About 2,600 years ago, a man named Cyrus was born in a foreign land now known as Iran. He was the grandson of Aystages, overlord of the Persians. When Cyrus was born, Aystages had a dream that his grandson would overthrow him, so Cyrus was given to a shepherd to be raised as a peasant; a stranger in his own land. But when Cyrus reached manhood, he revolted against his grandfather and began a conquest for the Persians. Though he was raised in a humble background, he dreamed of glory for his people. After claiming his grandfather’s land, Cyrus travelled the Iranian provinces conquering land after land, consolidating Iranian power. Once he ruled over his own people, he turned to Babylon, the land of the Mesopotamia. After conquering the Syrians and Palestinians, he practiced a form of governance that many rulers of his time would not: tolerance. He allowed his conquered people to worship their own religions in whatever manner they wished. He was also tested in mercy. Once attaining Babylon, he led a people with whom he was not familiar: the Jewish slaves under Arab control. Cyrus chose kindness. He freed the Jews; one of the first recorded events of a despot displaying decency to the Jewish people. He allowed them to return to their homeland of Israel. He outlawed any sort of slavery in his domain, choosing freedom for a people he did not know. Cyrus singlehandedly created one of the largest and most prosperous states of all time: The Persian Empire. Not only this, but he created a precedent of perseverance, tolerance, and honor. And he remained a stranger in his own land. He chose to allow all people to be free, no matter what creed or clan they may have originated from.
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I know of another stranger in his own land: a young boy born in Washington, D.C., the child of Iranian immigrants. His father came to America after studying at The American University in Beirut, and managed to attain his bachelor’s degree during a Civil War. After earning his PhD in Economics and building his American dream, he went on to be featured on the front of The Wall Street Journal for one of his business enterprises.
A Muslim immigrant on the front of The Wall Street Journal.
The boy’s mother was no different from his father. She was a powerful woman, a product of Persian female empowerment. By the time she left for America at eighteen, she had lived through a revolution and a catastrophic war with neighboring nations. She gained admission to the University of Southern California as a Computer Science major after never touching a computer in her life. Regardless, because of Iran’s renowned education system, she excelled in all of her classes. She went on to have three children and ran a massively successful company.
The boy’s parents were a modern-day success story; strangers in a foreign land with no more than their will to succeed and their sense of honor and pride, gained by those in their past.
But the boy was unaware of what a powerful background he had. When he looked in the mirror there was only one thing he saw: brown. Different. Non-American. No matter how uniquely American his parents’ success stories were, he didn’t feel like he belonged. And no matter how triumphant and honorable his foreign background was, he was ashamed of his skin. He was ashamed of his sunken eyes and round nose, because in the early 2000s, a group of men from countries that were unrelated to him, with radical ideals that did not represent him, flew two Boeing 767 planes into the World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan, New York.
The boy wanted straight blonde hair, like his friends. Not black and frizzy locks. The boy made daily trips to the bathroom during recess to wet his hair until it was straight and damp, so that he may feel a little more American. He refused to learn his mother tongue because he didn’t want people to fear him when he spoke. He refused to eat his grandmother’s cooking because it looked a little different than an American cheeseburger. He wanted nothing to do with himself.
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President Donald Trump has announced a plan to restrict immigration on people from “dangerous” countries, like Iran. For at least a month, he says. Until we can figure everything out, he says. It’s for the safety of the American people, he says. It’s for the best, he says. But clearly, there are a few things that President Trump does not know about Iranians. Does he know that there hasn’t been a single recorded terrorist attack by an Iranian in the United States? Does he know that the Iranian opinion of the United States is the most favorable of any Middle Eastern country? Does he know that Iranian-Americans are one of the most educated minority groups in America? But the real question is: does any of this matter to President Trump? Is he willing to know the history? Does he care what kind of brown people he wishes to restrict from entering his vision of a great America? Would he believe that Middle Easterners are also afraid of ISIS? Does he care that he is restricting potential leaders of the world like my parents from achieving their American dream? Does he understand what he is doing to all the brown boys and girls of America who now feel like they shouldn’t be here?
* * *
It took me a very long time to accept who I am. Other ten-year-olds asked themselves, “Do my friends like me?” I asked myself, “Do my friends fear me?” Other twelve-year-olds asked, “Does anyone have a crush on me?” I asked myself, “Will anyone love me if I’m not white?” Other sixteen-year-olds asked, “Am I ready yet to fly alone?” I asked myself, “Why is everyone staring at me?”
But I discovered something. I discovered the answer to the question, “Am I different?” The question I had feared was true since I was learning to tie my shoes. The question I pushed away in an effort to be more white. The answer is yes. I am different. And I am proud. I am proud of Cyrus the Liberator. I am proud of my foreign tongue and its contributions to the beautiful texts of The Shahnameh and Rumi. I am proud of my grandmother’s cooking. And I finally came to understand that the most American thing I could possibly be is different. This country was founded by those looking for their dream. It was founded on the principle that all are created equal. It was founded with the assurance that difference is welcome. I am different. I am American.
People like President Trump imagined their America somewhere in the suburbs, where everyone had a dog, and all the children played in the streets together. And everyone is white.
This is the America that my parents wished to be a part of, that they wished to change and help grow. This is the America that they came to and achieved. But President Trump doesn’t want people like my parents to come and ruin his America. His vision of every boy having straight blonde hair. And I know why President Trump will never understand: he has never and will never achieve the American dream. President Trump was born into wealth. President Trump was born into privilege. President Trump was born into his whiteness. He will never understand revolution. He will never understand civil war. He will never understand having nothing and gaining everything through hard work because President Trump couldn’t recognize sacrifice if it was staring right at him. That’s why he’d be willing to continue unconstitutional frisking of black Americans, because they’re “dangerous.” That’s why he approved the Dakota Access Pipeline regardless of its effect on the Sioux people, because it’s “for the best.” That’s why he wishes to ban Iranians from this country. Because my parents are more American than he will ever be, and he fears their contradiction to his “great” America.
I am a stranger in my own land. I am brown. My hair is black and frizzy. My eyes are sunken and my nose is round. And I am proud. I am proud to be a part of a land with people from all creeds and clans. I am proud that my heritage is based on honor and tolerance. I am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America. President Trump will never take my American dream from me.