I’m not an immigrant, but my grandparents are. More than 50 years ago, they arrived in New York City from Iran. I grew up mainly in central New Jersey, an American kid playing little league for the Raritan Red Sox and soccer for the Raritan Rovers. In 1985, I traveled with my family to our ancestral land. I was only 8, but old enough to understand that the Iranians had lost their liberty and freedom. I saw the abject despair of a people who, in a desperate attempt to bring about change, had ushered in nationalist tyrants led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
What I witnessed during that year in Iran changed the course of my life. In 1996, at age 19, wanting to help preserve the blessings of liberty and freedom we enjoy in America, I enlisted in the US Navy. Now, with the rise of Donald Trump and his nationalist alt-right movement, I’ve come to feel that the values I sought to protect are in jeopardy.
In Iran, theocratic fundamentalists sowed division and hatred of outsiders—of Westerners, Christians, and other religious minorities. Here in America, the right wing seems to have stolen passages directly from their playbook as it spreads hatred of immigrants, particularly Muslim ones. This form of nationalistic bigotry—Islamophobia—threatens the heart of our nation. When I chose to serve in the military, I did so to protect what I viewed as our sacred foundational values of liberty, equality, and democracy. Now, 20 years later, I’ve joined forces with fellow veterans to again fight for those sacred values, this time right here at home.
“Death to America!”
As a child, I sat in my class at the international school one sunny morning and heard in the distance the faint sounds of gunfire and rising chants of “Death to America!” That day would define the rest of my life.
It was Tehran, the capital of Iran, in 1985. I was attending a unique school for bilingual students who had been born in Western nations. It had become the last refuge in that city with any tolerance for Western teaching, but that also made it a target for military fundamentalists. As the gunfire drew closer, I heard boots pounding the marble tiles outside, marching into our building, and thundering down the corridor toward my classroom. As I heard voices chanting “Death to America!” I remember wondering if I would survive to see my parents again.
In a flash of green-and-black uniforms, those soldiers rushed into our classroom, grabbed us by our shirt collars, and yelled at us to get outside. We were then packed into the school’s courtyard where a soldier pointed his rifle at our group and commanded us to look up. Almost in unison, my classmates and I raised our eyes and saw the flags of our many nations being torn down and dangled from the balcony, then set ablaze and tossed, still burning, into the courtyard. As those flags floated to the ground in flames, the soldiers fired their guns in the air. Shouting, they ordered us—if we ever wanted to see our families again—to swear allegiance to the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and trample on the remains of the burning symbols of our home countries. I scanned the smoke that was filling the courtyard for my friends and classmates and, horrified, watched them capitulate and begin to chant, “Death to America!” as they stomped on our sacred symbols.