Iranian in America: Immigrants share their hopes, fears and frustrations

In the wake of increasing geopolitical tensions, 10 Seattleites talk about turmoil here and abroad.



In the past month, tensions between the United States and Iran have dominated headlines. 

Diplomatic relations have steadily heated up since President Donald Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, with small aggressions feeding the fire between the two countries. The designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization and attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz both made headlines in 2019. 

Then, in the week before the new year, U.S. airstrikes killed 25 Iranian fighters. Iran-backed militia members then attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve in protest. Days later the U.S. killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike at a Baghdad airport. That led to retaliation by Iran in the form of missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq.

On that same day, Jan. 8, Iran shot down a Ukranian airliner taking off from Iran, killing 176 people on board. The Iranian government initially denied responsibility, but then later said that the downing was the result of an error, sparking widespread protest on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere across the world.

Back in the Pacific Northwest, we learned that some men, women and children of Iranian descent had been detained at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Wash., for extended periods, presumably without cause, and were never charged with any crime. 

“You feel like you're not safe just because of the place you were born and it just seems so unfair,” says Gelareh Roomiany, an independent school teacher who lives in Seattle.

Over the course of a week, 10 members of the Seattle area’s Iranian community shared their experiences as immigrants with Crosscut. They spoke of triumphant moments of sharing their culture with others, the struggles they have faced in the U.S. and the daily conflicts that surface simply because of their background and the political struggle between their two countries.

A woman who loves to dance, but was forbidden to do so while living in Iran, has now become a Persian dance instructor in Seattle — her own form of protest against her birth country and a way to battle the deep loneliness she’s feeling after moving away from friends and family. 

Another person who identifies as LGBTQ, must hide their sexual identity from others in the Iranian community, both here and abroad, for fear that they will be ostracized here or face severe legal punishment should they return to Iran.

The recent unrest in Iran weighs deeply on the minds of these Iranian Americans. One person spoke of the violent dreams she has experienced. Another explained how seeing video of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on fire in the predawn sky, amid the rising tensions of everything else, was the moment that caused him to abandon all hope for his government and its care for the Iranian people. 

Each person chose the space in which they were photographed; a place that was comforting or meaningful to them in some way. These are the stories of their American experience. 

Aria Fani, 33, assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington

Aria transplanted to Seattle for his job at the university three months ago. He moved to the U.S. from Iran in 2005 and lived in metro areas across California since his arrival — San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco — while becoming a naturalized citizen.

“There’s a statistic that the United States is one of the most welcoming countries to its naturalized citizens, and my time in this country definitely conforms to that statistic,” he says. “I feel welcomed most of my time here.” But Fani is concerned that recent developments in the ongoing crisis between his two countries will change that. “I’m worried about my fellow Americans seeing me as a problem and people like me as a problem being scapegoated,” he says. 

He believes that the majority of people in Iran had stopped buying into the political strategy of the Islamic Republic — that the United States is their biggest enemy — until these past few weeks, when President Trump ordered the drone strike that killed the country’s top military general. 

“The killing of Soleimani gave them huge political sway,” Fani says. “It completely saved them from themselves. That was a massive miscalculation. A massive miscalculation from a know-nothing president who's destroying diplomacy at an institutional level.” 

By attacking Iran militarily, the U.S. is doing a disservice to the Iranian people who are trying to make change from within, he explains. “A more evenhanded approach toward the Middle East would, I think, reduce tension with Iran and hopefully work to bolster the exhausted, almost nonexistent civil society right now.… they have their own struggles and so when we attack the government militarily, we make it impossible for them to operate in society," he says.  

Gelareh Roomiany, 32, independent school teacher in Bellevue 

As a teenager, Roomiany arrived in Pocatello, Idaho, in 2004 with an idealized view of the United States. “You come here and it's not what you expect. You feel very ignorant ’cause you've created this fairyland utopia that is the U.S. in your head and it's not that,” she says, during a visit to Carkeek Park in North Seattle. 

