Mohammad Ali Tarokh is a student at Northeastern University, pursuing a degree in political science. In a Q&A he shares why he was forced to leave his home country and how he has reestablished a new identity in America as a result.
How important is identity to you?
Tarokh: It depends on the definition of identity … my identity comes from humanity. It does not matter who I am or where I am from … land, flag, passport, etc. are not important to me, but they are important to governments.
Can you talk about any barriers you have faced?
Tarokh: Governments are my barriers. I was an activist in Iran and Iran’s governments had many problems with me and my friends. In the United States, phobia of Islam is my big problem. I am very liberal, but people always judge me because I’m from Iran, My first name is Mohammad and that’s enough for people to marginalize me. I believe making friends is very hard in this country because I have to explain, “Please do not be afraid of me… Mohammad is just my name; Iran is just a country…”
Do you have any stories about how things have changed for the better?
Tarokh: The election in Iran in 2009 changed my whole life. I was an activist, and my major was political science at a local university. I knew what my generation wanted. We had an Islamic revolution in 1979, and we understand how revolutions and theocracies can destroy your life. My generation wants change, but from wisdom. So we have started reform in Persian culture and also in government. But change and reform have a cost, and if Iranian people want to achieve democracy and freedom, they have to pay the price.
Reform is gradual change, step by step. I paid the cost when my government detained me in 2009. The government banned me from continuing my studies at the university. I went to jail for 15 months. I was just a simple student who had a dream, but my government made me a political prisoner. They told me I was very dangerous for national security. I had to leave Iran because that situation was really dangerous for me and my family. I left my love, my heart, my happiness. When I arrived to United States everything was strange for me. I felt like I was born again. I tried to transform myself socially, but it was really hard. Still, I could breathe because I was breathing new air.
What was it like living in your country of origin before you came to the United States?
Tarokh: Two things surprised me about Iran, as I look at this in retrospect. First, religion is very important to the country. Second, how sexist the country has been against women and their basic rights. I find it a paradox that I was arrested as a student vouching for LGBT and women’s rights in Iran. Yet, those values of freedom, acceptance, and tolerance are so openly embraced here in the USA.
What kind of work did you engage in after arriving in the United States?
Tarokh: When I left Iran, I promised myself to continue my education in political science. I’m now a master’s student, so I spend my time studying, and I’m involved with Amnesty International. I’m not able to work directly for my people because I’m not in Iran anymore, but I can help report about human rights in Iran.
What aspects of life in the United State have made the greatest impression on you?
Tarokh: I think it’s amazing that people practice democracy every day. I’m fascinated by this society because they improve themselves every day.
Do you plan to become a U.S. citizen?
Tarokh: I do have to stay here, and I am okay with that. I haven’t thought about citizenship yet, but I cannot go back home to Iran because of political issues. If I do go back, I will be jailed. I value my freedom and rights here too much.