Interview by Elizabeth Thompson, Photography by Joana Meurkens
Mixed Mag is excited to feature Arrizu Sirjani, former project coordinator for New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. A passionate advocate for immigrant rights, Arrizu spoke with Elizabeth Thompson about her childhood experiences as a person with mixed cultural heritage and the joys and challenges she faced navigating the changing political landscape of a post- 9/11 US society.
Mixed Mag is a publication dedicated to promoting the work of creators of color, with a special focus on sharing intersectional stories.
Can you give me your full name and where you currently reside? And what is it you do?
My full name is Arrizu Michele Sirjani, and I currently reside in New York City. For my day job, I am the one of the Know Your Rights project coordinators at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs where I oversee the day to day operations of our Know Your Rights Program and NYS DREAM Act Application Assistance program.
Arrizu has since left her position at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. All views expressed are her own and do not reflect the views of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs or the City of New York.
Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Rochester, Minnesota, which is right outside of the Twin Cities. I only lived there with my parents and my older brother until the age of three. Then we moved to Austin, Texas, where I grew up and went to school until I was nine. And then my family moved to Kirkland, Washington, which is a city right across the lake from Seattle; we joke that it’s a suburb of Seattle. It’s not. It’s its own city, but it’s only about 20 minutes from the city. I lived there until I went to undergrad at the University of Redlands in Southern California. I moved around a lot. I’ve lived in eight cities and three countries, in total.
Can you talk a bit about your heritage and how you contextualize your identity as first generation?
I am Iranian American. I struggle but I say that I’m first generation because I’m the first generation from my dad’s side of the family that was born in the US. It’s a very different experience than those who are first generation immigrants. And really, there are conflicting definitions in the dictionary for first generation and second generation. Based on my conversations with immigrants and children of immigrants, how you use those terms really just depends on the person and their experience. So I always give the caveat that I identify as first generation born in the US, on my dad’s side. When I say first gen, that’s what I mean. For context, my dad grew up in Iran in a Shia Muslim family and emigrated to the US by himself when he was 17, I believe.
That is quite a young age to emigrate alone to another country!
It is! It was right before the Iranian Revolution started. He was the youngest of five. And being a young man, my grandfather, kind of having a sense that something was going to happen, thought it would be safest to send my dad outside of the country. My dad’s middle brother was living in Spokane, Washington at the time doing his master’s, so my grandfather decided to send my dad to live with him and finish up high school. After the revolution, the Iran Iraq War happened. My dad stayed in the US even though his older brother went back to Iran because by that time, I believe, he had already started college. Going back to Iran was not really an option for my dad for a very long time because he hadn’t done his mandatory military service. It wasn’t until I was 5 or 6 years old that he went back for the first time since leaving in 1978, and I remember being nervous because we weren’t sure how it would go.
Contrairily, my mother is a fourth generation American on her mom’s side, and maybe seventh or eighth on her dad’s side; her mom’s family immigrated from Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Tell me more about your name – we know that the decision to have a more traditionally ethnic name can be a big decision living as an immigrant in the US.
It was important for my mother that my brother and I have Iranian names as a way for my dad to stay connected to his culture and his family so far away in Iran. My parents thought of names in Farsi for girls that would not be too difficult for Americans to pronounce and had a ‘z’ in it because all of their names did. I do think they picked probably the easiest one. I mean, my name is really only five to six letters, depending on which translation in English you’re looking at. So it shouldn’t be that difficult, but it doesn’t stop people from mispronouncing it consistently, of course. It is the word for “wish” in Farsi.
In trying to keep my dad and us connected to our Iranian culture, my mom actually went to Farsi school with us when we were kids. She was the only adult there. She wanted us to be able to all speak Farsi at home.
How did your parents navigate two religions in one household?
We, meaning my mom, brother, and I, went to church nearly every Sunday, we were in Bible study and were active in our church. But we were always educated about Islam. And essentially how it was explained to me is that, because my dad’s more spiritual than religious and my mother is a practicing Catholic, my parents decided we would be raised Catholic, but we would be educated about Islam. When we got older, it would be our decision on what faith we decided to practice. We had these really important conversations about the differences of people in the world. And I think that that was just so important for our upbringing, especially as we moved to different homes in different cities.
For example, growing up in our first home in Austin, TX, there was a lot of diversity – other mixed and immigrant families. Two doors down from us, there was a Nigerian family. There was another family from India, I believe. We also had neighbors who were Polish. Two streets down there was a Mexican American family. There were about three white families. Many practiced different religions. And we all played together and learned about each others’ backgrounds. My school in Austin was diverse, too. I very much remember my mom talking to us about our background, that people have come from different countries, just like my dad, and practice different religions. I think our parents used our family history and background to instigate conversations with us about the realities of the world at a young age.
What does being “mixed” mean to you?
