The Journey

Turning the Other Cheek
By Nikki Bardwell

Shahrokh Nikfar chooses to take the high road when it comes to discrimination and prejudice.

Nikfar is a first-generation Iranian American and he knows that the only way to change people is to educate them and show them a different way. Nikfar adopts Ghandi's philosophy: you must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Iranian Americans, as with many immigrant groups, must choose how to respond to prejudice and discrimination, Nikfar said, and he has seen his fair share of injustices since coming to the United States in 1978.

In college, he went looking for an apartment and came across a brand new complex that was obviously about 90 percent empty. Nikfar went inside to pick up an application. He hardly had a chance to ask for one when the front desk worker told him that no available units were available.

"They didn't want to rent to me because of what they thought I was," Nikfar said.

A 2005 survey conducted by the Iranian Studies Group at MIT showed that Iranian Americans constitute one of the most educated and affluent communities in the United States. Sixty percent of those surveyed have their bachelor's degree while 30 percent of those surveyed reported six figure incomes. Nikfar thinks Iranian Americans elect for higher education to help combat some of the world's prejudice.

Intercultural consultant Daniel J. Distolhorst, Ph.D., thinks that prejudice is best defined by the idea of in group/out group thinking.

"In this process groups of humans quickly notice that "they" are different than "us". Our in-groups feel safe, good and right. Our out-groups feel scary, bad and wrong. There are lots of different ways of differentiating in-groups from out-groups that can, and have been, used over the centuries, race being one of the more historically recent ones," Distolhorst said.

Nikfar has been a legal American citizen for over 30 years, and people still ask him where he is from.

"Even though I have been here most of my life, to some I will always be a foreigner," said Nikfar. But he thinks that it is up to him how he deals with life's injustices, and he believes that the best way is with compassion.

Nikfar graduated from Eastern Washington University with a bachelor's degree in Management and Marketing, as well as a graduate degree in International Management and Communications. Still the prejudice didn't stop.

Nikfar sent out about a hundred resumes after graduation but heard nothing. Then a friend suggested that he change his name from Shahrokh to Shawn and resend the resumes. Within the week, he was called in for an interview. A man stepped out of an office and asked for 'Shawn' and Nikfar stood. The man looked puzzled and asked if Shawn was really his name. Nikfar explained that his name was Shawn but he also goes by Shahrokh.

"And then he said, 'I'm sorry but the position has already been filled," Nikfar said. "And that just hurt."

Nikfar strives not to let the biases of others run his life but he lives to help others. He began volunteering at the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance and was offered a permanent position in 2003. He believes creating opportunities to foster acceptance is up to him. In March 2004, he started a radio show called The Iranian Hour. By doing this, Nikfar hopes to cultivate acceptance and help open the eyes and hearts of others.

Nikfar sees the whole world as his home and is dedicated to making it a better place, not only for Iranians, but for everyone.

"In the past, I used to get upset and sad when I experienced discrimination and prejudice. But I have learned that experiencing prejudice is an opportunity to make a positive difference, by using understanding, humor and compassion," Nikfar said.

Hossein Nikdel is another first generation Iranian American. He came to the United States in 1976 and enrolled in Eastern Washington University. Over the past 33 years, Nikdel has fought very hard to retain his Iranian identity. But as time passed he began to lose context of Iranian things and related more to the American.

"I have been in America for over 30 years so when I go home to Iran, people see me as a visitor there," Nikdel said. "But when I come back to America, I am still seen as a foreigner."

Nikdel believes that a lack of knowledge leads to discrimination. While watching his daughter's soccer game with another parent, a father from the other team approached them and started a casual conversation. After a few minutes Nikdel realized that the father would never talk directly to him. If Nikdel asked a question, he would answer but would always look at the other parent.

"It was like I didn't even exist," Nikdel said.

Nikdel believes that there will always be rude people in the world but he also believes that there are a lot of good souls too. He thinks the best way to deal with injustice is to let it roll off your back.

"When dealing with prejudices, most people are coming out of defense," Distolhorst said. "To get people to change, they have to move from us-them mentality to become more tolerant of differences and recognize commonalities."