Living on The Edge

Story of an Iranian Student in US

I was born in 1989 (a year after Iran-Iraq war ended), in a small town called Shahindezh in the northwest of Iran. At the time, Shahindezh had a population of 20,000 people, mostly from Azerbaijani or Kurdish ethnicities. My family is Azeri or as we call ourselves, Turk. But, we have Kurdish family members who married into the family. Growing in this town, I learned Turkish/Azerbaijani as my mother tongue, Farsi as the official language of TV and school and Kurdish as a language to talk to the wonderful old owner of the neighborhood’s grocery store and my grandmother’s caretaker “daya khanoom.”

My Grandma on the right and her care taker “Daya khanoom” on the left. Grandma only speaks Turkish and Daya khanoom only speaks Kurdish. To date, it is a mystery for me how they communicate.

At the time, Shahindezh was heavily impacted by the Iran-Iraq war, just like the rest of cities in the western Iran. It took many years until the town recovered from the devastating war. At the time, there was only one high school, one terminal with two daily buses heading to Tabriz and one daily bus to Tehran, a small semi-functional children’s park, one library, two drugstores, one small hospital, one post office, one gymnasium (essentially a building next to a soccer field), and mayor’s office (a three stories building with white marble which also was the fanciest building in the whole town).

Both of my parents were primary school teachers. They met in college, and got married. Very hardworking individuals who chose to teach in the most distant villages of our town. Some of those villages had no road access during the winter. They decided that it is easier if we rent a small house in the village and spend the whole winter there, near the school rather than traveling back and forth. Some vague memories are the only things I remember from those days. In particular, I remember playing with the our landlord’s daughters while they were knitting carpets, running around among the sheep every evening, being followed by a shepherd dog, and riding a “majestic” grey donkey. These are among the most cherished memories of my childhood. Before I forget, I have a younger brother who was born two years after me. We grew up together, as friends and playmates. For some reason though, I don’t remember him in any of those early days. I guess he spent most of that time napping and crying.

Winter in Shahindezh. And, yeah, it snows in Iran!
Sarroje Village, Similar to the Village my parents were teaching at.

By the time I was 7, we moved back to Shahindezh, our own house. My brother and I started the primary school. I was a happy kid. Going to the school a few block away where our next door neighbor was the principal and the other next door neighbor was my fourth grade and fifth grade teacher (We were living in “teacher’s block”! All but two of our neighbors were teachers). In the primary school, I was a very good student, but not the best in our class. In the middle school though, I was almost always the top student in the school (and in the town).

My first interaction with a computer goes way back to 1998 when I was 10 and in third grade. With my mom’s help, I enrolled in an MS-DOS class held by Red Cross. I have no idea why red-cross had an MS-DOS class, but I am grateful for it. It was the only class of its kind in the town. Everyone in the class was in high school or older. But, I was the most enthusiastic kid, the one mostly fascinated by the magic of computers. There was only one machine for all the students to use and practice what they had learned. We had to register for hour long time slots beforehand to use them. I would take the last slot and always stay for much longer until they closed the building. To be honest, it was not all the fascination and magic of computers. At the end of the day, what could you do with a computer without internet and software in the third grade? Well, I could play DOOM! Yes, I played DOOM almost half the time I was on that PC. I had drawn a keyboard on paper to practice typing at home. One day, my mom saw it. She was very touched, maybe even cried a little bit. In those years, computers were not that common. In fact, the only places I could see them outside that room were the banks. No one else had a computer. But my parents decided to buy a PC for me. I still think that it was because of that paper keyboard. I have to emphasize, that machine was VERY expensive. My amazing parents spent something like the salary of two months to buy it. This was before we had a car and I know they had to delay buying that car for a year so that I could have that PC. I am eternally grateful to them.

As I mentioned earlier, my town had only one high school. It had hard working teachers but still lacked a lot. Luckily, the Iranian government at the time had a program for talented students from less developed towns and villages. The program provided, high quality regional high schools with dormitories. It was free; one had to take an entrance exam to get into the school, though. I ranked fifth. The school was in a different city called Khoy. Khoy is a beautiful city, with a long history and amazing people. Despite all the awesome things it had to offer, it had a significant disadvantage. It was a 5 hours drive (8–9 hours with bus) from ShahinDezh. I was only 14. But, I had made my mind and decided to go. My dad was not a big fan of the decision. He believed I could have been successful in our town’s high school. My mom was supportive of my decision, though. And, finally, I registered in “Nemoone Modarres high school.”

