I Was a “Terrorist Country” Refugee Who’d Grown Up Shouting “Death to America.” America Trusted Me Anyway. 

On fleeing the tribalism of Iran and confronting the tribalism of America 30 years later.

The photo from the author’s visa application.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy Mehrsa Baradaran, Anthony Delanoix/Unsplash.

In 1986, I was a 9-year-old Muslim immigrant from the “terrorist country” of Iran trying to escape war and a revolution gone wrong. My mom (in hijab), my dad, my two younger sisters, and I, each with bowl haircuts, stood in front of a U.S. bureaucrat sitting in her office. She looked us up and down deciding whether to accept or reject our visa application. Did she know that every morning and every afternoon in grade school, I shouted “Death to America” with all my classmates? Had she seen the footage just a few years earlier of Iranian men and women on the streets burning the American flag? And then the guns and those blindfolded American hostages? We were the bad guys. We were the enemy.

Could she have guessed that in just a few years, I would pledge allegiance to the American flag in my elementary school with actual pride in my heart? That I would spend my entire young life watching Saved by the Bell and trying so hard to be a “real American”? Could she have imagined that I would go to law school, take the oath of citizenship to my country, and spend a recent Thursday walking up and down our street with my three daughters selling Girl Scout cookies?

Maybe it didn’t matter to her. Maybe she knew that we were sleeping in our basements because of the bombs at night and that in America, we might sleep in peace. Maybe when she looked at us, she simply saw children whose lives didn’t matter any less because our mom wore hijab. I was that little Muslim kid from a terrorist country “yearning to breathe free,” and you took me in.

I understand that America took a risk on us. Every immigrant, every refugee, is a risk. Each of us could be a poisonous Skittle, as one hysterical meme has it. I might have been “radicalized” by all the martyrs in the war, by Saddam’s “American” bombs that rained down on us, by the beatings I had witnessed when I visited my mom when she was a political prisoner for three years. I was instructed by the Islamic Republic to hate the Great Satan. Marg barg Aamrica!

But I believed in America, and it believed in me. In America, my sisters and I stopped seeing dead bodies in the street. We had a picnic on a highway median in California one time—it seemed like a park to us—and it was the lushest grass I had ever seen. Every week, a truck would pull into our elementary school, and we could just take out any book we wanted. In Iran, we didn’t have shampoo or bananas. Here was a library on wheels! America gave me a life and a childhood. We gorged ourselves on America—learned English in a few months (thank you, Jem and the Holograms!), organized the neighborhood kids into dance routines and magic shows, resold individual pieces of candy from packages to make a little spending money (hello, capitalism!). I loved America.

There were rough parts, too. Sometimes kids called me a terrorist, or said I smelled, or were not interested in playing with the girl who wore the same sweater every day because that was the warmest thing I had. But I wanted so badly to be American—to be one of you.

But now, when I think about the immigrants and refugees from “terrorist countries” that soon will be banned by executive order from coming here, I am one of them. I know that some people fear us and want us to leave. Just a few weeks ago, a gentleman followed me around a local Trader Joe’s yelling at me to “go back to my country.” But this is my country—even though this resurgent tribalism seems to puts people like me on the outside. The irony for me is that it was Iran’s tribalism and nationalism that put my family out in the first place. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime had said “Iran First,” too. They silenced the press, kicked out all the “others,” and ran the liberal intellectuals out of the country.

I hope that’s not what happens here. But even if it does, this is my home and I will keep working to make America great because I have so much hope in America. It had hope in me—that Muslim kid, in a visa office, from a terrorist country, whose future was a completely open landscape. And that beautiful bureaucrat stamped “Approved” on that blank space.