I am a U.S. citizen, but I was born in Tehran. I am the youngest of three. My sisters are seven and nine years older than me. As a toddler I was more a chore than a little brother to them. I used to insist on playing with them, would go through their things and memorize and mimic the songs they listened to. When their friends were over, I would snoop around and get in their way. In my sisters’ old birthday photos, I’m often climbing one of their friends and trying to be in the mix. It would take time and some considerable geographic distance for me to finally grow on them.
My parents who worked for the board of education thought it would be good for my sisters to study abroad and sent them to universities in the U.S. and Germany. Because we were separated, my sisters would take every opportunity to spoil me with toys and chocolate sent in parcels from Germany and America. To this day, I eat a lot of chocolate.
I had a good childhood, filled with travels to Europe and America, music, Star Wars, ping pong and soccer – a lot of soccer. But my carefree, happy childhood did not last as long as it should have. Iran was in turmoil.
The 1979 revolution for “democracy” turned Iran upside down and Islamic fundamentalists took over. They dismantled the military, arrested and murdered thousands who opposed them, and instituted a strict Islamic moral code. In 1980, Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity to tap into Iran’s oil rich lands and unleashed Iraq’s military equipped with American and Russian arms. There were nightly air raids and Iran’s casualties were devastating. The country was ravaged by war and an ideological dictatorship. To ensure there were enough young men to send to war, Iran’s government issued a moratorium that banned travel for boys over the age of fifteen. Fearing for my life, my parents sent me to American at the age of fourteen to live with my sister.
I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I see my childhood home.
After six months of adjusting to my new surroundings and attending a public school in New Jersey, my temporary tourist visa expired and I was “illegal.” I wasn’t old enough to qualify for any visas, and anyway it wasn’t clear then how long I would be staying. My parents, who initially stayed behind, thought the conflict in Iran would soon end; that it would be a matter of months or years. Those few months have turned into thirty three years.
Fearing that my illegal status would be discovered at a public school, my sister enrolled me in a private catholic high school. I wasn’t raised in a religious household and Iran’s hardline regime had left a scarring impression on me. I learned early in life that religion could be used as a tool to divide and conquer. I blamed my family’s troubles on it and having escaped a religious dictatorship, I found it remarkably ironic to be in a pious school.
The war and economic conditions in Iran decimated the country’s currency and my parents couldn’t deliver the same financial support as they provided my sisters. For money, I worked as a server at a local pizza shop; a job that I would keep throughout high school. The owner, Tony, was Italian-American, from Brooklyn, and his son had graduated from the same high school that I was attending. They were good to me and when I wasn’t in school, I was working.
I learned a lot about America at that pizza shop. Tony was interested in my background. I was the first Persian he had met and we used to talk about life and politics. When Tony’s son was getting married, they invited me to be in the groom’s party. Tony used to say, “Bo,” as everybody there referred to one another, “you’re gonna be somebody.”
This was a trying time for my sister who had married rather young, only a couple of years before I moved in with her. She had my niece to raise and the responsibility of taking care of her young, teenage brother proved overwhelming. My mother, who worried that that my mischievous ways would disrupt my sister’s home and marriage, decided to come to the U.S., stay and take care of me. Around the same time, my brother in law’s health complications ushered years of going from hospital to hospital, to specialists in London to Pittsburgh, and a kidney transplant that ultimately failed. I often look back on those days with regret, wishing I had been less of a nuisance. But my comfortable childhood had not prepared me for anything I was experiencing and I had trouble adjusting.
My illegal status narrowed my options for college to private institutions that did not inquire into students’ immigration status. With the love and financial support of my siblings I was able to attend a university in Connecticut where I spent a few years in search of a career path. I was interested in psychology, but my parents talked me out of it. Like most Persian parents, they hoped for an engineer, doctor or lawyer. I elected electrical engineering as my major, but after one semester I realized that I am not cut out for binary numbers. I switched to business, but macro-economics and statistics convinced me to look elsewhere. I used to draw well as a child, so architecture and design became my next selection. I was lost.