Khoy was full of good memories for me. Having 16 roommates at a time was great! Believe me! It was incredible and fun all the time. Despite the unhealthy meals, small chewy kebobs, uncooked potatoes and oily rice, I had a blast. I met great friends, some of them from the most distant villages of the area who with hard work made it through to the top school in the province. Some were the first in their entire family with the prospect of entering college. I was lucky to be there.

My roommates and I in our dorm room.

Being in Khoy was fun but, was not easy. As a teenager, spending all our time away from family in a very controlled environment where even our sleep time was regulated. The school environment was optimized for studying. There was no notion of privacy and personal space. Electronics were not allowed. You could watch a movie (usually, a Bollywood love story; I still like them, don’t judge me!), once a week in a cramped TV room with 100 other students.

We enjoyed wrestling on the bunk beds! this was real! Some form of high school WWE.
Every day, one of us had to clean the room. This is me.

I spent most of my time in the library! Well, at least that was what we used to call. The library was essentially a big room, with little desks and pillows around all the walls. My mom still has that desk, and I am planning to bring it to the US one day. And, to date, I still like working and studying on the floor. It is the most comfortable position for me.

Me, in the “Library” of our high school!

My hard work paid off, I consistently ranked first in the high school. Later, in the city and finally in the whole province of Western Azerbaijan. I was very proud of myself. I was kicking the ass of many students from very affluent families, with private tutors and endless support of their families. I was also kinda famous in the town and the province. To be honest, it felt good.

Ghalamchi organization every year published the names of the students

Finally, last year of high school arrived. A full year, dedicated only to preparation for “Konkoor” or Iranian national university entrance exam. To give you some perspective, in 2007 alone, when I was taking the exam, there were 500,000 students who wanted to enter engineering and science majors. There were separate Konkoors for the medical science and humanities. It was a rough year. I would study 60–70 hours per week for 6–7 month straight. I ranked 230 in the country and first in my province. I was happy to start a new chapter in my life. All my hard work had paid off. I got into Electrical Engineering in University of Tehran. At the time, EE was the most popular and sought-after major among the engineering students. Usually the top choice of the top Konkoorists :-)

University of Tehran’s Entrance
Tehran University is the Symbol of higher Education in Iran. This is the picture of UT’s entrance on the Iranian 500 Rials bill.

College was amazing. Very different from high school. For the first time, I had “female” classmates and “female” professors. Keep in mind; I was coming from an all guy boarding high school where there was zero chance of talking to a girl. I was in Tehran, a large metropolitan area with 15 million population. My professors were all incredibly smart people with degrees from the top schools in the world. I was getting the best education one could get in the field in the country. I met friends with a diverse set of backgrounds. One of my very close friends was Jewish. On top of that, University of Tehran was and is the most political school in Iran with a very active student body and a long history. All the governments in Iran were criticised by the UT students; before and after Islamic Revolution of 1979. I had endless opportunities for discussions on politics, religion, and economy with friends, roommates, and classmates. Long story short, my time in U. of Tehran, opened my eyes to the world around me, changed my world view, my beliefs, and my values. I was a different person at the of that four years, a better person I believe. And, I met wonderful friends and forged friendships that I hope would last for as long as I live and beyond.

Eydane Celebration 2010, ECE dept, University of Tehran

I worked very hard in college, too. I was consistently among the top 10 students out the 270 students in the ECE department. In the third year of college, one of the most tragic events of my life happened. In the night of March 31st, 2009, during the Iranian new year holidays, my father passed away due to a heart attack. It was totally unexpected. There were no prior symptoms or heart problems. It was devastating for my family and I. A week later, I was back at school. My mom did not let me stay and insisted on my going back and finishing my semester. I did. That semester, I had my highest GPA ever.

