They say that every minority group in the US has to pay their dues at some point to be accepted by the general public. The Irish did it, the Italians did it, and so did the Polish, the Jews and the Japanese in the internment camps during the World War II. One could argue that the Blacks and the Latinos are still paying them. I believe that we Iranians paid our dues in the 80’s, in the aftermath of the hostage crisis and the events thereafter during the Reagan years.
Americans didn’t know much about Iran prior the hostage crisis. Most people didn’t even know where Iran was. The few people that I ran into on campus that had heard of Iran through reading Time or Newsweek would always ask me two questions. “What do you think of the Shah? And, what do you think of the secret police, Savak?” So as an 18-year old college freshman, I quickly learned to maneuver around those questions.
Everything changed with the hostage crisis. All of a sudden there were “No Iranians Allowed” signs at our local clubs where we used to spend night after night dancing to the disco tunes. They required passports from foreign looking patrons. All of a sudden, Iranians became Greeks or Italians with names like Tony or Rocky! We did what we had to do to get in and get the blondes to dance with us!
The Immigration Department and FBI required that all Iranian students to report for interviews. As a part of those interviews they offered those students who would ask for it, the Asylum status. The local news was filled with stories about us. In my state, of the hundreds of students that attended several colleges, only a handful requested asylum. That information made it to the local evening news and created an incredible backlash in our communities. In an atmosphere of “you are either with us or against us” the people could not understand why we refused their offer. What they did not understand was that we were a bunch of young college students that were caught up in the politics of the time. We were proud and we did not think that we should ask for anything from anybody. After all, we had come to the US to get an education and then go back home. We paid for our education. We played by the rules.
In those days, any minor infraction in your paperwork resulted in a deportation hearing. One of my classmates had not reported his transfer to the Immigration Department so his I-20 form was not up-to-date. The night before his hearing with the Immigration judge, we were sitting around the table and thinking what was going to happen to him the next day.
“What are you going to do if they deport you?” I asked him. “The Foreign Students Office said that I will have to leave the country and then re-apply to get back in.” He said. “Where are you going to go?” I asked. “Oh, my uncle lives in Paris now. I’ll go and stay with them for a month or so. No problem. I need a break from all of this anyways!”
The next day, as the students were coming out of the Federal Building one by one, a reporter from the local news stuck the microphone in his face and asked him, “Sir, What happened with the judge today?” “There were minor problems with my paper work, so I am being deported.” My friend said. “You are being deported? Where are you going to go?” She asked. “I’ll go to Paris for a while to sort things out!” He said calmly. The news lady looked shocked. Here was a guy who was being deported from a small college town and he was going to Paris, the number one tourist destination in the world!
There were constant flow of negative news on TV about Iran and there were also acts of violence against Iranian students, especially if you lived in the middle of country, in what are called the “Red States” today. In one of the most publicized news items, a group of high school kids with baseball bats went to an apartment building in Denver looking for Iranians. They searched the mail boxes and found the apartment number for a young Iranian named Afsheen. They went to his place and banged on the door. He came out of his apartment with a shotgun in his hand. He shot and killed one of the intruders and injured the other two.
His trial was one of the most dramatic events of our young lives. Here we had an Iranian being tried for the murder of a high school student, in the middle of all the hostilities between Iran and the US, and a jury of not-his-peers was asked to judge his fate. Everyday, there were updates on the national news about his trial. In the most emotional closing statement, his attorney used the “your home is your castle” defense that brought tears to the jurors’ eyes. The jury acquitted him of all charges.
Say what you want to say about American justice, but if the roles were reversed, an American charged with the murder of an Iranian high school student would not had seen the light of day in Iran!
We paid our dues, we stayed cool and we grew up really fast in the 80’s!
A few years ago one of my American neighbors who is doing well in the high tech field and knows many Iranians asked me this question, “Every Iranian that I know has at least one master’s or PhD degree, if not more! Why is that?” I was tempted to tell him the truth that we had to stay in school longer than we needed to make sure that we can be safe and also find jobs in this country. But then again I thought why should I tell him that. So I just said, “believe or not, we Iranians are more interested in education than money or looks!”
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