Iranian American businesses in Westwood, Los Angeles, California.

Iranian American businesses in Westwood, Los Angeles, California. 

Credit:

Shirin Jaafari/The World

Editor's note: This story ran as two parts on the radio broadcast. Part one is linked above. Part two is here: 

For more than 40 years, Homa Sarshar has kept a handful of documents inside a safe at her home: club membership cards, bank records, old passports.

There is one document that is familiar to nearly all Iranians: a turquoise airline ticket that bears the mythical bird of happiness — the iconic logo of Iran’s national airline.

"This ticket is useless [today], but it’s a part of my past," Sarshar says. 

The ticket is from Tehran, and the date on it reads 1979. That year brought with it the Islamic Revolution, which forever changed Iran and the whole region. For Sarshar, 1979 was the beginning of her life in exile, something that she never expected. That year brought her and many thousands of other Iranians all the way to Los Angeles, a city sometimes referred to as Tehrangeles.

According to the US census, today, about 180,000 people who claim Iranian ancestry live across California. Some say hearing calls for war between the US and Iran is like a "roller coaster ride" — and opinions vary on whether they'd support US military strikes.

Iranian American radio host Homa Sarshar at her home in Los Angeles. She holds the plane ticket that brought her to the US more than 40 years ago.

Iranian American radio host Homa Sarshar at her home in Los Angeles. She holds the plane ticket that brought her to the US more than 40 years ago.

Credit:

Shirin Jaafari

Why California?

Persis Karim, director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University, says California attracted thousands of Iranians because they had ties to the state.

"Iran sent many students abroad in the '60s and the '70s. And California was the epicenter, because we had the Higher Education Act [of 1965], which made college education more affordable at that time, including for foreign students," she says, adding that California’s mild weather appealed to Iranians too.

The Iranian diaspora in Los Angeles is diverse. There are Muslims, Christians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians, among others.

Related: What life looks like amid the Iranian diaspora in 'Tehranto'

Homa Sarshar grew up in a Jewish family in Iran. In Los Angeles, she hosts a popular Persian radio show that covers anything from where to get concert tickets in LA to what's going on with sanctions back home.

Lately, one of the big topics of conversation on her show is the possibility of a US-Iran conflict. In May, the Trump administration sent the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier to the Middle East in response to what American officials called "imminent threats to American interests" in the region.

John Bolton, White House national security adviser, issued a statement warning against any attack by the Iranian military. A few days later, the State Department ordered a partial evacuation of the US embassy in Baghdad, citing concerns of threats from Iranian proxies.

Asked if the US could win a war against Iran, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas told PBS host Margaret Hoover, "Yes! Two strikes. The first strike and the last strike."

"That didn't take you a second," Hoover replied.

An MH-60S Seahawk helicopter lifts off the flight deck of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, June 3, 2019.

An MH-60S Seahawk helicopter lifts off the flight deck of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea, June 3, 2019.

Credit:

Jeff Sherman/US Navy via Reuters

Decades-old tension

Iranians have heard the call for a war with Iran before.

There was former president George W. Bush, who labeled Iran as part of the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union speech. In 2007, then-presidential contender Sen. John McCain joked at a campaign rally about bombing Iran. Bolton publicly advocated for regime change for years before joining the administration.

"It’s like having a roller coaster ride," Sarshar says. "Every time that a new president comes and just gives promises, we think, 'Oh, this time it’s going to happen.'"

Two young girls sit a table in front of a chalkboard.

Children at the Golestan Center for Language Immersion and Cultural Education in El Cerrito, California.

Credit:

Shirin Jaafari/The World

Yalda Modabber is the head of Golestan Center for Language Immersion and Cultural Education in El Cerrito, across the bay from San Francisco. The elementary school offers a Persian language immersion program. Modabber, who was born in the US to Iranian parents, says she came up with the idea for the school because of her son.

"My Persian wasn’t very strong," she says, "and I needed support in teaching my child Persian and I also needed childcare."

But there was nothing like it in California, she says, despite it being the state with the largest Iranian population outside of Iran.

"I think a lot of people, when they immigrate, they want to assimilate, so maintaining their heritage language isn’t a priority. We’re now second-generation. We’re the ones who are really holding onto our heritage for dear life. And I think we’re more driven to create something like this."

Yalda Modabber, head of Golestan Center for Language Immersion and Cultural Education

"I don’t know why there were no Persian language immersion schools," she says. "There are so many Iranians here. I think a lot of people, when they immigrate, they want to assimilate, so maintaining their heritage language isn’t a priority. We’re now second-generation. We’re the ones who are really holding onto our heritage for dear life. And I think we’re more driven to create something like this."

The generation of Iranians who immigrated to the United States in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution faced backlash from what was happening back in Iran.

In November of that year, Iranian students took a group of Americans at the US embassy hostage. This sparked a crisis between the two countries that lasted for 444 days. Anti-Iranian sentiment was high.

"People that were close to me were threatened with violence because of the hostage crisis," says Persis Karim of San Francisco State University. "My own father didn’t tell people he was Iranian. He said he was Greek to avoid any association."

Karim says despite all the trauma that Iranians endured, many have gone on to flourish in this country. In Silicon Valley, for example, Iranian Americans hold top posts at companies such as Uber, eBay, Airbnb and Google.

"There are scientists, engineers, but there are also artists and filmmakers and poets," Karim says.