During this time, the lawyer that my parents hired failed to complete our immigration papers before I reached twenty-one, so my illegal status continued. I remember feeling frustrated and angry by what I perceived to be incompetence and indifference on the part of our lawyer. Living under the radar was taking a toll on me. Back then, I could have used President Obama’s 2012 Dream Act that legalizes the children of undocumented foreign nationals who were brought to the U.S. before the age of sixteen.
It was around that time that I developed an interest in law.
I transferred to a New York college and changed my major to political science. It was a perfect fit and I excelled. I found another immigration attorney who agreed to take my case. One afternoon, I visited his office to apply for the “green card” lottery. My lawyer asked me how I was doing and what I planned to do after college. I told him that I was interested in studying law. He suggested that I intern at his law firm to see whether I enjoyed the work; “a good idea,” I thought, except I wasn’t authorized to work in the U.S. Knowing that it was a matter of time before my status legalized, my lawyer 172 offered me a job that ultimately shaped my career path.
Today, I represent foreign nationals who move to the United States. My journey to the U.S. differs from most of my clients’ who are in a better position than I was in my teens and twenties. But I see myself in them. I understand them; particularly how much their efforts and investments to secure their permission to live in the U.S. means to them. I see first-hand the lengths they go to in order to succeed in their careers and how they contribute back to their communities and industries. I think of them when I hear the word immigration. But that’s not what most people think of.
In a country founded by immigrants, the word immigration has become synonymous with something negative. It is often used to refer to undocumented or illegals. For a better part of 2012, Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070 (April 2010) legislation that authorized arrest of “suspected” illegals, and the Supreme Court ruling that struck it down, dominated the political news. The border wall, the fence, or lack thereof, and the one that some lawmakers love to use, “illegal aliens,” have been routine topics on immigration.
The truth is that immigration is a complicated topic and encompasses a wide range of issues from national security to economy, and the cultural diversity that makes America so unique. The common factor in all aspects of immigration is that it involves the people who live among us. Some are here for protection from persecution in their country, others as students, many as professional employees of U.S. companies, and yes, some are illegal.
Yet, there is more to immigration than the negative associations spewed by some politicians. At a time when the economy is in dire straits and many are struggling to make ends meet, the American dream persists in a meaningful way through the success and perseverance of extraordinarily talented individuals from all over the world who select this country as their home and repay her with industry and ingenuity. You may not know them personally, but you see their work on television, in our daily newspapers and magazines, and in the shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and businesses that they launch. They enrich our society by devoting their talent and expertise to all things America, and remind us that here anything is still possible.
I would like to introduce you to a few immigrants who spend their talent capital in our country. They come from different parts of the world, but each one significantly contributes to their fields of endeavor. Some are here on temporary visas designated for “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics,” others as permanent residents. They have won awards for excellence in their fields, and are featured in major American publications. They are proprietors of businesses and employ Americans. They all call this country home.
MARISA FERRARIN & PAUL ETIENNE LINCOLN
MARISA FERRARIN: Birmingham, England, Owner of Duane Park Restaurant, NYC, loves music, food and dogs
PAUL ETIENNE LINCOLN: London, England, Visual Artist, loves music, food and dogs
REZA: You are both people of great distinction, aesthetically and otherwise. I imagine that you both had interesting childhoods that led to your careers in art and creative entrepreneurship. Can you tell us a little about your youth in England, and what your impression of America was back then?
PAUL: I grew up in rural London and spent much of my youth building go-carts and tinkering with cars. I built my first car at age 17, which ran off laughing gas. I also spent most of my free time working for my father who had an architectural firm. I first came to America as a 9 year old, to visit the American stream trains and travelled across the country with my family.
