who await a helping hand.
A number of moving video presentations showed the children in their natural setting, being interviewed on camera, about their life, their hopes, their wishes. Outside of the main hall, many tables were set up providing pictures and other information for countless children awaiting sponsorship.
Child Foundation volunteers were certain to make themselves available for any comments or inquiries by the attendees. I especially liked the genuine enthusiasm of the younger volunteers, hyphenated Iranians ranging from early childhood to late teen-age years. I was so moved by their little serious faces and slow but precise articulation of Farsi as they handed guests various pamphlets or just chatted with them. I had a strong feeling that this younger generation is starting fresh, having booted once and for all any traces of the Doubting Iranian from their psyche.
One particularly poignant moment for me was seeing in one of the video presentations, the interview of one young boy, aged about seven, who testified about his job collecting discarded papers for a factory in Iran. He could not go to school because he needed to provide for “kharje khooneh”. It was eerie to see this little guy, who physically looked like any other 7-year-old, but his demeanor, body language, and verbal expressions were those of a mature, and weary adult. The look in his eyes, in particular, was already aged much beyond his years.
This reminded me of my own grandfather who went to work at around the same age in Tehran, lifting huge cement blocks on his frail child's back to help his family survive. He managed by some miracle to spend his nights schooling himself. Eventually he would go on to write several volumes of beautiful Persian poetry. He also managed to give my mother and her siblings a good life and they were all able to go to university.
Now, I myself have thrived with the opportunities presented to me. None of this would have been possible had my grandfather not been able to break the cycle. But when I looked at that little boy on camera, I realized that for many, the cycle has not been broken. We, who have so many material comforts in various lands of opportunities in the West, have a responsibility to sponsor those children in Iran and other parts of the world.
For all of your Doubting Iranians out there who are surely rolling your eyes up and crossing your arms in defiance, let me just provide you with the following information about Child Foundation. This organization is not affiliated politically in any way. They rely solely on public donations and corporate sponsorships. They all work purely on a volunteer basis, therefore their overhead costs consist of an unbelievable 5 % compared to other organizations. Thus, the bulk of donations are able to reach their intended recipients.
The money is distributed through local social agencies in Iran that keep a detailed record of finances, available for the whole public to examine. Furthermore, pictures and letters can be exchanged between the children and their benefactors, who are welcome to visit them in person at any time they wish to do so.
At the fundraiser, it was announced that so far, of all the children receiving assistance from the Child Foundation, 78% have been able to successfully complete the university entrance exam. The date of the fundraiser was even more special in that it was the day Child Foundation received news of their very first sponsored student having successfully graduated from university.
The foundation started small with a simple objective to help the bright Iranian children to have an opportunity to go on with their education and now, seven years later, contributing on an international scale is on the top of their agenda. I myself cannot wait for the next fundraising event which is to take place on Noruz.
If the Doubting Iranian in you is still sucking on a lemon, by all means, volunteer instead of making a donation, and see the inner workings of this organization for yourself.
As for me, my own little evil Doubting Iranian has managed to gnaw through the cords that were keeping him prisoner. Disgusted at my good will and renewed zest for charity, he has fortunately decided to pack up his suitcases and immigrate to a more pessimistic haven. I feel much better already and, along with a rosier outlook on life, I think I am even getting a rosier complexion. See photos of children supported by the Child Foundation