Millennial Iranian-American Responses to Rising Tensions and Conflict

It would be an understatement to say that the past few weeks have been stressful for Iranians around the world. For many young Iranian-Americans throughout the U.S., the recent events have sparked a new yet familiar anxiety about their country of origin.  

Among these young Iranian-Americans is Saman Jabari, a senior at the University of Maryland College Park and the president of the university’s Iranian Students’ Foundation. Jabari explains that many young Iranian-Americans worry about their home country and the U.S. alike, and that “for citizens of Iran, sanctions prove to be difficult…for the Iranian community in the U.S., immigration statuses and travel to Iran may be threatened. Additionally, there is an increased chance of discrimination in all areas of life.”

Similarly, Nikki Vafai is a junior at the George Washington University in D.C., where she studies International Affairs and Art History; like Jabari, she is the president of her university’s Iranian Students Association. Vafai sees the recent tensions as uniquely challenging for young Iranian-Americans: “I think it impacts the younger Iranian-American community differently than it does our parents, because most of us were born in the U.S. and we feel connected to both identities, but at the same time we see that we are being treated differently when we travel, apply for government positions etc. or even how we are represented in the media.” Vafai also notes that the rise of social media and technology has enabled easy misrepresentations of Iranians in the media, explaining that “everyone always expects Iranians to fit a certain category but Iranians are so diverse not only in terms of looks, but there is also so much religious diversity in Iran.”

A separate technological issue impacting Iranian-Americans is the use of internet platforms to fundraise for charity or engage in online sales. A recent GoFundMe fundraiser created to help families and friends of passengers of the Ukraine International Airlines plane crash was shut down, in a classic example of sanctions overcompliance. Although GoFundMe reversed course and later allowed the campaign to proceed, the initial delay still bears the prick of a psychological setback for many Iranian-Americans. The Iranian-American Chamber of Commerce also is looking into reports that online retailers may have delisted U.S.-made products described with the label “Persian,” despite bearing no relation to trade with Iran.

Additionally, young Iranian-Americans, especially students from Iran, are worried about problems with deportations and traveling. Iranian-born students with valid student visas have been detained, questioned, and deported upon arriving at U.S. airports. There are other travel concerns such as Iranian-Americans, including U.S. citizens of Iranian heritage, being held at the U.S.-Canada border for hours. Allegations also have surfaced that U.S. Border Protection officials at the Canadian border were instructed to target Iranian-born persons entering the country. For many young Iranian-Americans, this instability creates real problems for members of their Iranian-American community. Jabari notes that Iranian-Americans “are people who have done nothing wrong and are simply trying to live their lives. A conflict between the two governments, which is completely out of their hands, is routinely affecting their livelihood.”

Both Jabari and Vafai believe that the current tensions and tragedies have brought to light the solidarity non-Iranians have with the Iranian-American community. Jabari, who was in Iran during the height of the conflict, expressed that “friends from high school and college reached out to me regarding the recent tensions” and that “they do realize the gravity of the situation and wish for the best.” Edward Rastgoo, a junior at the George Washington University studying International Affairs and Middle East Studies and a member of the Iranian Students Association’s executive board, highlighted similar ideas: “Many of my friends, both of Iranian descent and not, reached out about the recent events with questions and concerns.” Similarly, Vafai notes that many of her friends and acquaintances approach her to ask about the situation; she believes that “in light of everything that’s going on today and the media’s ongoing misrepresentation of Iran/Iranians, it’s nice having the opportunity to let people know more about Iran and hear how surprised they are about Iran’s rich culture.”

Iranian-Americans are one of the most educated and successful immigrant communities in the United States; when tensions rise, a wide range of policies may be impacted, from immigration to sanctions. Companies are not immune from political tension, and may mistakenly put their compliance teams in overdrive on Iran-related issues, leading to errors in sanctions overcompliance. These decisions can have huge ramifications for Iranian-American-owned businesses. Likewise, changes in immigration policy can leave a dampening effect on Iranian student applications and admissions for years to come, a loss to the U.S., where foreign-born immigrants make up over a quarter of the STEM workforce. Despite recent challenges, young Iranian-Americans still feel hope for the future, and represent the next generation of rising Iranian-American entrepreneurs, professionals and civic leaders.

By Ariane Sharifi