Man holding protest sign during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Source: Wikipedia

On Omelettes & Immigration

Personal experiences as points of departure for larger narratives of struggle for social justice.

May 2013 — New York, NY

Yes hi, Mani? Hi this is [hiring manager at company]
Hope you’re well. I had an opportunity to sync up with HR and unfortunately due to legal issues we are unable to proceed with your hiring process at this time, and much to our regret, we need to withdraw our offer. I’m terribly sorry about that.

I’m at Washington Square park making my way towards the closest post office to mail out the lease termination letter to our landlord. After all, I have accepted an offer in another city. I’m excited about it and so is my partner. We think this can be a good retreat from the hectic New York life. After the intense years of grad school both for her and I, this can be a good reset for us. We decide to give up our apartment and relocate. Well, until just now.

I hang up and take a minute to feel bad for myself: A condensed 60-second session of self-pity and then moving on. I think about the silver lining: at least I haven’t mailed out that lease cancellation form yet, and we get to keep our apartment. I’m upset but not surprised. After all, I have grown accustomed to being on “lists”, and to the stigmatized aura surrounding my country’s name: Iran.

Against the troubling backdrop of the 1953 CIA-backed coup, the 1979 hostage crisis, and the Iran Air Flight 655 incident, the U.S. — Iran relation has been one overtaken by bilateral mistrust and suspicion. For years Iran has been subject to sanctions and trade embargoes of various kinds; the casualties of which have largely consisted of innocent civilians.

It turns out, as an Iranian national employed by a large technology corporation, my access to the company’s codebase and organizational knowledge would be subject to these restrictions and considered a “trade”; one prohibited by law. And there goes my new job offer.


January 2017 — Boston, MA

“Can you imagine …”, says my friend with her frail voice cracking as she wipes her tears, “Not having a life for so many years. Staying in, studying for exam after exam. Giving up your social life entirely to become a physician and apply for a residency at a hospital here in Boston. And now …”

In the face of the new executive order, It was entirely unclear whether or not she would be able to obtain her work visa, a fact that would greatly discourage hospitals to consider her residency application despite her full qualification. 
No, I could not imagine. But I could hold her and give her emotional support.


I’m sitting in a movie theater at MFA in Boston for the annual Iranian Film Festival. My thoughts are racing. My stomach is upset. My thumb hurts and my wrist is tingling and numb from excessive texting. I am being rude, distracting the audience with the unwelcome cold glow of my cellphone screen in the dark movie theater. The gentleman behind me finally taps on my shoulder. I apologize and put my phone away. After the film, I find him and apologize again, explaining that I needed to relay some legal advice to friends affected by the Muslim Ban. He is sympathetic: “Was your family affected?”


We were. As an Iranian with a single-entry visa, I have to cancel my trip back home. My sister’s plane lands in NYC in an hour and I’m doing my best to focus on brainstorming at a company offsite. “Just landed”, reads the text message. In my mind, she is held in a poorly-lit room at JFK being questioned, and denied entry. “I wish she never took that flight” I think to myself. I’d rather cancel this family reunion than have her mistreated. I excuse myself to use the restroom. I wash my face and and give myself one minute of self-pity. I Pull myself together and call her. She has made it in; a privilege bestowed upon her by her dual French citizenship; a fact that in and of itself is problematic and troubling. While large crowds tirelessly protest the travel ban at JFK in solidarity, she enters U.S. soil; leaving behind many others with valid visas; visas they have spent thousands of dollars and awaited lengthy background security check processes to obtain.


March 2017, New York NY

Dear [People at company]
First off, congrats on the launch of [new product]!
[…]
I apologize for the delayed response, and the long silence.
I’ve recently been going through changes in personal life, which reprioritized things for me a bit. So I decided to delay my next career move and stay put for a few more months.

Sincerely,
Mani Nilchiani

In late March, I withdrew from two interview processes with companies whose products I adored and where I saw myself grow and work on what I thought mattered. At this point, my priorities had completely shifted. A lot of things that had previously claimed front seats in my life — career development, art practice, music — had suddenly faded to the background as more urgent and pressing needs took the steering wheel. During this period, I focused on working with different organizations to build and launch campaign sites opposing the many problematic and particularly xenophobic policies of the new administration, and to apply my expertise to make a difference. It was an intense process of rapid and close collaboration with friends old and new. I wouldn’t sleep much, and was hunched on my laptop working. My wrist was getting more numb and my hands hurt.

As time passed, I found myself increasingly burned out and aching. I found it impossible to concentrate, and to be effective at my role. I spoke with my manager and told him I was considering leaving. When he found out the reason, he proposed that I take some time to recuperate instead; and so that is what I did. All this time, I was reminded of the privileges I had: supportive coworkers and accommodating manager granting me time off. The thought of families torn apart and asylum seekers barred from escaping life-threatening circumstances kept haunting me. My struggle paled in comparison with theirs.