I feel like my house is mixed in so many different ways; we’re mixed religion, mixed immigration history, mixed ethnicity, mixed race, mixed socioeconomic status, since my parents don’t come from the same socio-economic background either. Conversations about these aspects of identity among others were happening in my home from a very young age. As a young child, I think I identified as being mixed. I identify strongly with being Iranian now, but as a child I didn’t go by Arrizu – I went by Ari. I think it started as a nickname by my parents but I continued going by it in elementary school because kids would tease me about my name. They would just make jokes like, “Are you a zoo?” “Do you come from a zoo?” Just stupid things that kids say. So I just went by Ari. I didn’t want to deal with it.
Growing up, people often asked where I was from or where I was really from because the US wasn’t an acceptable answer to them. Or there would be guessing games that people would play about where I was from/what my ethnicity was. Was I Hispanic, was I Greek, was I Egyptian. These contributed to me never really feeling like I fully fit in. But when we moved to Kirkland, I decided to go by Arrizu. The nice thing was that there were a few other Iranian-American kids in my grade in elementary school there, so I didn’t feel as alone. And they all had Iranian names. So I thought that was really cool, too. It didn’t stop kids from making comments about my name though – people still do.
What I always try to explain to people is, white people don’t ask other white people about their ethnicity, they only ask people that they don’t think are White, and that’s what I grew up with constantly. In a way, it made me feel closer to my culture and ethnicity, but also feel more separated from everyone else, especially once we moved to Kirkland because while I had a few Iranian-American classmates, our school and neighborhood were predominately white.
How has your career been shaped by these experiences in your childhood in feelings of belonging or isolation?
There’s so much to be said for parents, for people who are immigrants, and the burdens that they bear when they come to this country to build a life for their family. I would say my dad comes from a privileged family – his family was able to send him over to the US. But that still doesn’t mean that being in the U.S. was without its challenges. Growing up, when I would ask my dad how things were, he never really talked about difficulties of being in the US those first few years. I would read stories about other Iranians and their experiences after the hostage crisis, and they would talk about the racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia that they had to deal with. I never really heard those stories from my dad growing up, not until recently.
I’m realizing now, especially as I work with immigrants, that that is the case for so many of us who are children of immigrants. They may never fully share with you the experience that they had, for a variety of reasons. Learning about the experiences and treatment of immigrants in this country, especially Black and Brown immigrants, and my own experiences as the child of an immigrant drives me to create policies and programs that help make their lives easier, treat them with humanity and dignity, and empower them. There is so much work to be done on immigration rights in this country.
Can you talk a bit about how the political relationship between the US and Iran impacted your childhood?
There is no formal diplomatic relationship between Iran and the US. As a result, it can be very difficult for families like mine who are split between them. The first time I ever went to Iran I was 10 years old. My dad and I went there in August of 2001. That was the first time I met my entire family, all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. To my knowledge, up until that point, I had only met my grandparents, two of my dad’s siblings, 1 of their spouses, and 2 of my cousins in Vienna, Austria because that’s where we would meet. For context, my dad has four siblings and from them I have 8 cousins – all of whom lived in Iran except for one of my uncles and his family. So during that trip, I finally met everyone, I got to see the home where my dad grew up and a number of cities in Iran. I remember thinking, “Oh, so much of my life makes sense. And who I am makes sense.”
Of course, things were also very different. Wearing hijab was something I was not used to, but I was a kid and I didn’t really mind. I felt this sense of belonging even though I was still referred to as a foreigner. People in my dad’s hometown would say, “Oh, this is the child of the one that lives in America.” Despite being an Iranian citizen, having an Iranian passport and claiming this identity, I still don’t fully fit there either.
I fell in love with Iran on that trip. A piece of my heart was left there. We came home in mid/late August, and 9/11 happened a few weeks later.
What do you remember about that day?
I remember exactly where I was when it happened. I was in my parents’ bedroom, and I remember my dad getting a call from my mom and she said a plane hit a building. We didn’t understand and she told us to turn on the news. We thought this was something she saw on her way to work. We turned on the news. We heard about what happened with the first tower and, as so many other people, then watched what happened with the second tower. And then the conversations on the TV started about who was responsible.
I think that day, as is the case for so many people, especially Middle Eastern Americans, was the defining moment in my life. It determined what I was going to do with my life. I remember having multiple conversations with my dad that day and the days that followed. They were saying so many horrible things on the news about Muslims, about people in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and I remember asking my dad, is what they’re saying on the news true? Or is what I experienced true, because they’re not the same thing. He basically said, two things can be true at once. Yes, the people who did this were bad. There are bad people everywhere. But my own experience was true and real, and what these people did do not define us or the communities they come from. That the negative generalizations about Muslims and Middle Easterners being made by the news and government weren’t correct.
The country saw a significant rise in Islamophobia immediately following 9/11. That must have been so difficult to process at such a young age.
It became very common for kids to make the comments that they would hear their parents say or hear on the news, such as all Muslims deserve to die, we should bomb these countries. Anyone from this region is a terrorist, people with Middle Eastern heritage or who were Muslim are not really American, all of these terrible things. As a 10 year old I was like, my family is Muslim. I’m Iranian. I have family living in Iran. And so you’re talking about me and you’re talking about my family. Is that really how you feel?
