Somebody asked me, did you move to Minneapolis for money or love?
I moved here for love.
I was born in Tehran, the youngest of five children. All of my siblings came to the U.S. for professional graduate school careers. I had just started studying for my engineering degree in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution happened. During the Revolution, they closed all the schools. Shortly after the revolution, my University closed again for “cultural revolution.” They didn’t like that our classes were taught in English—the “language of Satan.” After a lot of “cleanup,” my university finally reopened and I went back. Because of all this, my five year program took 8 years.
I married in Iran and had two children there. My oldest sister, a US citizen, had applied for a green card for us. Even though my husband and I were both engineers, we were having a hard time making a living and did not foresee a good future for our kids. We moved to San Diego in 1995.
I got a job as an engineer, designing air conditioning systems for industrial buildings. It was an American company, but their plant was across the border in Tijuana, Mexico — a product of NAFTA. At the time I did not have a clue about free trade and the exploitative border factories that were the result.
The Mexican culture in San Diego and Tijuana was similar to my culture — very warm and family-oriented. I was not facing any discrimination. I think that was also because of my education and status as a professional. I knew Iranians without degrees who struggled to find jobs and to fit in; some of them eventually went back to Iran because they could not survive in the U.S. My eight year old son had a tough time though. He didn’t know a word of English. It was hard to leave him in school. He will still say that it was really tough. I would tutor him every day after work starting with baby books. My ex could not help because he was taking english classes too.
I was getting promotions. We were frugal. In three years we bought a new house. Moving up. Our citizenship ceremony was a few days after September 11. We were afraid the ceremony might be postponed or cancelled, but it wasn’t.
After 9/11, the border crossing slowed to a crawl. After going through a deep background check, I enrolled in a program that allowed me to get across faster, but I could see the way the Mexican people who went back and forth were treated terribly—body searches, looking for weapons. This seemed especially ridiculous; there were way more weapons on the U.S. side than on the Mexican side!
I lived and worked in San Diego for 16 years. By 2007, I was divorced.
Mike and I met through an online dating site. In 2010 we both had mid life crises. We left our jobs in San Diego and moved to Everett, Washington, where we bought a coffee shop/used book store. It was funny because we had no experience with coffee. Mike didn’t drink coffee and I thought instant coffee was just great. We had to learn from the previous owner how to make a mocha, latte, etc.
The area (about twenty miles north of Seattle) was loaded with artists. We had many events such as open mic nights, knitting groups, Native American flute players, and environmental activists. The first meeting for Occupy Everett was in our coffee shop. The Occupy site was not far from us and we supported them in many ways including free coffee, sandwiches, soup and, perhaps most importantly, access to the store’s bathroom.
The community was mostly white people with blue collar jobs. Many of them worked for Boeing. ‘Money out of politics’ was a big issue for them and so were environmental concerns such as global climate change. There were train tracks right across the street from our coffee shop, and we watched the coal trains passing through downtown Everett, leaving a grey cloud of coal dust.
We managed to increase the store’s customer base, but we were not good business people. We knew that many of our customers were in bad financial condition, so we were reluctant to raise our prices. The store was so popular that when we decided to sell, a group of our regular customers got together and decided to buy it and run it as a community business.
After we sold the store, we thought, “Where do we go from here?” My mom in Iran had just died. For several years before her death, all of us children took turns going back to visit her. It was hard, because I could not be with her when she died. Mike’s ninety year old mother lived in Minnesota and I didn’t want him to have the same regrets, so we decided to move to Minneapolis.
At first I was really impressed with Minnesota. It had a different kind of cultural diversity. People working in the stores who were from Somalia were wearing their traditional clothing! I said, “Wow! I never saw that in San Diego!” There were also lots of Latinos and Black people, unlike in Everett. I was impressed.
Gradually I began to see it differently: I was treated very nicely, but there was this wall. Nobody would get close to anybody. The conversations were formal. Nobody wanted to know who you were and nobody wanted you to know who they were. I just couldn’t make friends. I would come home and whine to Mike: “Is there something wrong with me?” We started getting involved with a group of environmental activists. They were really nice people, but it was a milder version of the same thing. It was odd: Everybody told everybody they did a great job. People were reluctant to give honest feedback. To me that was not how people would learn, right? It pissed me off. I gradually began to learn what “Minnesota Nice” was, but I couldn’t accept it.
I worked in North Minneapolis and somehow we went to one of NOC’s events. I don’t remember how we found out about it. Nekima Levy-Pounds gave a talk that was eye-opening. I had no idea that racial inequality was still going on in the U.S.
I came from a country in which there is no race. Religion is the big divider. On your birth certificate it lists your religion: I am Muslim because my father was. (In my heart I am a Buddhist although I don’t practice that religion either), but if anyone would ask me I would say I’m Muslim. I never thought of race. Last year we had an opportunity to buy a house. At the time I wasn’t much familiar with the concept of segregation and even if I was, we just wanted to live in the real world with the people we cared for, so we moved to North Minneapolis.
We kept coming back to NOC events, and then NAACP and anything else that we could find which was related to social justice in North Minneapolis. I remember we went to the event at Sabathani Community Center where the police chief was supposed to give a talk, but did not show up because she was concerned for her safety. I looked around the room at the other people who were there, and couldn’t believe that the chief of police would be “scared” of these people. I listened to the testimony of people talking about police brutality. It was shocking. Jason Sole, Rose Brewer, Nekima spoke. My eyes were opening. We went to rallies for Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and unfortunately many more. Going back to work after these meetings I began to see that there were these two parallel worlds. You can live in one and never hear, never see, what is going on in the other. It was just shocking.
