An Iranian Immigrant Attends #SXSL at the White House

Rachel Comey Jumpsuit dressed down with white Vans and Hillary pin accessory. It’s an understatement to say I agonized over what to wear. What exactly did “casual” mean at the White House?

Yesterday, I stood on the south lawn of the White House, taking in the view. As the founder of Bitten, I had been invited to South by South Lawn (an ideas festival) as part of small group selected from some 24,000 nominees. It was an unexpected, delightful surprise and an honor (I imagine for anyone, but particularly for me, an Iranian immigrant).

So, let me tell you what it’s like for this immigrant to be invited to the White House — to Obama’s White House.

My friend Homa asked, “Do they know you’re Iranian?”

My mother was ecstatic. “Get a picture with the President,” she said. As if it would be up to me.

My grandmother called the night before, “There is an Iranian woman who works at the White House. If you find her, she’ll introduce you to the President.”

“Do you know her?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“What does she do?” I said.

“I don’t know. But your uncle posted an article about her on Facebook. Make sure to find her,” she said.

(Sure Grandma. The Iranian crew rolls deep. I’ll just walk around the White House poking my head into various rooms. It’ll be easy and not suspicious at all.)

Leading up to the event, I received many texts, calls and social media messages from family members. All of them proud in a way only an immigrant family can be. That sentiment of “one of us was invited to the White House,” was palpable, justified and moving. I was representing all of us.

Here’s the thing, when I left Iran in 1990, as a 9-year-old who’d just lost her father. I couldn’t fathom what my life would be like here.

Sure, the U.S. had Disneyland, held the promise of endless bowls of cereal and the possibility of meeting Michael Jackson. But even as a child, I wouldn’t have traded my country, my home, for that. I didn’t want to be here. I hadn’t signed up for this.

Being torn from my family, friends and culture — from everything I knew to be familiar and safe — was heartbreaking. I remember giving away my Barbies, leaving behind stuffed animals. I remember trying never to let go of my aunt. I remember sobbing against the cabin window, as the airplane took off and Tehran’s lights faded from view.

I can tell you that my mother didn’t want to leave either. But at the time, this difficult choice was the only choice. She wanted me to have a chance at a life that was bigger than what was possible for me in Iran. And to give me that, she sacrificed her own comfort, security and happiness.

Of course, we had no idea how this new life would unfold — neither the excruciatingly difficult challenges, nor the blissfully magical moments.

So, armed with an arsenal of just 3 English words*, a heavy heart and an alien way of life, I entered fourth grade in an almost all white, almost all American elementary school in a suburb of Seattle. It was brutal and I very quickly learned that as “the other” my only choice was to grow a thick skin and stand up for myself or to wither. I chose the former and it’s very much defined who I am today — sometimes for good and other times not.

In the years since, I’ve found myself, in a sense, home-less, country-less, culture-less. It’s a distinctly immigrant experience, especially for those who feel that they cannot go back until it’s been so long that even when they can, they’ll never be home again. I am not wholly Iranian or American. I’ll always live in an invisible place in between. That is my burden.

Perhaps because of this, I’m not one for patriotism or sentimentality, let alone the combination of the two (though I absolutely believe in civic duty). But being at the White House yesterday, was an intensely emotional experience. I suddenly remembered leaving Iran. I recognized my place in the history of everything. I felt very much at the center of it.

And, it wasn’t just that I was at The White House, it was that I was at Obama’s White House. The house Michelle so poignantly reminded us was built by slaves. The house occupied by one of the best Presidents in our nation’s history.

Standing there, the House’s iconic architecture before me, I was breathless. The first family’s energy radiated like something holy. And there I was, so small and so fortunate, having come such a long way, in the middle of it all.

As a country, we are either on the precipice of disaster or the edge of a new frontier. We are mortified by all the shootings, by the fact that despite having a black President racism prevails, by the overt and subtle sexism that abounds, by a hateful rhetoric and all the cowards who’ve reared their heads in support of it. All of this, in the midst of a great migration crisis and the ironic anti-immigrant sentiment of a country built by and for people from other places.

Once a path is chosen, it’s impossible to know where the alternate would have lead. I don’t know who I would be today if I’d stayed in Iran.

Yet, however Pollyannic, the adage that the U.S. is the land of opportunity, was never more evident to me than last night, standing just feet away from President Obama. Having been invited because of a company I dreamed up and founded just two years ago.

So, there’s all the dark stuff and then there is this. The simple idea of freedom and equality which has become our beacon. Let’s all continue to walk towards that light. Let’s stand together in support of something greater than each one of us alone. Let’s continue this extraordinary tradition of welcoming those who come, often because it’s their only choice. Let’s put in the hard work progress requires. And let’s use our own opportunities to enable others to realize their dreams.

* The English words were “hello” and “no English.” On the first day of school, I was accused of stealing a classmate’s pencils, called a bitch (which I only understood months later, as it had become a regular name for me) and locked in a closet. Welcome to America!