Nine Iranian-Americans have been recognized in the 2018 Ellis Island Medals of Honor, which celebrate individuals who make outstanding contributions to their communities and promote the values of “tolerance, brotherhood, diversity and patriotism.”
The awards ceremony takes place on May 12, when eight of the nine Iranian-Americans — a journalist, an architect, educators and entrepreneurs among them — will join other accomplished fellow citizens the Ellis Island Honors Society has chosen to celebrate at part of this year's honors.
Each year, the society recognizes the contributions US citizens make to society and their communities, whether it’s through philanthropy and education, innovation and business, politics, the media, or the creative industries.
The Iranian-Americans receiving the 2018 medals are:
— Maryam Banikarim, global marketing expert, most recently global chief marketing officer for Hyatt
— Farnaz Fassihi, journalist, senior writer for The Wall Street Journal
— Angella Nazarian, author, advocate of women in leadership
— David Nazarian, businessman, philanthropist
— Hadi Partovi, CEO for Code, a non-profit organization building access to computer science in schools and supporting women and minorities in the field
— Khosrow Semnani, philanthropist and founder of the Semnani Family Foundation, industrialist, entrepreneur, author
— Ardeshir Tavangarian, architect, designer, engineer
— Masood Tayebi, investment and business entrepreneur
— the late Dr. Bahman Atefi, nuclear engineer and former CEO of Alion Science and Technology (although the society does not honor medals posthumously, Atefi died suddenly in March, and had already been granted the medal at the time of his death)
The ceremony and private gala take place on Ellis Island, which holds particular significance for Americans given its status as the main point of entry for 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954 and home to the Statue of Liberty.
The Ellis Island Society, which also raises funds to help maintain the island, founded the honors in 1986. Former recipients include Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, Vice President Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel and Malala Yousafzai, Coretta Scott King, Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks.
A Natural Patriotism
Marketing specialist Maryam Banikarim was nominated for the medal by former honoree Azita Raji, an Iranian American banker, diplomat and former US ambassador to Sweden. “I’m incredibly humbled by this honor. I look around at the other recipients and I am inspired. Inspired by their passion, their accomplishments and the possibilities they are allowing others to follow in their footsteps. If I have contributed to that even a little, I could not be more proud.”
Iranians immigrants are well known for their contributions to the societies they make their new home, whether it’s the Yonge-Finch neighborhood of Toronto, Westwood in Los Angeles, the suburbs of Paris or the streets of Istanbul. "I think we're a community that gets involved and is focused on contributing in some way,” says Banikarim. “It's always great to lead by example. I see it, so I can become it.”
Many Iranians never imagined when they left the country they would settle elsewhere for good — at a recent event organized by Persian Women in Tech, Ernst & Young partner Maryam Hossein talked about the “myth of permanent return” that characterizes the lives of so many Iranians in the diaspora.
At the same time, there’s a natural patriotism Iranians seem comfortable with — a patriotism very much devoted to their homeland, but also which transfers smoothly to their new lives elsewhere.
Khosrow Semnani is one example. “The US is a place where everybody has the opportunity as well as the readiness for making things happen and succeeding,” he told IranWire in a phone interview. He said he was looking forward to spending time with people who have “been a part of American society and American economic growth. I think it will be good to meet with them and network and have a chance to promote this whole idea of participating in the American success story.”
Hadi Partovi, the CEO of the non-profit organization Code, agrees. “America has always celebrated its immigrant roots, because that’s such a big part of what makes America the greatest country on earth. The idea that a young boy could arrive here from a war-torn country with little to his name and work hard enough to achieve enough success to then give back to help educate tens of millions of future boys and girls — that’s the lucky story of my life and also the story of the American Dream.”
What it Means in the Current Climate
“It is extremely rewarding to receive this recognition as an American from an immigrant family and a journalist dedicated to holding truth to power, at a time when both immigration and journalism is under attack and being challenged,” journalist Farnaz Fassihi told IranWire. “This award is a validation of dedicating two decades of my career to reporting from some of the world's most dangerous conflict zones and dictatorships to inform the public and hold those in power accountable.”
At a time when the Iranian-American community feels targeted by President Trump’s executive order restricting travel on Iranians and other Muslim-majority countries, the awards — to Iranian-Americans but many others from diverse and immigrant backgrounds — offer encouragement and a spirit of solidarity. “It’s a good message to all immigrants, not only Iranians,” says Semnani.
Banikarim says the recognition “highlights the many ways the Iranian-American community has contributed to America, from technology to journalism to architecture.” Partovi points out that education about what immigrant communities do for the US is still very much needed: “Most Americans don’t realize that Iranian-Americans founded or lead companies such as eBay, Dropbox, Twitter, and Uber, or that technologies such as JPEG compression or LASIK surgery were invented by Iranian-Americans,” he says.
But, like Semnani, they also acknowledge what the Ellis Island honors mean on a larger scale. "You represent more than your own community because you're ‘an other.’ You sort of demonstrate the possibility," says Banikarim. “People have come up to me when I've spoken and they've said: ‘I'm from Dubai, or I'm from Pakistan, or I'm from wherever, and I'm proud because you've shown me that it's possible for me.’ That's an amazing thing.”
How does an Iranian Upbringing Help?
In recent years, many Iranian-Americans have returned to the country of their birth in the hopes of applying their expertise to help Iran and rebuild its economy. Semnani says he, like many of his fellow Iranian-Americans, would love to return. But the current climate makes it next to impossible — both because of the travel ban and the unpredictable nature of Iran’s security apparatus.”The situation is getting more critical, or more difficult for Iranian-Americans to travel to Iran,” Semnani says.
Many had hoped the economy would rally after the nuclear deal was signed in 2015. While this recovery has been slow to emerge, President Trump’s announcement on May 8 that the US would be withdrawing from the deal signals an even bleaker period ahead. Semnani says Trump’s decision has “put more people under threat of war, which is not a good thing for people in Iran or American people.”
Iranian immigrants, and children of immigrants like Farnaz Fassihi, also bring their unique backgrounds and their particular experiences to their professions and their participation in society. “My ethnicity has been an asset in my career, it has allowed me to set myself apart in an extremely competitive field because of my expertise in the Middle East and its languages, culture and religion,” says Fassihi. “Being an Iranian-American has given me an insider-outsider perspective into both worlds and the ability to explain and interpret one place to the other. My own trajectory was shaped by a revolution, war and immigration at a young age and I've sought out to make sense of how this narrative shapes ordinary people's lives.”