MARISA: I grew up in Birmingham, an industrial town, and from an early age was obsessed with music. At 14 I saw all the great Motown bands, 4 tops, temptations, Marvin Gaye… finally falling into the music business and travelling the world as a tour manager. After my first visit to NYC I knew that this was the place I wanted to be.
REZA: What do you do now?
MARISA: I own Duane Park restaurant; a supper club that has live entertainment nightly, featuring live jazz and burlesque, magicians and contortionists. I started working at Duane Park Café 15 years ago as a waitress. The job suited me at the time as it enabled me to have lots of free time to travel and work with the bands and musicians that I was managing. Over time, I became the night manager, then the manager and 5 years ago when the then owner decided to retire, I bought the restaurant! After the first year the recession hit and it was becoming more difficult to get customers, so I did what I do best and introduced live music, incorporating burlesque. The first 4 months were difficult, but after some well-timed press, the shows skyrocketed and we are now having shows nightly with great successes.PAUL: After graduating from the Royal College of Art in London with a Master of Arts, I visited a friend in New York and shortly thereafter began working on fitting a marble steam room in an apartment on 47th Street. After a year of marble fitting and various construction and furniture jobs, the owner applied for my work visa to work on another marble bathroom and general renovation of an old, historic steamboat moored in the Chesapeake Bay, which was quite an adventure. After this stint, I left the job and security of the work visa and got a scholarship to work in a boiler factory in Utica, building a sculpture for myself called New York New York, which took me 20 more years to complete. During this period I continued to make furniture to support my sculptural projects, leaving the country for exhibitions of my work in Europe, roughly every 6 months. This went on for about 10 years. After meeting an English filmmaker at a party, who had just obtained a green card from a lawyer specializing in obtaining green cards for creative individuals, I arranged for him to do likewise for me. Since Marisa and I were married at the time, she too obtained her permanent resident status.
REZA: What does living in the U.S. mean to you?
MARISA: Living in the U.S. has allowed us to fulfill our dreams. This is a country where anything is possible and living here has allowed us to become successful in our lines of work. We have made great friends and met lots of interesting people and have enjoyed the lifestyle this country has allowed us.
PAUL: For an English person in America it is much easier to open doors -maybe it’s the accent.
Getting my permanent residence in the U.S. made a big difference in my life as it was now possible to apply for American Grants for the Arts, and it was also possible to get galleries interested in exhibiting and representing my work. Two major New York galleries currently represent me.
Since coming to New York in 1986, I have had 28 solo exhibitions and 57 group exhibitions all around the world, received grants from the Henry Moore Foundation, the American Foundation, the Penny McCall Foundation, the Contemporary Arts Foundation, and the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation.
JOHN KUDOS & KIKI KATAHIRA
JOHN: Bandung, Indonesia
KIKI: Osaka, Japan
Owners, Studio Kudos
REZA: What do you do?
JOHN: We run a boutique design and web development studio in New York.
KIKI: John spent seven years at Pentagram and I worked at 2×4 for three and half years. They are both top design firms.
JOHN: Four years ago we decided to take a leap and formed our own practice. We wanted to bring the different processes from Pentagram and 2×4, combine them with our personal backgrounds, and bring out a new creative force. We named it Studio Kudos.
KIKI: We both like that the word “kudos” has a positive, classy twist and it also happens to be John’s last name.
REZA: How did you come to the U.S. and why did you decide to stay?
KIKI: We came as students. John received his bachelor’s degree at Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore. I met him there as an exchange student for a year. After graduating from Osaka University of Arts, I decided to continue my studies at School of Visual Arts in New York.
JOHN: We were very lucky with our career trails. I was immediately hired as a junior designer at Pentagram right after my graduation and ended up working in Baltimore for four years, and later transferred to their New York office for three years. During my time there I got to lead a few prominent design projects for Guggenheim, Money Magazine, Fox 20th Century, Smithsonian Institution, New York Public Library, American Express, Steuben Glass, The Metropolitan Museum, and Ford Foundation among others. I won several prestigious awards along the way and forming Studio Kudos seemed like the natural progression.
