I probably don't get as upset from reading the news as a blogger really should in order to fuel the daily quota of rants, but this article managed to get to me. It is about the Afsharis, an Iranian-American family living in Morgantown, WV. Their daughter Azadeh and son Hamed are honor students and participants in student government at West Virginia University, and they have a 12 year old son, born in the U.S., named Amin. Until May 5 of this year, the parents, Aliakbar and Shahla, worked at National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, one of the biggest employers in Morgantown.
But that afternoon, their managers pulled the Afsharis aside and delivered a stunning message: they had failed secret background checks and were being fired. No explanations were offered and no appeals allowed. They were escorted to the door and told not to return.
The government refuses to tell the Afsharis what made them fail this security check despite having passed background checks when they were hired in 1996 and 1997. Their own theory is they were being linked to a group that the FBI says "is made up largely of anti-American fanatics, maintains close ties to the government of Iran and has been used as a front for Iranian intelligence. But it is not on the State Department's list of banned foreign terrorist organizations, and it operates openly in the United States."
In December 1998 and 1999, the Afshari family went to the Muslim Students Association (Persian Speaking Group) conventions, where they could "speak Persian, eat Iranian food, attend workshops on Islam and meet other Iranian-Americans at a time of the year when many Americans were celebrating Christmas." They daughter Azadeh says, "We loved it because it was a chance to meet kids from our culture. We pushed our parents to go."
I'm really hoping that the case against the Afsharis is stronger than what they'll admit, because these facts alone are unbelievably worthless as an indictment of 18-year residents of the United States who until recently would have been held up as "model minorities" and exemplars of the American dream. Well educated -- he with an industrial engineering Ph.D., she with a master's in occupational health and safety -- they did completely public research in thrilling stuff like asphalt fumes and latex gloves. They apparently assimilated well into their small town community without giving up their own cultural mores. They let their children figure out the right mix of Iranian and American in their own lives, not protesting when Azadeh chose to stop wearing a headscarf, a couple of years before she ran for homecoming queen.
In particular, the idea of attendance at what was advertised as a cultural convention being enough to hang immigrants is extremely troubling. Almost every year, my family will go to a 4th of July weekend conference for people from my parents' home state in India. It's pretty much for the same reasons that the Afsharis attended their convention, except that where they politely term it "a chance to meet kids from our culture," my parents and their peers openly say, "Maybe you'll find a nice boy there." (Presumably a Shiite convention also involves a lot less drinking than the Telegu meat market.)
Aside from a few attacks on Indians -- mostly Sikhs -- and one Hindu temple in the immediate wake of September 11, 2001, there's been little reason for me to think that 9/11 and the subsequent domestic war on terror would affect me more than it would any other American. When people talk about the loss of civil liberties and profiling of Muslims, I worry about it, but as something that happens to other people.
Somehow the Afsharis' story struck me with how close I am to being those "other people." They're so small-town, middle-class successful, education-focused and family-oriented; precisely the qualities that normally would be prized by our society, and probably how my own family and those of many of the kids with whom I grew up would be described. The difference is of a nation and a religion. The Afsharis had the misfortune of being Iranian and Muslim at a time when Iran is part of the Axis of Evil and Muslims are a suspect class. But change a couple of letters in their national origin, and add a lot of deities to their faith, and they could be my family.
I have a hard time not taking their plight almost personally, putting my parents in the place of Aliakbar and Shahla Afshari.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Afshari's unemployment benefits ran out. He has not found work, and the family is now living on savings and credit cards. Mrs. Afshari has begun dental school with Azadeh but says she does not know if they can afford the tuition. Mr. Afshari has become sullen and withdrawn, his children said. Though his father in Iran is ill, Mr. Afshari has decided not to visit him, fearing he will not be allowed to return to the United States.I imagine how my father -- who just came back from his niece's wedding in India -- would react to being in such a situation. Should they uproot themselves and their children from what has become their hometown, in order to find employment in a bigger market? I suspect that Dad might eventually take the fighting stance that the Afsharis finally have.
Unable to clear their names or find new employment in their field, the Afsharis on Thursday resorted to that most American of recourses: they sued the institute and its parent agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, demanding back pay and reinstatement or the chance to appeal. [...]Hopefully the courts will provide the Afsharis with due process, even though they are permanent residents and not citizens, and they either can be restored to their jobs or know what violation they committed.
In their suit, they do not question the government's right to conduct background checks. But their lawyers contend that the Kafkaesque nature of the process -- in which the rules were unclear and perhaps unwritten -- has made it impossible for them to defend themselves.