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The Iranians Who Can’t (or Won’t) Go Home Again

Iranians living in America reflect on their complicated relationship with their native country.

Photographs by Hossein Fatemi

When photographer Hossein Fatemi first set out to document the Iranian-American immigrant community, not all of his subjects were happy about it.

Above: Kaveh Adel was born in Ahvaz, Iran, and raised in Tehran. At the height of the Iran-Iraq War in 1986, when Adel was 13 years old, his mother’s political activities forced them to flee to the United States. Now he works as a dentist and cartoonist in Illinois. When he was young and living in Iran, he wanted to write and draw cartoons but avoided doing so out of fear. Currently, he is working on an autobiographical graphic novel. “I see youth [in Iran] making the change slowly, but through their own process—not a bloody revolution or coup d’état or bombing from another country,” he says.

Some 400,000 Iranians currently live in the United States, making up a diverse group with different religions and varied politics. “The monarchists in Los Angeles who I photographed, they didn’t trust me because I was born after the [1979] revolution,” Fatemi says through a translator. Others wanted to know who had already agreed to be photographed before saying yes.

Little by little, however, he made inroads. His goal is now to collect 100 portraits of Iranians living in exile around the United States.

Fatemi made a deliberate choice when selecting his subjects. All of the people he photographed have in one way or another found themselves on the wrong side of the regime and are unwilling or unable to return to Iran safely. He himself is one of those immigrants: He was in the United States in 2013 when his agency published images he’d taken in Iran over the course of more than a decade depicting a side of his country that the rest of the world rarely saw — women smoking, young people at concerts. He received threatening emails and decided not to return to Iran.

He has since settled in Chicago but has found building a new life in the United States challenging, in everything from navigating American immigration bureaucracy to maintaining a connection with his homeland. “I wanted to meet the people who were in the same sort of predicament as myself. I wanted to see how their lives have evolved, what kind of life they’re living, and what kind of experience they’re having,” he says.

His subjects — men and women, Jews, Muslims, and members of the Bahai faith — all took him into their homes, he says, and tried to give him guidance on life in America. They did their best to convey that he could continue to take pride in his culture in the United States while trying to integrate. But they left him with no illusions.

“They pretty much all told me that the first 10 years are going to be the hardest years and that you just have to persevere,” he says. “USA stands for ‘You Start Again.’ For everything.” — Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer and Jesse Chase-Lubitz

Nima Taradji was born in Iran in 1963. His family moved to France in the mid-1970s, before the Iranian revolution, and he immigrated to the United States in 1980. “You’re an aggregate product of the places you’ve lived and the cultures that affect you,” he says. After working as a commercial photographer in Los Angeles, he moved to Chicago in 1995 to attend law school. After graduation, he opened a law firm and worked as a trial lawyer until 2015, when he retired and resumed his photography. “I don’t know if I can return [to Iran],” he says. “It’s a risk that I’m not willing to take.”

Golnaz Kamali was born in Shiraz, Iran. In 1978, when she was 14 years old, her family left Iran, fleeing persecution for their Bahai faith. After living in India for three years, the seven-member family moved to the United States. Kamali earned her doctor of pharmacy degree from the University of New Mexico, specializing in nuclear pharmacy. She currently lives in Orange County, California, where she is an active member of the Bahai community. “I can practice my religion freely in this country,” she says. “I appreciate my freedom here. That’s the biggest thing.” She is too scared to return to Iran.

Mojgan Mozaffari is an Iranian-born artist living in Orange County. Before moving to the United States, she exhibited her work in Tehran. She eventually left Iran and became a U.S. citizen in 2008. Her most recent exhibition, Blue Rhythm — a mix of film installations, paintings, and talks — explores divorce law and the way mothers are treated in Islamic courts in Iran, where, according to Islamic law, divorced women lose custody of their children when they turn 7. She stopped returning to Iran in 2008. “I have a lot of memories over there, but I can’t say if it feels like home,” she says. “The U.S. is my new home, and I love it. But the part of my life I can’t deny is in Iran.”

Ahmad Batebi was born in Iran in 1977. He was arrested and sentenced to death after a photograph of him holding up a shirt covered with the blood of a fellow student during the 1999 student protests, which were followed by a government crackdown, appeared on the cover of the Economist. The court’s decision was met with widespread international protest, and the sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison. In 2008, Batebi, shown playing with his son Benjamin, managed to escape to the United States, where he was granted asylum. “For [nearly] 10 years of my life, I visited my family through a prison window,” he says. “Now I visit them through a computer screen.”

Elham Yaghoubian has been described as Iran’s first female Jewish novelist. She wrote her first book at the age of 16 and was one of the founders of Marze Por Gohar, a nationalist movement banned in Iran. Yaghoubian moved to the United States after participating in the 1999 student protests. After nearly 17 years of living as an Iranian-American, she says, “I’m Iranian, and I feel Iranian.” Today, she lives in Los Angeles and manages a language service company.

Parham Delijani graduated from Alborz College in Tehran in 1977 and left to study international business and finance in New York. He began studying raja yoga in the 1990s and became a devoted practitioner. In 2006, he earned a graduate degree in classical Chinese medicine; today, he runs his own practice in Great Neck, New York.

Mina Siegel came to the United States in 1973 to continue her graduate studies in medieval English literature and art history, before eventually earning a doctorate in philosophy. After graduating, she started her own faux painting, gilding, silk-screen printing, and acid etching business. In 2005, she retired and started working on human rights issues. She has remained involved in volunteer work at various nonprofit organizations such as the East Harlem Tutorial Program, the Lupus Foundation of America, and others. She takes pride in her contribution to maintaining a community of Iranians in New York City. “I have had more of my life here than there,” she says. “Nevertheless, Iran is my country.”

Arash Rahbar was born in Tehran in 1980, but his family moved to the United States when he was a baby. Today, he lives in New York. He has been involved in bodybuilding most of his adult life and is currently a professional competitor; he has had success in the “classic physique” category. “I don’t believe nationality is where you live,” he says. “I’m still Persian.”

Hossein Fatemi began his career in photography in 1997. Since then, he has traveled extensively and worked in Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Russia, India, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of
 FP magazine.

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