'I love both countries,'

UI student says

     Gazette Online - Wednesday July 4, 2007
 'We choose to be American'

By Alison Gowans
 The Gazette
OWA CITY — Nestled amid Eastern Iowa’s farms is a house named for a garden in Iran, some 6,000 miles away.  At an Independence Day party Saturday, rural Johnson County’s Safa Garden, an informal community center for local Iranian-Americans, was filled with laughter and discussion, voices flowing easily from Farsi to English and back again.  Apple pie and watermelon rested comfortably alongside Persian dishes like rice cooked with eggplant and pitas with yogurt and cucumber sauce. The food celebrated American freedom while reaffirming Iranian culture.

The party offered a snapshot of Eastern Iowa’s small, close-knit Iranian community. Balancing dual identities, at once Iranian and American, they defy media images of an Iran seen through its hard-line Islamic government, led most prominently by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Research by Mohammad Chaichian, a professor of sociology at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, shows Iowa’s Iranians tend to fit a certain mold. They are almost all financially well-off, and most are highly educated, holding bachelor and graduate degrees at statistically higher rates than white, African-American and Hispanic Iowans. They are religiously diverse: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and atheist Iranians mingling freely.
‘‘We came here by choice, so we choose to be American,’’ said Dr. Siroos Shirazi, 67, of Iowa City, who is married to American-born Patti Walden, 53. Yet it was Shirazi who in 1994 established Safa Garden, off Highway 1 north of Iowa City, as a gathering place for Iranians from across the state. They may have chosen to be American, but they are not relinquishing their heritage.  ‘‘It’s a balancing act,’’ said University of Iowa senior Yashar Vasef, 23, of Iowa City, head of the UI’s Persian Student Organization in the 2006-07 school year.  He came to the United States 15 years ago when his family fled the Iran-Iraq war. ‘‘I feel just as much Iranian as I do American, and I love both countries.’’

Dr. Siroos Shirazi (left) and Dr. Ali Rezai, both of Iowa City, are the chief organizers of the annual IranianAmerican Fourth of July celebration. This year, it was held at Shirazi's Safa Garden in rural Solon. Since 1994, Safa Garden has served as place where Iranians from around the state can gather.

   The 2000 U.S. census reported 709 people of Iranian descent living in Iowa, a small portion of the 338,000 Iranians and Iranian-Americans across the country.  Some Iranians, like Shirazi, came as students or academics before the 1979 revolution that brought the current Islamic government to power.  Many more came after the revolution, unhappy with the political situation at home. Still others, like Vasef, came during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.   With high levels of animosity between the Iranian and American governments, immigration from Iran to the United States almost has halted, Chaichian said. Iowa’s already small Iranian community is shrinking as its children grow, graduate and, in many cases, move to bigger cities. Without a fresh wave of immigrants, the Iranian community structure in Iowa could disintegrate in as few as 10 to 15 years, Chaichian estimated.

  The political discord raises another issue for Iranian-Americans: how to balance an often fierce pride in their heritage with the realities of a sometimes harsh political conflict between the governments of their two countries.   A solution for some has been to sidestep the issue by eschewing the term Iranian and self-identifying as Persian, the ancient culture from which many of Iran’s people spring.

  ‘‘My inner being is not with that country or that government,’’ said Dr. Ali Rezai, 65, of Iowa City.  ‘‘I don’t even recognize that country; it has changed. My inner life is with the culture I have brought with me.’’   Rezai is a de facto leader of Iowa City’s Iranian Cultural Association, which, like the Persian Student Organization is meant to avoid politics and focus only on Persian culture.  When gathering for holidays like the Independence Day party or Norooz, the Iranian New Year held in March, political discussions are for the most part left at home.
  ‘‘I’m an American. Where I stand and voice my opinion — it is all in America and directed toward American causes,’’ Rezai said.
  ‘‘But in my inner life, inside my heart — that is different. All that culture, music, poetry; it’s a baggage I carry around inside me.
  ‘‘That’s what keeps me alive. My own inner heart is Iranian.’’

  Contact the writer: (319) 339-3162 or