There are few countries quite as misunderstood by Americans as Iran. After almost 40 years of tense relations, the situation between the U.S. and Iran seems to finally be improving, thanks to a new nuclear deal, and the end of strict sanctions. But a recent change to U.S. policy could end up punishing intelligent, ambitious young people, who have the knowledge and passion to help connect two cultures — people like Sogand.
Sogand (who asked we not use her last name) has lived in Iran for three years. She grew up in Connecticut, and majored in Middle Eastern studies at college. After graduation, Sogand moved to Tehran, Iran, to learn about Iranian history. But now she could face a new hurdle in traveling to visit family or friends. Citizens of 38 countries used to be able to travel to the U.S. without a visa, but thanks to a new law, they have to apply for one just because they also have Iranian citizenship. This could lead to other countries changing their laws in retaliation, which would make travel more expensive and difficult for dual citizens like Sogand — and more isolation at home.
The thought of having to go through a new bureaucratic process to fly to the country where she was born is heartbreaking. “As an American of Iranian heritage, the idea of me being made into a second-tier citizen is very disheartening,” she said. “Especially when you add it to the rampant Islamophobia in the United States. This is just the cherry on top of this really disheartening culture of othering.”
Other young dual nationals protested the proposal, but that didn’t stop Congress from passing it, or President Barack Obama from signing the bill, in which it was included. The bill could have dire consequences for Iran’s tourism industry, families, and students — all because political leaders in America have incorrectly connected Iranian people to international terrorism.
Their worries aren’t unfounded – days ago, a journalist with the BBC was stopped from flying to the U.S. because she has dual citizenship in the United Kingdom and Iran. Rana Rahimpour and her family were prevented from boarding a flight to New Jersey to visit family, all because she didn’t have a visa that was not required, only a few weeks earlier.
The new requirements won’t keep Sogand from her studies for a master’s degree in Tehran, and she said it won’t stop her from trying to encourage other young Iranian-Americans from making their voices heard. “I think it’s very important to continue empowering Iranian-American youth,” Sogand said, “and giving them the skillset to be youth leaders and to mobilize regarding issues, very discriminatory, unjust, unfair, unclear, destructive issues like these laws.”
These photos offer a glimpse into the life of one young Iranian-American woman.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that the visa waiver program would change requirements for Iranian-Americans. Activists are worried about countries affected by the new rules will institute visa requirements for Iranian-Americans.
“As Iranian-Americans, we very much have a hyphenated identity. There is a popular saying in our community that when you’re in the States, you feel more Iranian, but when you’re in Iran, you feel more American. Being in Iran, everything from my accent when I speak Farsi, to my musical interests, you’ll meet very few people here who like R & B. From the way that I talk, the fact that I’m very expressive and I’m very bubbly and I talk very loud, these in and of itself definitely confirm a bunch of American stereotypes. I just feel much more Iranian-American in that sense.”
Sogand checks her makeup in a cafe.
Sogand goes shopping on Enghelab Street in Tehran.
Residents of 38 countries, who used to be able to travel to the U.S. without a visa, now have to go through this extra step. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 400,000 Americans with Iranian heritage, although this number is likely much higher.
“Growing up in a place that didn’t have a lot of diversity, you kind of very ambitiously — and somewhat obnoxiously — take on the role of a representative of that community, although that is very problematic. Like, I was like 13 years old, and I thought that it was my responsibility to speak on behalf of, you know, Muslim women, people of Islamic backgrounds, Middle Easterners, Middle Eastern-Americans.”
Sogand found out about the visa waiver program changes through social media, and young Iranian-Americans protested the plan by posting photos of themselves holding both of their passports. “As a Connecticut voter, seeing my senators support the nuclear deal, and then take no stance against this provision is also pretty confusing,” she said.
Sogand checks her Facebook page.
“My mother, her general response to this visa waiver program provision and the general response of Americans — the apathy of Americans, even of some Iranian-Americans to it — has been very troubling for her. She feels undeniably other, she feels like her American identity, not only as an immigrant, but as someone who has been living here for over 37 years, has been constantly put into question. So that’s also really upsetting to see your parents go through that again.”
Sogand said these changes have opened her eyes to what people without dual citizenship have dealt with all their lives. “I’m trying to just check my privilege. When the topic came up, because it was also widely reported on Farsi language news outlets, and one of my cousins asked me one day ‘Oh, can you explain your issues with this, your qualms with this,’” Sogand said.
“She was like ‘So again, we’ve never been able to go to these countries without a visa, we’ve always had to go through this, so you as an Iranian-American, you have a lot of privilege.’”
Sogand shopping at a book store in Tehran.
“I realized that my understanding of what it’s like to live in a Muslim majority country, or what it’s like to live in the Middle East or North Africa, or even specifically to live in Iran, was very one dimensional and was very misinformed.”
“I wasn’t comfortable with this ignorance that I had, so instead of continuing my education in the States, in the field of Middle Eastern studies, I decided to come here — and not just study Iranian history in Iran with Iranian historians, but to also understand what the realities of living here are like from the people on the ground.”
Sogand in Laleh Park.
Sogand and her Korean friend laughing at mannequins.
Sogand on the phone with a friend.
Sogand in Enghelab-e-Eslami square (Commemorating the martyrs of the Islamic Revolution).