“When my brother and I started school, the kids and teachers acted very strangely towards us, and we were like ‘Why are we being treated so differently? What’s so different about us?’ and then it started dawning on us. People see us differently because we’re from that part of the world.”

Roomiany's path to citizenship in the United States took 12 years; she believes it was slowed because of xenophobic bureaucracy in a post 9/11 America. During that time her family moved to Bakersfield, Calif., Portland and then onward to Seattle, where they have been living for 11.5 years.

Fast forward to the events in recent weeks, and Roomiany is shocked and heartbroken by the detainment of Iranian Americans at the Canadian border. “You feel like you're not safe just because of the place you were born and it just seems so unfair,” she says, adding that the issue is affecting her community’s mental health. “My friends and I have a group chat on Facebook, as a way of, I think, a weird coping mechanism, We were joking about internment camps and how we should all move to California because at least it's warmer there.” 

Roomiany’s subconscious thoughts are amplified when she goes to bed at night. 

“I’ve been having pretty violent dreams of trying to escape through the border with my parents and our suitcases, being chased because they want to get us,” she recalls. “In another dream, I was at an art museum, and somebody handed the guard something, and they came over to me saying, ‘Get down! Lay down!’ and then did a full-body search.”

Roomiany loves to visit Carkeek Park for solace. “My mom was from the north of Iran and it’s a lot like the Northwest,” she says. “This reminds me of there and all my good childhood memories, the greenery and the smell of the ocean. This is the place I come to visit when I’m happy and sad, or just want to see a sunset — it’s really special to me.”


Somayeh Dadgari, 37, stay-at-home mother and dance instructor 

Dadgari, a mother of two young children, finds herself gazing out the window into the forest behind her Issaquah condominium when she writes poetry and reflects on her life. She and her husband won the lottery for a green card in the U.S. five years ago. They had already left Iran in 2010 and lived in various countries for her husband’s work, including Malaysia, Indonesia and New Zealand. 

“When we moved to New Zealand, we loved the country and filled out an application to stay there permanently, but then found that we had won the lottery for a green card, so my husband decided to resign for his job there,” Dadgari says, recounting the process of moving to America. “When we arrived we learned that you can’t rent an apartment anywhere without a job or established credit, and we had to live in Airbnbs for two months — it was very expensive.”

At times, it has been a solitary experience for their family. “What really impacts us is that the U.S. and Iran are very far away,” Dadgari explains, adding that  it’s a 24-hour string of flights across the globe to get home. “We cannot have our families here, and we cannot travel easily to visit them. it’s very expensive and time consuming. I’d prefer to be closer to my family; we used to see each other every couple of days, and with children it’s very hard for us not having support. It’s very lonely at times.”

Dadgari finds inspiration and happiness in the arts. When she lived in Iran, her affinity for Persian dance led her to explore the art, but laws in Iran forbid women from singing and dancing, forcing those who wanted to dance into underground clubs — she did so for nearly 20 years.

“I’m a Persian dance instructor and I’ve got a group of 10 here,” Dadgari says, her eye lighting up with excitement that she can freely explore what she loves. “I try to do whatever I can to make our beautiful heritage known, and show people where we came from.”

With the most recent developments in Iran, a wave of sadness washed over her, but she then realized that she must persevere. Dance can be a form of protest of what is happening in the streets. “You can show your feeling with dance. You can be angry with dance, I do that myself when I’m overwhelmed. Dance doesn’t only come with happiness. It’s about a feeling,” she says. 

Naz Lashgari, 55, diversity, equity and inclusion commissioner with the city of Lynnwood  

“I moved to the United States in 1978, shortly before the revolution,” says Lashgari, sitting at her home in Lynnwood, surrounded by Persian decor that makes her proud of her culture. “I attended Ingraham High School, and it was a horrible experience,” she recounts of her early memories of America and the Pacific Northwest. “After the hostage crisis during that time, every morning another student would write ‘Fuck Iran’ on all the chairs surrounding mine,” she says. 

