An Identity Crisis at Home With Family Far Away

Muslim Americans struggle to fit into their communities at this politically turbulent moment

Mina Bahrami has a lot of enthusiasm for life, but President Trump's immigration policies don't bring a smile to her face

Mina Bahrami has a lot of enthusiasm for life, but President Trump’s immigration policies don’t bring a smile to her face

Mina Bahrami, 22, is a self-proclaimed optimist. Her positive attitude is easy to pick up on when you talk with her. But when President Trump issued his executive order restricting admission from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days starting in January, the Iranian-American Bahrami went through a myriad of emotions that was anything but positive. 

“I first was shocked that he actually did this,” said Bahrami, a resident of Morningside Heights. “Once I got over the shock, I became angry.”

Bahrami, who was born in the United States, and her family are among the thousands of Iranian-Americans who have been directly impacted by Trump’s travel ban, as Iran was one of the seven countries included in the executive order. According to the State Department, about 90,000 people from the seven countries that held visas were also directly impacted by the ban. Iranians comprised almost half of that number, with over 42,000 travelers impacted.

Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi, whose film “The Salesman” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, did not come to the United States for the award ceremony to express his disapproval of the ban. While Bahrami’s story is not as dramatic or as public, her struggles as an Iranian-American in these turbulent times touch on the impact that President Trump’s policies are having on people like her. 

While Bahrami, her parents, and younger twin sisters are safe from being deported because of their dual citizenship, Bahrami says she must think twice before leaving the country right now. According to Bahrami, she and her family have traveled to Iran four times over the last 20 years.

“It’s too much of a risk,” said Bahrami, who says that she has had trouble re-entering the country in the past before the travel ban was even implemented. “We’re afraid to take the risk and leave.”

Other than her immediate family, all of Bahrami’s relatives are back in Iran. According to Bahrami, her visit with her 87-year-old grandmother this past December may have been the last one. 

“It’s incredibly sad and frustrating that we can’t see any of them,” Bahrami said. “It’s a source of feeling helpless and I’ve never felt that way before. I think the feeling of helplessness is very present in my family right now.”

Bahrami said that the ban has taken a significant toll on her parents, who were both born and raised in Iran.

“I see how difficult it is now for my mom, especially with it being the last few years of my grandmother’s life, losing that time with her and not being able to get it back,” said Bahrami. “This is also their siblings who they can’t see. If I couldn’t see my sisters, I don’t know what I would do.”

For Bahrami, this isn’t the first time her Iranian-American identity has been problematic for her. Bahrami grew up in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, a small, middle to upper-middle class town located in the western half of the state. The predominately white town had few immigrants, so she felt that her family stood out.

“I never felt less than the others, but I felt like I had to make up for being different when I was growing up,” Bahrami said. “I felt like I was losing part of myself by trying to fit in to this crew of kids from Jersey.”

In 2012, when Bahrami moved to Montreal and enrolled at McGill University., she experienced something she never had before. She immediately felt at home. “All of my friends were actual immigrants,” Bahrami said. “I grew into being okay with being different,” said Bahrami. 

“I heard more Farsi in Montreal than any city I’ve ever lived in,” she added. “It just blew my mind.”

When she moved back to New Jersey, Bahrami said she went through culture shock again. “I felt so distanced from my community,” Bahrami said. An example of that was this past year’s election.

Since the election, that feeling of otherness has worsened. Readington Township, which Whitehouse Station is a part of, voted 58 percent in favor of President Trump. In Hunterdon County, Trump won with 55 percent of the vote.   

“When we went to the polls, something seemed off,” Bahrami said, describing Election Day in her district. “It was so crowded with so many new voters. I had never seen these people before in my community. I passed four Trump stickers on trucks on my way into vote.” 

For Bahrami, it hurts knowing that people in her community share the same views as the administration on immigration. “These are people who I went to school with, people who I grew up it, people who I played soccer with,” Bahrami explained. 

When Trump originally announced his proposed Muslim ban during the presidential campaign, Bahrami said that she and her family laughed it off, seeing a Trump presidency as highly unlikely.

“We weren’t scared because we never thought it would happen,” Bahrami said. 

Most Iranian-Americans didn’t think so either, and when the executive order banning travel from Iran took effect, they were surprised. “Iranian-Americans weren’t expecting this at all,” said Peyman Malaz, a program manager at the Iranian-American advocacy group Pars Equality Center. “The community was terrified and still remains terrified over the looming threat of another executive order.” 

According to Malaz, more Iranians are applying for citizenship in the United States since the original executive order in order to lessen the risks of being detained upon entry to the country. 

When the executive order was implemented, Bahrami’s anger pushed her to get involved. She participated in the protests at JFK Airport and Washington Square Park, and she volunteered as a translator for detainees at JFK who couldn’t speak English upon arriving to America.

“I was so upset and just started reaching out to see what I could do,” Bahrami said. “If I sat back and didn’t do anything, then I wouldn’t have a right to call myself an Iranian-American and be proud of it.”

While the original executive order was blocked in court, President Trump is expected to sign another executive order on immigration fairly soon. That’s why Bahrami knows her work is far from over. 

“I feel an obligation to do something because I have the means to create change,” said Bahrami defiantly. “This is the best way to use my voice as an Iranian-American and to stand up to the ban.”

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