This was a time of reflection for me; a time to use my struggle as a point of departure to better understand, relate to, and internalize the urgency of the struggle of communities singled out, oppressed and targeted by various hegemonies of power. After all, the Muslim Ban was only one manifestation of an insidious agenda deploying age-old techniques of fear mongering and “divide and conquer” social control.


The Model Immigrants

As the breadth of the catastrophe that was the Muslim Ban revealed itself, public outcry took over social media. For me, this overwhelming support was heartwarming. Knowing that I had allies coming out to speak out for people like me was a reminder that I was not alone.

But the bashing of Trump’s xenophobic and Islamophobic policies came in more than one flavor; from fellow Iranians and non-Iranians alike.

“But this is unjust to us (Iranians) as successful expert practitioners in science, engineering, law & business!”

The fact that some fellow Iranians were leaning in so hard into the narrative of the Model Minority was very troubling for me. As far as I was concerned, it did not matter whether those affected were operating on prestigious levels of academia or drove cabs to make a living. This hierarchy was never a part of the equation for me. I never subscribed to the self imposed quasi-meritocratic exceptionalism that some fellow Iranians perpetuated. For me, mobility and a life with dignity was embedded within the definition of human rights. There was nothing here to be “earned”.

It devastated me that mobility, inclusion and safety were seen by some fellow countrymen as privileges bestowed upon them by the merit they have earned one way or another. I never believed that there was anything to be “proven” by an immigrant. Granted, the pursuit of a better life, hard work and sacrifice have been age-old — almost stereotypical — fixtures in immigrant narratives.

As a newcomer who arrived in the U.S. with a student visa to enroll in graduate school, indeed I feel privileged and indebted to my teachers, mentors and colleagues both in academia and later in the industry. But I see my path as one comprised of my personal choices and pursuits, rather than a premeditated effort to establish my worth in order to be granted safety and inclusion. The fact that many fellow Iranians would fail to make this crucial distinction and would play into a narrative of exclusive hierarchy in a plea to the oligarchs to be spared, deeply troubled me.


The accidental casualty

“But you’re one of the good ones!”

Uttered as words of consolation in one permutation or another, I was appeased by some friends and colleagues with a reminder that “I was one of the good guys” and that they were sad that I was going through this ordeal; as if in their minds, I was singled out by mistake.

There was no mistake. This attack was well thought out and the targeting was on-point. Although I knew for fact that these words came from a place of support and goodwill, they were tainted by their complete failure to acknowledge the abhorrent degree of collective punishment and xenophobia involved in this master plan.

To me, it felt like Trump’s narrative had already succeeded in some capacity even amongst my allies. The absence of any meaningful critique of the cart blanche of “until we figure out what the hell is going on” bothered me. The fact that there has been zero recorded terrorist incident on U.S. soil perpetuated by an Iranians, and other nationals targeted by the ban fell off the radar of many people around me.

The distinction here was that I was perceived as a collateral damage of an unjust ruling, the motivation of which could be — albeit remotely — justified within a vague framework of National Security. When my friend and I were interviewed in March 2017 by Viceland about the Muslim Ban, and as we spoke about our experience, a Facebook commenter wrote:

“Well, you gotta break some eggs to make an omelette”.

It is crucial here to be aware of the misled utilitarianism embedded within this individual’s mentality as “eggs” in an “omelette”, or an inevitable collateral damage of a process which generates some form of a “greater good”.

America has been here before; not so long ago. At least not long enough for the American public to allow this collective amnesia to overcome.


Looking ahead

I call New York home. I have had the privilege of being surrounded by many people and communities that have shaped me, empowered me and welcomed me.

I have had the opportunity to grow, to volunteer and give back to underserved communities here. I also have, and continue to maintain strong critiques on certain aspects of social order and socio-political dynamics in the U.S.

A stance to which I have been confronted with “if you don’t like this go back where you came from”.

The problem is, if I weren’t invested in the future of this society and its generations to come, why would I have bothered to critique it? To volunteer and teach its children as I would my fellow countrymen? Sense of belonging should never be conditionalized by blind following. As we navigate these trying times, it is important to reflect on the broader context within which problematic narratives of xenophobia, sexism, racism and homophobia arise.

It is important to be reminded of the struggles of other communities subject to systemic oppression, to strengthen the sense of solidarity in order to overcome. In the past year, I have been frequently reminded of the plights of my Afghan brothers and sisters, who have been subject to many unjust discriminatory policies in my own country, Iran. We should remember, reach out, see through vocabularies of power, bolden intersectional solidarities and use any privilege we have been granted to dismantle the same hierarchies of power that have granted us those privileges; to distribute those opportunities as far and as wide as we possibly can; and above all, question the hands cracking “eggs” while the “omelette” is in the making.


Many thanks to my good friend Mariko Kosaka who encouraged me to reflect on my year and write this post.