Lashgari has found this intolerance at other points in her life, too. During the late ’90s, she was working in the dental industry as a midlevel manager. “I got a new boss from North Carolina,” she says, “and he told me in front of my entire staff that ‘I’m not going to have an Iranian woman become a regional manager of this company.’ A short time later he shut down our clinic and I was left without a job.”

Lashgari, who planned to start her own business, learned that her family’s wealth was diminishing from tariffs imposed on Iran by the current presidential administration. 

She has been searching for full-time work since August 2018, and even now, 20 years after the incident with her boss in the dental industry, she says she’s experiencing microaggressions based on her background. “I interviewed recently for a position at a local hospital [she declined to identify it] a prominent doctor walked into the interview and immediately asked me where my last name was from and if I knew certain people based on my being Persian,” she says. 

Lashgari has since filed a grievance with the hospital's human resources department and has been told the hospital is providing classes for the staff that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“I am happy to be living in America, despite the problems I’ve had over the years,” she says. “I am a much happier person because I do have rights, even though there is gender inequality. Compared to other places in the world, we live in a very wonderful place. I’m very proud of my area. I feel that we are a state that is very way ahead of our time.” 

Omid Vahabnejad, 23, marketing operations analyst

"America gives me purpose, Iran gave me an identity. It's the pinnacle of who I am," says Vahabnejad, a second-generation immigrant who was born and raised in Washington state and is a recent graduate of the University of Washington. His father came to the U.S. during the height of the Iranian revolution in 1978, and his mother came just a few years later during the Iran-Iraq war.

"The news has been on our TV a lot more often than it used to," he says. "We're talking about my two cultures here. Me being an Iranian American, but staying true to my Persian roots — the way I speak, interact. Seeing this is really painful. It brings back a lot of memories of having to deal with that challenge, the adversity, of showcasing to my peers what it means to be an Iranian American."

Omid ponders if these increased tensions will lead to the same views some Americans espoused of people from the Middle East in the early 2000s. "When 9/11 happened, I was about 5 years old. People in my age group in the years after, living in Kent, didn't really know what was going on,” he says. “There were times in people joking with me I was treated in a racist way. I just laughed about it, being called Omid the Dead Terrorist, which was a reference to ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham's character Achmed the Dead Terrorist. It is insensitive; it was to me, but I thought they didn't mean any real harm."

Vahabnejad has traveled to Iran on multiple occasions, most recently in 2017. "Every single time it's a new experience,” he says. “I try to the country with an open mind and leave with so many experiences that I cannot fathom or put into words. It's a moving feeling I have. Every time the plane is about to land at Khomeini Airport in Tehran I cry. There is no other root that I come from, and you can't be ashamed of where you come from."

Omid's name means “hope” in Farsi, he explains.

"This is the hope I have for my two cultures: I hope the violence cuts down. We just witnessed 175 lives taken away at the snap of a finger. I hope that Iran sees the bigger picture. I know they have that strive for the fight, but it's going to take a lot more than that. They just don't have the resources to do it. I don't want them to suffer anymore," he says.

Moein Pahlavan, 30, and Sepideh Khoshnood, 30, software engineers at Microsoft 

Pahlavan and Khoshnood moved to the United States together in 2012 and 2013, when they started studying at Virginia Tech on a student visa. They’ve since married, are both working at Microsoft and living in Issaquah together. They received their green cards in late 2017.

“From time to time, we still think about leaving the lives we’ve created in the U.S., and not building our whole future here,” Khoshnood says, sitting next to Pahlavan, as they recalled the time President Trump instituted a travel ban from a number of countries that were mostly Muslim. 

Pahlavan reminds Khoshnood that they had just purchased their condominium and it was move-in day. “Back then it was a huge deal for us,” Pahlavan says. “We didn’t even have green cards yet. And if we did get our green cards, they weren’t letting people in — would our family ever be able to visit us? It was a very intense day.” 

