Every now and then, I come across yet another amazing story of immigrant success from the ranks of the fellows who have been helped by the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation for New Americans.
Cyrus Habib, one of their most recent fellows, is a senator in Washington State who went blind at the age of eight. As if that isn't astonishing enough, his story speaks volumes about what the son of an immigrant couple can do in this country. It's not only a confirmation of how motivated and successful our immigrant population can be, but it affirms how far America has come in making sure both those with disabilities, and those who arrive from other shores, have the opportunity to achieve great things.
Cyrus strikes me as someone on the threshold of doing just that. We recently had a lively conversation with this Iranian American state senator whose constituency is one of the wealthiest enclaves in America, the suburban communities of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond, across the lake from Seattle. As a Democrat in the state senate, he represents an ethnically diverse district that also includes chief executives of companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Costco.
His parents left Iran just before the revolution at the end of the '70s and came to America -- his father to become an engineer, and his mother to study law and eventually become a judge. His mother was, from childhood, best friends with his father's younger sister, so he had known her most of his life and began to date her on his visits back to Iran, after he'd settled in America.
While they lived in Baltimore, Cyrus was born and went completely blind, as a result of retinoblastoma in both eyes, at the age of eight. He adapted quickly and became a model student, running for student government in high school -- though never winning an election -- after his family moved to Washington state.
"I'm hoping I got the losses under my belt all back then," he joked.
All through his childhood, his mother showered him with an unwavering confidence in Cyrus's ability to excel, and his self-esteem carried him not only to Columbia University, where he studied comparative literature, but then on to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He wrote a thesis on two books that related to his own personal interest in vision and visuality: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.
As a member of a minority group, journeying to a large city, he discovered that they are both invisible to members of their community, in one sense, and hyper-visible in another. He came back to study law at Yale, with the help of the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation, and then took a job at Perkins COie, a law firm headquartered in Seattle. Eventually, he ran for office in 2012 and won a seat in the State House of Representatives, and later in a predominantly Republican state senate.
Throughout his career, he feels he has been blessed to live in society that creates opportunities for people who are disabled, as well as those who belong to a minority group, and he is driven by a desire to expand those opportunities. He can talk at length about how the iPhone is the greatest boon to the blind since Braille: It will speak to him, telling him what app his finger is touching on the screen of his phone, enabling him to call Uber, which itself makes it as easy and simple to get around as it is for the sighted population. But, even more significant, he says, has been the presence of institutions that have empowered him to be successful:
When I applied for the Rhodes Scholarship and Soros Fellowship, I continued to try to express my core belief that the formula that makes America great is hard work plus opportunity. This area is increasingly diverse, both ethnically and economically.
I found my voice during my first election, and I worked hard, but none of this would have happened if opportunities hadn't been made available to me.
His Soros Fellowship has been crucial. It enabled him, as the child of immigrants, to receive key financial assistance that gave him the freedom to teach and serve in public office. In a sense, it made it possible for him to run for office and pave the way for others with his qualities to follow in his footsteps.
Do you know any immigrants whose success has been a shining example, like Cyrus Habib's story is, of both immigrant initiative and American opportunity?