Meanwhile, the tensions between Iran and the US have persisted and for many Iranian Americans with ties to both countries, it's impossible to escape it. Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, he announced a travel ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. The executive order has separated thousands of families, including Iranians.

Trump also walked away from the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama and other world leaders had negotiated with Iran. Now, there is talk of a military conflict.

"It’s extremely anxiety provoking," says Gelare Khoshgozaran, who moved from Iran to California ten years ago. She’s an artist and writer in her 30s.

"I mean, especially after the US withdrew out of the nuclear deal, it was like a new dawn of disappointment," she says from her studio in LA. Most of Khoshgozaran’s family still live in Iran, so she worries every time she hears whispers of war.

"I think about friends and family and people that I don’t even know who still live in Iran. Their survival, their health, their wellbeing is at stake."

Gelare Khoshgozaran, artist living in Los Angeles

"I think about friends and family and people that I don’t even know who still live in Iran. Their survival, their health, their wellbeing is at stake," she says.

'I know my son will ask questions'

Navid Aslani, a startup strategist and life coach, is thinking of enrolling Rama, his 4 year-old son, at the Golestan school. It's Rama's first time at the school, and he's already making friends, playing a game and speaking with other kids in a mix of Persian and English.

Aslani, meanwhile, ponders what it’s like to hear the constant drumbeat of war when you have a child with one foot in each world. How much of the animosity between the two countries should he share with his son? 

"It's a good question," he says, recalling his own upbringing in Kansas. His family had just moved to the US, and he had a hard time adjusting. One time, he says, his classmates glued a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini on his locker. Khomeini was the intense-looking, bearded politician and cleric who led the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

"I think my experience of having gone through that, I am a little more conscientious about the importance of certain things," he says. "Like, do I want Rama to be in a situation where he is not accepted, but he’s learning, supposedly?"

Aslani says he is still figuring out how much geopolitics he wants to share with his son. He knows the boy will have questions soon — just like he did, when he was growing up in Kansas.

But there is one thing he’s clear about.

"There is a deeper connection with Iran, no doubt. It’s part of our roots. So I definitely want him to carry that with him. And we also love the US culture, so what's [ideal] is to be in an environment where he is nurturing his roots but then he’s also tapping into all of the wonderful things that this country has to offer."

Navid Aslani, tech consultant and parent

"There is a deeper connection with Iran, no doubt," he says. "It’s part of our roots. So I definitely want him to carry that with him. And we also love the US culture, so what's [ideal] is to be in an environment where he is nurturing his roots but then he’s also tapping into all of the wonderful things that this country has to offer."

Hearing all sides on the radio

Sarshar, the LA radio host of "Sobhaneh Baa Homa Sarshar," or "Breakfast with Homa Sarshar," says she is no supporter of Iran’s current leaders. She has not forgotten how she was fired from her job in Tehran in the days leading up to the Islamic Revolution.

"I found out that they had fired all the minorities, including Jewish people, Assyrians, Armenians and Baha’is, and they fired everybody," she says.

But her disapproval doesn’t extend to supporting a US military action.

"War is not a solution," she says. "Democracy comes by, first of all, learning it, by implementing it correctly, and by having all the ingredients that freedom and democracy need."

All that, she adds, must come from within the country, and not be imposed by the US.

Program director Alireza Hekmatshoar at his office at the KIRN 670 studios in Los Angeles

Program director Alireza Hekmatshoar at his office at the KIRN 670 studios in Los Angeles, California.

Credit:

Shirin Jaafari/The World

Sarshar’s show broadcasts on KIRN 670, which has about a dozen radio shows in Persian running throughout the day and night.

Alireza Hekmatshoar, who wears a red fedora, red scarf and red shoes, is the program director at the station. He says opinions vary within Iranian American communities. Some Iranians, he says, support the current Iranian regime. Others want the government gone but don't support a US intervention. But there is a group with a more hawkish view.

Hekmatshoar describes a recent, private conversation he had with two "very famous" Iranian singers in Los Angeles. 

"Both believe that it’s better this attack happens because after that, at least something good is going to happen to Iran," he says, declining to give their names. The singers, who allegedly support a US military strike against Iran, told him they don't mind if the country breaks apart.

A woman sits on a couch with several works of art behind her.

Radio host Homa Sarshar at her home in Los Angeles, California.

Credit:

Shirin Jaafari/The World

Sarshar says she has heard this opinion on her show as well.

"I have been talking to people [and] I ask them, 'If there is a war, would you fight for the United States or would you fight for Iran?'" she says. "And they’re not ashamed to say that they will fight for the United States to destroy Iran because they want this regime to go."

Sarshar, for her part, says war is never a good option. She says she made that point to Mike Pompeo two years ago, before he became secretary of state. They met at an Iranian American event in LA.

"People from my generation would love to see the regime to be changed. This is what my hope is too. But just by bombing Iran? I don’t believe so."

Homa Sarshar, radio host in Los Angeles

"People from my generation would love to see the regime to be changed," Sarshar says. "This is what my hope is too. But just by bombing Iran? I don’t believe so."

Sarshar's eyes well with tears as she adjusts the plane ticket that is sitting on the coffee table. This part of the ticket is the return leg of the flight she booked in 1979. It would have taken her back to Tehran. Back then, she thought she’d be able to return in a few months. But as the Islamic Revolution took hold, it was clear she couldn’t.

Yet, Sarshar held onto the ticket. It's like a relic that belongs to a lost loved one.

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