A few days later Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella held a Q&A session with employees at Building 16 in Redmond, where the couple chose to be photographed. “It was a strong moment for us,” Pahlavan says. “I read a statement that a group of us prepared for him, and afterward there was an outpouring of support for many others. It was heartwarming to see that because when those things happen you kind of feel like you are alone in this country.”

When Pahlavan was considering moving to the United States for college, his grandfather tried to discourage him from doing so: “He told me don’t go to the U.S. It’s too good there and I want you to come back and you will not.”

His grandfather was ailing in the past few years, and amidst the political struggles between the United States and Iran, his grandfather hoped to see Pahlavan. “I remember the last phone call that I had with him,” he says. “He was kind of waiting for me there and I just couldn't go visit. He passed away before I could go visit him, and I couldn't even go to the funeral. This has been one of the hardest things in my life, and I still wonder why it has to be this way.”

Lilia Karimi, 26, entrepreneur and yoga teacher 

“When I was growing up, I just wanted to belong and adapt, so I didn’t embrace the culture as much,” says Karimi, who lives in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, a second-generation Iranian American who was born and raised in the region. “I would shy away from certain things, but as an adult, I’ve become much more grateful for my culture.” 

Karimi lived in Kirkland throughout her childhood, and then moved across the country to attend college in upstate New York, before living in Brooklyn. “I’ve always been fortunate to be around people and institutions in places that are open-minded and liberal, but it’s really concerning to see what’s happening [at the Canadian border],” she says.

She has wanted to visit Iran but is unsure of traveling there now. “Last year I got married to a man who is caucasian, and I would love to go to Iran with him,” she says, “but I don't know if there will ever be a good time for us to visit together.”

Karimi wants to make sure her Persian roots remain strong in her marriage and family life, as she hopes to one day raise her own family. “There's a lot of interesting pieces of Iranian culture. The food, the way people interact, a lot of generosity, a lot of love. I feel the way Iranians love is a very strong connection," she says. 

Leyla Salmassi, 50s, Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center at University of Washington, and Darya Farivar, 25, community and legislative liaison at Disability Rights Washington 

Salmassi and Farivar are both lifelong residents of the Seattle area. Salmassi immigrated to the United States from Iran in 1976 at age 10; her daughter, Darya, was born at Swedish Hospital on First Hill, and their family has lived in the same house overlooking Lake Washington in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood for all of their children’s lives.

Farivar explains that it’s the microaggressions and subtle remarks or questions that build upon each other and get her down. “I’ve had so many experiences of people coming up to me almost out of the blue. Like, ‘Where are you from?’ Oh, I'm from Seattle, I tell them. They keep pressing, ‘No, where are you really from? Where are you actually from?’ And it's like, no, I am from Seattle, born and raised.”

When these things happen, Farivar relies on her family to discuss troubles. “We'll get together and talk about whatever has been difficult that week. We're very tight-knit, close family and I think that's very common in the Iranian community,” Farivar explains. “We talk about strategies on how to move forward, what we can do next time or maybe something that's worked well for someone else — I’m, I'm really lucky to have a family to come back to and debrief with and strategize.”  

With the recent news that people of Iranian descent have been detained for extended periods at the Canadian border, it reminds their family of how they, as first- and second-generation immigrants in a post-9/11 world, learned to navigate border entry during the 2000s. 

“Borders are scary places if you look remotely different,” says Farivar, in conversation with her mother. They loved to travel abroad as a family.

“We coped with it. We had a routine. We figured out that their dad, my husband, who is Iranian as well, couldn't be the first face that hit border patrol,” says Salmassi, remembering how they organized themselves at the time, with two kids aged 6 and 2. “He would be in the back, she [Farivar] would be in front of him, her little brother would be in front of her. And then I would be the first one with all the passports — it's softened the interaction a little bit. There is such a thing as profiling for everyone, but it’s quite a bit more stark for men and boys, particularly because of the Middle East.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt M. McKnight

Matt M. McKnight

Matt McKnight is formerly a visual journalist at Crosscut, where he covered a variety of political, social and environmental issues around the Pacific Northwest.