The author at age 7

I’m a Refugee From a Banned Country -- This Is My American Story

United States Activism
by Ari Honarvar Mar 15, 2017

America is my home. When I chose to become a U.S. citizen 20 years ago, I swore to protect it from enemies, foreign and domestic, and I take this oath very seriously. If refugees posed a credible threat, would I vehemently oppose their entry into the U.S.? Absolutely. But there is no evidence suggesting that refugees are, or will be, a threat to America. These refugees are escaping terror, and the robust vetting process protecting our borders ensures that this is the case. Yet many of my fellow Americans support a Muslim ban.

I am a refugee from one of these banned countries. This is my story.


I was a rebellious teen. What set me apart from millions of other rebellious teenagers around the world was that my acts of rebellion could have gotten me executed.

I had all but forgotten what freedom was like, even though deep in my belly I knew this wasn’t right.

That’s because I was a 13-year-old in post-revolution Iran, where the laws deemed any sort of opposition as an act of treason. And not any kind of treason. It was treason against God and therefore punishable by death. Acts of treason included, but were not limited to: playing chess or cards, listening to unapproved music, fraternizing with a person of the opposite sex to whom you were not related, women displaying unapproved body parts such as hair, possessing contraband literature, and expressing any negative opinions about any of the above.

I was guilty of a number of these infractions, but most were committed in the privacy of my home, which was only raided once. I had lived under these laws since I was 6, and I had all but forgotten what freedom was like, even though deep in my belly I knew this wasn’t right.

My resistance began when I was 7, founded on a fierce belief in equal rights. The new law had me cover my hair, while boys could dress as they pleased. I defied this law by pretending to be a boy from time to time — until people began recognizing me in public, and I had to stop.

So I engaged in secret deeds of defiance that would have given my parents a heart attack if they were privy to them. While every morning at school, I was forced to chant “Death to America,” in the darkness of the night I snuck out and wrote these words on my neighbors’ walls: “Death to Khomeini. Death to the Dictator.” The messages stood in stark contrast to the pro-regime graffiti that covered walls at the time. I would write on every clean space I could find; when the owners of the houses would paint over the blasphemous writing, I would rewrite the same messages the following night.

Soon after the revolution, my sister’s classmate was arrested and executed without trial, which was not uncommon. She was 16. At the time, half of my sister’s classmates were in prison for normal activities like possessing anti-revolutionary literature and expressing defiant views, now a crime under the new rule of law. Sometime later, my dad ran into the slain girl’s father and asked why she was executed. The man had shaken his head; “they never told us.”

Clearly capital punishment wasn’t a deterrent, as I continued my illicit activities while my parents were sleeping. Perhaps I was depressed over an unending war that had my people in a perpetual state of mourning. Or I just could no longer carry the mountain of everyday restrictions on my shoulders. Death was one answer. The other was to escape the nightmare of Iran and flee to America. But that was as lofty a prospect as winning the lottery.


I knew my history. I knew that once upon a time we had a fledgling yet thriving democracy in Iran. Iranian oil was nationalized, and my mother recalls purchasing oil stocks as a teenager. But the British, with the help of the CIA, deposed our democratic leader, so they could continue enjoying access to our cheap oil. The ramifications of this coup d’état led to the mistrust of the U.S.-backed Shah and eventually prompted the Iranian revolution. Even so, I couldn’t find too much fault with a country that produced Michael Jackson and Madonna.

More than anything, I wanted to move to America.

When I was 14, my mother wrote a poem about India’s Independence Day, and when the Indian ambassador took a liking to it, we got a visa to go to India. From there, I was eventually able to obtain a U.S. visa. I landed in Las Cruces, New Mexico with my parents, who then left to return home to Iran to be with my sister. Being completely out of my element in America was like a twisted anthropological experiment.

I was thrilled to be in America, but every time I thought of Iran, a deep saudade brought tears to my eyes. Eventually, I settled in to my home — and all the daily restrictions I was so accustomed to gradually disappeared.
Trauma has a way of taking one’s voice away. It took a long while to get used to the freedom of speech. I found myself astounded that people could openly criticize the President without retribution. The Constitution protected my rights, and most people I knew respected the law rather than feared it. My new home certainly wasn’t free of problems, but I continually saw how people stood up for the oppressed and tried to make laws more just. It was hard not to fall in love with America.


When anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiments began spreading last year, I became concerned. Then a parent at the pick-up area of my son’s multi-cultural elementary school exclaimed, “When Trump becomes President, all you immigrants will be deported!” Something broke loose inside me. This was my home, and the only home my child has known, yet I was viewed as the “other.”

It was hard not to fall in love with America.

This time, I had my voice. I began speaking out. Through this activism I met a woman from the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It turns out that we spent our childhood growing up on opposite sides of the Iran-Iraq war. As we got to know one another, we realized that our experiences from that time bore striking similarities.

I remember being 7 years old, doing homework in the darkness of our basement as the earth shook from Iraqi bombs. She recalls being 14 in another basement fearing that she might die by an incoming Iranian missile. This war lasted eight years and claimed more than a million lives. We both recall the brutal loss of our family and friends.

Like the last scene of The Usual Suspects where the detective is putting together the clues, I connected the dots: My family members who had been drafted by the Iranian army were quite possibly responsible for the death of my new friend’s family — and vice versa. The U.S. was selling weapons to both Iran and Iraq during that war. In 1988, Saddam turned his chemical weapons against his own people in Kurdistan. He was supported militarily and politically by the U.S. and other Western countries. In 2003, Iraq was invaded by the US. Now, along with more than a million fellow Iranians and Iraqis, my Iraqi friend and I live in America.

To add irony to the present predicament, my Iraqi friend first took refuge in Syria before migrating to the U.S. Now she is helping Syrian refugees settle in the U.S. Both of our families and those of the Syrians are now subject to the Muslim ban.


I call America home. I take my oath to protect it seriously. And while the fate of refugees hangs in the balance of a fierce legal battle, I am compelled to reflect on my past. In Iran, it took only a matter of months to cut women’s rights in half, jail journalists, target people of a certain religion, become involved in a deadly war, and label dissidents as terrorists. The Iranian government cited security to trump freedom and rights, and its supporters followed along without questioning the new laws.

Under those new laws, for participating in even the most minor of infractions, I most likely would have died or been imprisoned if America hadn’t welcomed me. Girls were imprisoned, raped, and killed for showing hair or talking to a boy; boys were killed for possessing anti-revolutionary pamphlets or hashish.


In the early days post-revolution, we knew something was wrong when numerous fatwas were issued to brutalize us and do away with our civil rights. But consider what a fatwa is: It’s an executive order, unhindered by checks and balances, issued by a supreme leader. Our American democratic ideals and rights guaranteed by the Constitution are being undermined right now.

There are enemies I must protect America from. And they’re not the refugees.

This story originally appeared on The Establishment and is republished here with permission.

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