Fast forward to 2011, I sent my application for Ph.D. programs in the US, Canada, and Europe. I was admitted and granted scholarship from top schools around the world; almost everywhere I applied to. I was admitted to EPFL in Switzerland (12th best engineering school in the world) with a full scholarship. I had a full scholarship from University of Toronto and University of British Columbia both first and second best engineering schools in Canada. And, In the US, I was admitted to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign(UIUC), University of Texas at Austin, University of Southern California, University of California San Diego, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and a few more; All among top ten engineering in the US. I chose to study Computer Science in UIUC.

Me and our Alma mater in UIUC

Coming to the US opened a new chapter in my life, an ongoing chapter. I decided to come to the USA because of the opportunities, to experience freedom, for the social diversity of this country, and because I thought that I was welcome and wanted here. Everyone seemed to agree that the US was the most immigrant-friendly country in the world. I used to hear from everybody that They don’t care where you come from, what you believe in and what color your skin is.

It was mostly true, but not quite entirely. US and Iran do not have a direct diplomatic relationship, and there is no US embassy in Iran. Iranian students have to travel twice to other countries to get a VISA. Once for the interview and once to pick up the VISA. In most cases, those countries themselves require VISA too. After all the steps, you may or may not get a VISA. There is no clear procedure or protocol. It is all very random. I know many of my friends whose VISA application was rejected in the interview, or never passed the clearance process, or got their VISAs months after the semester had started. Some of them had to defer their starting date and waste a year, or all in all give up on the “American Dream” and choose a much more predictable Canadian Dream or a European Dream. And If you manage to pass all these steps, almost always, you get a single entry VISA to enter the US. As a Ph.D. student with at least five years of school ahead, my VISA was valid only for three months and one entry. Going back home to visit my family means that I have to risk losing my career and all I have built so far.

Sometimes, it feels like a backward prison here. You can leave, but you cannot come back. As an Iranian in the US, you are restricted. I could not participate in some research projects because of my nationality. Imagine, the first week in grad school, showing up to join a meeting and my advisor telling me that you cannot come into the room. Same thing happened when I was looking for jobs and internships. Companies hiring Iranian students need to apply for an “export license.” Essentially, they need to prove to the government that the Iranian citizens do not have access to export-controlled technologies. The time required to get the license is arbitrary, similar to the VISA process. It may take between three to six months. Again, I have many friends who missed their internships in companies like Google, Intel, Apple, and Texas Instruments because their export license was not ready on time. During an interview with QUALCOMM, I was told by the interviewer, “last year, we offered a position to an Iranian student, and his export license was not ready on time. I don’t want the same thing to happen. So you better keep looking for other opportunities”. I was reject the next day. A similar thing happened to me during an interview with NVIDIA. Some companies, all in all, give up on hiring Iranian students because they don’t want to deal with the mess and paperwork; Amazon and Intel are some examples. As academics, one thing everyone needs to do is to attend conferences and present your work. It is also one of the fun aspects of being in grad school. Traveling around, meeting fellow researchers and advocating your research. Well, I have almost never been able to present my work myself. My works are accepted in conferences that were held in Germany, Taiwan, Portugal, South Korea and China. I could not travel.

But I think the most important impact of this situation has been on my relationship with my family. I have missed weddings, funerals, birthdays, and family gatherings. I start to realize, by every day that is passing, I know my family less and less. My brother is changing, growing up every day. He is a different person than the one I used to know. My family and I have learned to live our lives without each other. My brother does not need me. In other words, he cannot need me because I am not there. It feels unfair for him to ask things from me that I cannot provide. Well, he has learned how to live his life without me. The worst part is that it feels like I had a choice. I had a choice to stay in Iran, possibly do Ph.D. in an Iranian school. I could have made a ton of money there (there are not many graduates of top schools who stay in Iran. There is no foreign competition due to sanctions. If you are smart, there is a ton of money to be made.) I could have been successful there as well. And yet I chose to come here. Here, I am wanted and not wanted. I am respected and not respected. I am the friend and the enemy.

But, I have learned how not to give up. I have learned how not to lose hope and work hard for a better future. What is coming up next is not easy, I don’t even know what it is and when it is going to happen. But I am ready for it. It is not my first fight, nor will be the last one. I am going to live my life to the fullest, happily. I am going to enjoy every bit of it. I am going to love and be loved. And, I am going to make dreams come true. And one day in future, I will help another person to make his/her dreams come true.

With love,
The Iranian Immigrant

Me and my partner in crime :-)