Some would tell me I was different. That I was the “good” kind of Muslim – even though I was not a practicing Muslim. Other people would say, you should go back to where you came from, despite me being born in the US, and call me and my family terrorists. After 9/11, people started openly making a lot of uneducated assumptions about people from the Middle East. And so I think, at that point, for me, it’s when I took control of not only my identity, but also being more engaged in my culture.
For me this was truly a defining moment. I was hurt because as an American, my country, the one that I was born in and had grown up in, had been attacked. But then at the same time, what was being said and happened after that made me identify so strongly with being Iranian and even identify as being Muslim. It may sound strange but the more people fixated on and, in a way, forced me to identify with these aspects of my identity, the more fiercely I claimed them. I feel like people wanted me to be ashamed of them, but I was the opposite. I also became very, very political. Again, this sounds a little bit weird saying this but I was a political 10 year old. I would watch CNN with my dad, because he always had the news on in the morning, so I knew what was going on with the US invasions. But I also had this other perspective on what was going on, because the majority of my dad’s family lived in another country– a country that was now being labeled as part of the “axis of evil” and caught in the middle of the two countries that were currently being invaded by the U.S. A consistent narrative was and still is that these cultures and religions are at odds with each other, but that’s not true. I am and so many others are the product of them coming together, so I decided I wanted to be this bridge between my communities.
I wanted people to have a real understanding of Islam, Iran and Iranian culture, the history between these two countries, and the situation in the Middle East. And I wanted to do that in order to close these divides, and ultimately create a society where everyone feels represented and safe. I think that was really the thing that pushed me to do this type of work.
I remember in seventh grade, my school had a Model United Nations club. And my goal when I was 12 was to work at the UN. I remember asking in a school assembly if seventh graders could join Model UN, and they said, no, it’s only for 9th through 12th graders because it’s a high school club, and I was pissed about it! Because I was like, How can I work for the UN if I can’t be a part of Model UN?
I think that that’s also kind of an American sentiment– the idea that Model UN, for instance, is only for high school students. But there are children who are outside of that paradigm who are being forced to contend with these kinds of political identities as children, but are being told that they can’t meaningfully engage in these conversations, because they are children.
I love that you said that because I think nothing could be more true. To your point, I think what my parents did well was that they always talked to us like we were adults, that there was nothing that we were too young to understand. As mentioned, we always had these conversations about our background and what that meant for us living in the U.S., how we need to be aware of our privilege, and understand that regardless of a person’s situation, their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, disability, like anything, right, everyone deserves respect and is human.
In the wake of Trump being elected, when people would say, “we need to get involved” I got very frustrated because some of us, some communities have been fighting for most, if not all, of our lives! Some of us constantly have aspects of our identity debated in the halls of Congress. For instance, when people complain about their data being tracked online, I’m like, my family’s phone has probably been tapped since I was 10 years old! I have never assumed to have privacy online. But people aren’t aware of these policies or parts of our country’s history.
In previous roles pre-Trump, I had to engage the Iranian community in voting and advocating for or against policies that impact our community like sanctions or the Iran Nuclear Deal, and it’s so difficult, especially among the older generations, because many are just like, I’m fine. This is better than what I lived with before. So, I don’t want to fight anything. I just want to exist here. Or they are afraid to get involved in politics because of what happened during the Shah. You have to deal with challenges on both sides.
There has been so much conversation in the media about banning books, critical race theory, and other hot button issues for school boards.
I have been thinking a lot about this. When I was in junior high school, there were still so many issues in my education with how my community and Iran’s history were covered. So many of the books that are being banned are books that helped me understand my own journey. While I don’t think this book is banned, I remember reading the book Number the Stars in the 2nd or 3rd grade, which is about the Holocaust. My reaction was how can we stop something like this from ever happening again? I continued to read about it to try to figure that out. I think it made me realize the importance of education and how necessary it is to make change.
And so, education is an important part of my work. Whether that’s like in my current role, working with community-based organizations to educate immigrant New Yorkers about their rights, so that then they can move about in the world in an empowered way to make decisions that are best for themselves and their family. Or, outside of work, where I constantly am working with groups, in different capacities, to educate people about how to lobby Congress, how to do outreach. Education is the way that we make change. You have to know what has happened, the history and how we got here, as well as understand the communities being impacted.
Arrizu Sirjani is a Catholic-raised, culturally Muslim, Iranian American residing in New York City. Driven by her experience growing up as the child of an Iranian immigrant father and American mother in the US post-9/11, Arrizu entered public service to challenge traditional approaches to security. Her work centers around developing policies and programs that center, engage, and empower the marginalized communities most impacted by their outcomes. Arrizu holds a BA in “Reevaluating Foreign Policy: Cultural Perspectives on Strategic Security and Women’s Rights in the Middle East” from the University of Redlands and a MA in International Security with concentrations in Diplomacy and Middle Eastern Studies from Sciences Po.