Zosh... zosh... er... af... atain? My name has always evoked a sense of eyebrow-raising intrigue, “foreignness,” and at times, suspicion. My full name, Zosherafatain, translates to “pride and honor” in Arabic, though most Iranians, including my family, speak Farsi.
Growing up, however, my name often made me feel everything other than “pride.” I was born in Massachusetts to an Iranian father and a Greek mother. My brother and I, with our tan complexions and dark brown hair, stood out in our small town, largely populated by Irish people who used to live in Boston. Our last name immediately stuck out in a sea of Smiths, Donnellys, and Connollys. I remember feeling squeamish on the first day of school every year, waiting for the teacher to butcher my name, with the usual quick laughs of my classmates. Zosh, zosher, zosheraf... how do you pronounce that name? “Zosh-er-af-a-ten,” I would quickly state, hoping to avoid embarrassment, and saying it with a quick roll of the tongue so that it sounded easier to say.
There were other times when my status as a first-generation American was fraught with tension. Our house got egged twice, and on both occasions, it wasn’t even Halloween. In a neighborhood where the only other family that somewhat resembled us was Indian, it was easy to find the reason why: we were outsiders.
Another time, our neighbor’s father called my dad “a camel back rider.” From a young age, I had internalized a sense of feeling foreign in my birth country. This is too often felt by youth of color who learn early on about their “otherness” through prejudice, taunting, and often times, as a result of violence. These first memories were from elementary school, before 9/11, which brought a monumental shift in how America treated (and still treats) families like mine.
When 9/11 happened, I remember being glued to the TV, watching in shock as the World Trade Centers collapsed while monitoring the skies above my house to see if Boston was going to be attacked too.
I was in middle school, and like most students my age, I was scared. Unlike my white peers, however, I was also frightened for my family in the Middle East. That night, my dad came home and said in a near-prophetic manner: “Bush is going to invade Iraq.” Not even a week later, President Bush was officially announcing that exact action.
To my family, the threat of war spreading into Iran, which borders Iraq, felt imminent. Unlike most people in our town, we didn’t just feel sadness about the lives lost in 9/11, but also gut-wrenching fear and anxiety. We soon noticed that we were kept for extra security checks at airports, and one of my hockey teammates subtly asked, “Are you a terrorist?” when I told her that my dad is from Iran.
When my Iranian grandmother visited us in 2002, I was anxious about bringing her out around town. Her chador (head covering worn by Muslim women) quickly outed her, and I will never forget the glaring, dismissive eyes of the shoppers when we took her with us to the grocery store. Though I remember this post-9/11 period being really bad for my family, it pales in comparison to living in Trump’s America.
When Trump won the election, I reacted like the progressive half of the country. I was shocked, dismayed, and kept asking myself, “How did this happen?” On top of that, I was readying myself mentally for what was surely going to be a rollercoaster ride for all Middle Eastern-Americans. At age 29, I am now around the same age that my dad was when he proclaimed Bush’s plans to invade Iraq. Like my dad, I reacted to the news of Trump’s win by predicting that Trump was going to go after Middle Eastern and Muslim-Americans. That’s exactly what he did by revoking the visas and green cards of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran.
To call it anything other than “a Muslim ban” downplays the discriminatory intentions of the executive order. When I saw the images of stranded Iranian grandmothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and young children crying at the airports, I saw not only my family, but myself. Tears quickly escaped my eyes. Luckily, my Iranian aunt who holds a green card was not traveling when the ban was instituted. As it stands, she is like a prisoner in America. She can’t leave because there’s no guarantee she will be let back in. My father, brother, and I were hoping to visit Iran soon to see our family there. I haven’t seen my aging grandmother since 2007. The anticipation of seeing her soon is now crushed.
To be Iranian-American in Trumpland is to feel stomach-curling fear. In my heart, I know that this is Trump’s plan ― to make us feel threatened so that the seeds of distrust grow stronger. In comparison to the immediate post-9/11 period, this discrimination feels sharper, less subtle. In many ways, everything that I’m feeling under Trump’s America is not incredibly new. After all, America has struggled with racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia for centuries.
I have felt the sting of prejudice since I was a kid. Something about this current political climate feels different though. Right after 9/11, when Islamophobic and xenophobic comments slid off my peers’ tongues without any challenge, I now see people defending me. When I recently wrote a status about how the ban affects my family, I received overwhelming support from white Americans, including people I grew up with in Massachusetts. I see massive marches, anti-Islamophobic slogans, and commitments to keep fighting the ban. To be Iranian-American in Trumpland is to feel fear, but it is also to feel hope, and that’s a powerful feeling.