Commentary: An Iranian refugee on becoming American – legally, then in spirit

It’s lucky that my mother and I were admitted as refugees to America before the topic of immigration became so contentious. If the current laws were to change to add skills or financial requirements, we could have never gotten in. Hell, I myself, a bitter teenager then, thought us perfectly useless and was stunned that anybody wanted us at all. We came empty-handed in 1985, without even suitcases to declare at Customs. And without any English, for that matter. On my first outing with a young man I dearly wanted to impress, I did not understand the waitress when she asked if I preferred Coke to Pepsi.

A woman holds her naturalization certificate during a special naturalization ceremony at the Department of Justice in Washington May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

What I had a lot of was anger. Anger at having been ejected from my homeland, Iran. Anger at having lost not only the people and places I loved, but, above all, the language I adored and had hoped to make a career writing in. Anger at the elite who had promised that the 1979 revolution would bring us freedom and democracy. Anger at America because I was the product of the post-revolutionary education system that blared “Death to America” every morning in the schoolyard. Having objected to America for so long to now be at its mercy was no picnic.

That anger hardly subsided because curious, kind-hearted folks would readily, unknowingly, summon it: “Where are you from?”

Hearing my answer, they would gasp and offer this in sympathy: “You must be delighted to be here!”

Back then, I felt as delighted as a chickadee would in a fox’s grip. When I passed through the revolving doors at New York’s JFK airport, the size of all that I saw – people, SUVs, highways crisscrossing overhead – dwarfed me. I have forgotten a great many things about those early days, but my desultoriness is not among them.

In between my expired maroon Iranian passport and the blue American one came a white booklet, not a passport, but a travel document. White was symbolically apt for that bleached out state between arrival and citizenship, that existential no-man’s-land. A twilight space where one loosens her hold on the old identity, while not having yet earned the new.

I introduced myself as a “nowhereian” in those days, when bygone fears still haunted me. The sight of the lowliest government employees, uniformed guards at any gate, unnerved me. Trusting the advice of officials, from immigration to resettlement workers, did not come easily for it required a complete suspension of all the knowledge I had arrived with.

Over time, incremental changes accrued, tiny deposits into an account of belonging. They came through small but essential encounters. The oath of allegiance, however significant, is often only a ceremonious hour, not one of reckoning. But watershed events and crises offer shortcuts through that journey to belonging. September 11 for instance. By 10 a.m. on that day, my 75-year-old father who until then had been composing poem after poem about his yearning for Tehran had hung an American flag from the railings of the fourth-floor balcony of my parents’ Queens apartment. It remains the only illicit act he has ever committed here, for he knew well the co-op board did not approve of exterior displays. It was what he was compelled to do as he was overpowered by an unexpected tide of grief for the adopted country which had thus far seemed invulnerable to him. As we silently stared at Manhattan’s smoldering skyline, we wept for the dead, but also for the surge of a love we had not packed at departure. We were overcome, too, by the clear sense we had as to on which side of that sinister smoke we stood.

By then, the anger had subsided. This happened not merely because time moderates all passions, but because the joyful experiences which had once been denied me tilted the balance of the spirit. A pivotal shift came with those joys: A second arrival of sorts, this time not at a country, but at an insight. I saw that unlike what I was once led to believe, life’s purpose was not to give oneself up through sacrifice but to live – fully, richly, curiously.

When I left Iran, music was banned, and hijab was mandatory. Years later, when I finally jogged barefoot on a beach, hair bouncing in the wind, music blasting in my ears, I knew I had been bestowed a splendid gift – one I could never again live without.

A few months ago, my children’s fourth grade class was studying the subject of immigration and I was invited to address the group. Standing before dozens of 10-year-olds, I was just the living moral show-and-tell the teachers needed to drive home their lesson. One child asked how I had been able to make such a big adjustment. I said, “Because at my poorest, America embraced me unconditionally like families accept each other regardless of any flaws or strengths.”

For their rapt lot, I animated the narrative of the American melting pot and why it melts better than the rest. At moments like these, I marvel at my own keen sense of duty and citizenship. It is among those who are born American that I realize I am here to remind them of their rare gift.

So many revolutions fail. But few succeed, fewer still succeed as well as the American revolution of 1776. Those generations who are born in the relative comfort and security of its legacy are prone to forget that original covenant. Which is where we, the formerly useless, once empty-handed, now full-hearted, naturalized citizens come in.

About the Author

A recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in nonfiction, Roya Hakakian is the author of most recently, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.