I did not feel the Minnesota Nice at NOC or North Minneapolis, which was great. People were more straightforward and courageous. But the African-American culture was also foreign to me. I was not a part of it — it was totally different. It took me a while to understand how little I know and how much there is to learn.
It was confusing for me. I was not sure who I was. Am I white? According to the U.S. census I am. I went to SURJ meetings. They say, “We are white people showing up for racial justice.” I wasn’t sure I belonged. Do white people think I am white? I don’t know. Is it skin color? If it is not skin color, is it European descent? Iran is not in Europe. I am still not sure where I fit in.
The area where we live in North Minneapolis is diverse. There are lots of empty houses, though, because of foreclosures. It is a quiet pocket not far from busy streets: Penn, Dowling, Lowry. I feel that I am becoming connected to the neighborhood and we are starting to make friends here. I am starting to feel like this community is close to my heart. I want to be a part of it.
I have started to understand the way things work in North Minneapolis. People come in and do things to the neighborhood, not with the neighborhood.
I recently got involved in a group called Carbon Zero Homes. The founder wants to bring a Carbon Zero house to North Minneapolis. He really does care. He thought talking to Mayor Betsy Hodge’s husband who is African American would be a way to reach the Black community. I told him ‘No No, No, you have to talk to people who live here.”
I work at an air-conditioning manufacturing company that is across the street from Northern Metals. I went to a forum on environmental pollution in North Minneapolis. Keith Ellison was there, along with folks from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, NOC. MPIRG and the City of Minneapolis. As I was listening I realized how much I have changed. They were talking about doing more research collecting, more data. It got me so angry. I got up and said:
“Why do we need more data? The data is in. North Minneapolis has the most cases of asthma, the highest lead levels in the state. We need to act! It’s like you have a house and there is a leak here and leak there and you have $1,000 and instead of fixing the leaks you hire an inspector. It makes no sense. There are programs that work to reduce asthma. Why aren’t we implementing them? Hire and train people from the community and give them the jobs implementing these programs. Research has shown a connection between companies like Northern Metals and asthma levels. They are using water tanks to clean the air. That just removes it from the air and puts it in the soil and the water. Air, water and soil are all connected!”
They responded that Northern Metals is just one of several sources, including vehicle traffic, other businesses, and the garbage burner that are responsible for air pollution in the area. I said, ‘Then you need to have even stricter standards for each of these sources, to lower the overall levels impacting this community.”
I was really mad. I walked out. I would never have done that before. Now I know why people in this neighborhood get so frustrated.
Here in the U.S., I hear a lot of people say that we need a revolution. I always tell them that I have been through a revolution—the Iranian Revolution in 1979. I was involved in the student protests when I started college. There was a lot of unity as the revolutionary struggle developed: All the organizations–religious, communist, socialist and lots of others—united to make the revolution happen. It was through the revolutionary struggle that I learned about how the U.S. was involved in installing the Shah. I grew up in the relatively comfortable middle class; I was shocked to learn that many people in my country didn’t have water or electricity. Then the revolution happened. Everyone promised to stay united, but it turned out to be just like Orwell’s “Animal Farm”–some people became more equal than others. At first the people leading us after the revolution were intellectuals–people who had motivated me and other university students. The first thing they did was look for agents of the Shah’s government and put them in jail. Little by little they began to also arrest the communists, the socialists, and other “non-religious” revolutionaries. It was not long before the Mullahs took over, and the whole government changed into a religious government. Nobody trusted anybody. Yet, rich people who were against the revolution managed to hold on to economic power. It was like when Obama got into office and appointed Bush people.
I began to feel like this was human nature: In the end people take care of themselves. It was really sad to see. So, I have no faith in revolution. But I am excited about grassroots movements. I went to a meeting recently that inspired me.
I am on the Board of the Wirth Co-op that will be opening soon in North Minneapolis. I was there on behalf of Wirth. We want it to be different from other food co-ops—more like a year-round farmer’s market. To share ideas, the city had invited all of these people to come and talk about their cooperative efforts. A Somali man talked about how they have created a global community cooperative. They helped their community members who didn’t speak english, didn’t know the laws or were unable to access resources. The ones who could provided the service for others. Sharing is caring, right? If you need something, someone will help you. They have 1,200 members already. At the same meeting, someone from CTUL talked about their union organizing work. Another person talked about Northside urban gardening. I was so excited.
This kind of cooperative economics is what we need. Being involved in the community—SURJ, MN350, NOC, Wirth Co-op, etc.—I am beginning to feel like I could stay here in North Minneapolis. I am growing some roots.
I interviewed Roya on July 3. We’ve been in regular contact since. On July 9 she texted me: OMG WHAT A DAY!
She had just returned from Day of Atonement * march against police violence, to protest the brutal police murder of St Paul elementary school nutrition services supervisor, Philando Castilo.
We walked nearly four hours!
Roya and a thousand others had walked the streets of downtown Minneapolis and interrupted a Cathedral block party. At the same time protestors in St. Paul marched on to Interstate Highway 94, occupying it for five hours and the 24 hour occupation of the block in front of the Governor’s mansion continued.
So empowering and yet sad people have to fight for human rights Roya wrote.