The higher education system in the United States is in many ways the envy of the world. For this reason, countless individuals from all corners of the globe leave the comfort of their homes to further their education at US institutions. When speaking to immigrant families, educational opportunities are often cited as a major factor in their decisions to move to the US. Many of these students are of middle eastern descent and recently they have been under increasing scrutiny by politicians and legislators alike. Oftentimes, the increased attention is a response to the actions of people with whom these students only share a common ethnicity, people these students have never met, people with whom they never intended to interact.

This week my mom asked me to introduce myself as Alex. My name is Pouya Alexander Ameli, and I’m Iranian-American. My mother, like many other parents of middle eastern children living in the United States, was afraid for my safety. I was born in Shiraz, Iran; city of gardens, wine, and poets. That bottle of Shiraz you had that one time? The grapes originated in Iran, before the Islamic Republic took control in the 1970’s and all the wineries fled to other countries.

Growing up, my parents would always share with me fond memories of their upbringing in Iran, when things were more culturally diverse when there was more than one acceptable way to be. My parents tear up when they think about how a land they loved so much has deteriorated. Iran has a long and rich history. Most people don’t know that it was called Persia until 1935 when Iran became the official name. Iran has roots in the Persian Empire. Did you know that by some records, the Zoroastrians (an ancient group of Persians) were first to conquer a land and not force it’s inhabitants to take on their way of life? Some argue that these acts should be considered as a component in roots of democracy.

I was born in 1984, and I’ve lived in the US since my parents brought me to the US when I was three years old. My younger brother was born here a few years later. It’s hard to deny that we have much better opportunities here, and these days, most anyone who has any valuable ability in Iran uses their skills to pave their pathway out. Iran has a “brain drain” problem. As a result, I have cousins living and working in Canada, the UK, Germany, Japan, etc. However, I think we all maintain a sense of pride about the storied lineage from which we came. We’re talking thousands of years of culture, ancient ruins burned by the likes of Genghis Khan; famous poets like Rumi, Hafez; countless relics to remind us of a time when the world was so different.

I’m proud to think that I’m connected to all that history. I’m proud because it makes me feel like I’m part of something that mattered at some point, something that is a foundation to lots of important things now. I’m proud because it makes me feel like I matter, and I’m pretty sure that’s something for which we all strive.

I wasn’t alive during the time before Iran was considered an “axis of evil” country. I’m pretty used to the xenophobic politicians saying what they typically say, not realizing that Iranians are not fortunate enough to have a government that represents their needs, and there are millions of Iranians suffering as a result. Lots of Iranians want to separate themselves from this rhetoric, choosing instead to introduce themselves as “Persians.” After all, Persia is associated with cats and rugs, while Iran elicits thoughts of a hostage crisis and a President, who denies the Holocaust as well as the existence of homosexuals. But I’ve usually attributed these connotations to be a result of the rhetoric utilized in mass media and political speeches.

I’ve always believed in the beauty of the Iranian people. I know how most Iranians fiercely value education as the key to so many doors. How we love the social dance of Taarof. How we emphasize ethics and rationality, hard work and humility – and how these philosophies run so deep that they manifest in commonly used idioms. “Dam’et gharm,” meaning, “Good job.” “Dam” is the word for the air you exhale, “et” is the suffix meaning “your,” and “gharm” means “warm.” Literally, “the air you exhale is warm,” aka “you’re alive,” aka to be alive is to do good work. This is the culture that made me go into medicine. I wanted to be able to look back at my life and say I did something meaningful. I want people to look at me when I’m laying still on my death bed and say, “Dam’et gharm.”

My imperative is to make the most of these opportunities. My parents sacrificed the life they built in Iran for me to have these opportunities. We didn’t live in rough neighborhoods for years for nothing. We didn’t wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of gun shots outside for no reason. My dad didn’t go from driving a Benz and owning his own company, to working multiple jobs as a server and a dishwasher just because. I saw my father once or twice a month until I was 8 or 9 years old when we had enough money to afford for him not to be at work all the time. Through it all, my parents have only ever taught me to be kind and do my best to utilize my abilities for the betterment of mankind. Give to the poor, uplift the downtrodden, belief in the beauty of people.

I’m fiercely proud to be who I am, and all I want to do is work hard to make a difference. I have historically tried to avoid introducing myself as “Persian,” because I want people to meet me and realize that there are good Iranian people in the world. I introduce myself to strangers as “Pouya,” because I know it’ll bring questions like, “Oh, what kind of name is that?” I want the opportunity to show people I’m not so bad. I want to show them there is a different way to think.

Today, my mom called me and asked me never to do any of those things. She heard a story on the news of a doctor who was shot in his clinic by a man who said that doctor tried to touch him when he had requested not to be touched. The doctor’s office staff denied that he would do this, but the doctor was already in the hospital at that point. For the first time in my life, I had a genuine fear that people might know who I am. I’m scared to tell people that I was born in Iran. I’m scared to tell people that I’m proud to be Iranian. I’m so afraid that they may construe my background to be support of terrorism, that I’m somehow less American as a result. It makes me feel like I have no identity, nowhere to belong.

pouyaI’m left afraid to admit that a big part of who I am even exists, my Iranian background. Simultaneously, I suddenly feel disconnected to my very American upbringing. One of the cultures that is such a big part of who I am has suddenly shunned me, and the other is so taboo that I can’t help but hide it. And I’m somewhere in the middle, totally lost. I have no idea how to react. I don’t know what to say, or if anyone will give a shit no matter what I say. I don’t know how to fix this. So, until I figure that out, until we figure that out, “Hi, I’m Alex.”

The Edge for Scholars posted a shortened version of an essay from Dr. Pouya Alex Ameli, a resident in the Department of Neurology at Vanderbilt Medical Center and a member of the McLaughlin lab.

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