KIKI: After my graduation I interned and free-lanced at a few places in New York, Sagmeister Inc., Abrams Publishers, DKNY, before being hired as a junior designer at 2×4. I was involved in many prestigious projects for Prada, Robin Hood Foundation, Endeavor, Guggenheim, American Academy in Rome, Nasher Sculpture Park, Yale University, and more.
REZA: You both went to college in America. What was your impression of the US growing up?
KIKI: One thing that I feel was influential to me is the diversity of students we became friends with in college. The U.S. is like a cultural magnet, so we ended up learning a lot from other students and their unique cultures.
JOHN: I find schools in the US encourage discussions and critical thinking. This is very different from Indonesia, where students are taught what’s right and wrong, discouraging interpretive opinions amongst the student body. Also, I came the to the US in 1997, a year before the Asian economic crisis hit. When the crisis hit in ‘98, I was able to participate in the Asia Help program, which was designed to provide student loans to South East Asian countries most affected by the crisis. This is the kind of support and opportunity that I feel can only be obtained in the US.
REZA: What does living in the U.S. mean to you and your craft?
JOHN: Being graphic designers, we both feel that being in the U.S. and specifically in New York is the perfect place. It’s the epicenter of creativity, and almost anyone who has made it to the top has touched New York City at some point in their lives.
REZA: Where are you from?
SHANI: I was born and raised in Israel and moved to New York in the midst of the 2003 Blackout. This is a symbol in accordance with the theme of my move to New York, a remarkable beginning of a crazy roller coaster ride.
REZA: What do you do?
SHANI: I am a Curator, Producer and Creative Director at Fantasia Films Productions, which provides a wide range of production services with expertise in independent and foreign productions. I grew up in a family of actors, directors and producers and was always fascinated with the entrainment industry. Almost every new filmmaker would like to have more exposure for themselves and their films; one can craft a beautiful film, but if he or she is a newbie, chances are that it might go unnoticed. I design and produce events to suit the specific filmmaker’s needs where the gatekeepers and the stakeholders of the industry – such as investors, producers, directors, editors, film festival programmers, etc – will come to watch their work. The goal is to provide an opportunity for filmmakers to get constructive feedback and make real contacts for future projects or even sell their current film.
REZA: How did you end up in the U.S. and what kept you here?
SHANI: I was 16 years old the first time I visited New York and I fell in love with the City. It was an overwhelming sensation of colors and smells and interesting people… I just knew I had to come live here! After my mandatory army service I studied Theater and Performing Arts in Israel and in New York, Film and Media. In 2006, I was offered a position at the Department of Cultural Affairs of the Consulate General of Israel in New York as Director of Film and Theater. There, I oversaw Oscar Campaigns, was in charge of touring Israeli filmmakers in the U.S. and Canada every Fall and Spring, and I worked closely with international film festivals (such as Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and others) and cultural organizations (New York Women in Film and Television) to showcase Israeli filmmakers and screen Israeli films.
REZA: What does living in the U.S. mean to you and your craft?
SHANI: It means the world! Living in the U.S. means that there is no limit to how much you can accomplish; especially in New York where this feeling is in the air all the time, creating high, positive energy levels that provide the fuel that keeps me going. I feel very lucky and grateful that I have the opportunity to live here and pursue my American dream. It might be cliché for some, but not for me.
REZA: You come from a long line of people in your field. That would seem to make a good atmosphere in your homeland for a career. Israel has a great support system for the arts. Why come here?
SHANI: It’s true that the government in Israel supports the industry inside and even outside of Israel via the consulates and embassies’ work around the world. And nevertheless, the industry is still very small. Only a few films are selected each year by the Israel Film Fund to be made and it’s especially hard for new filmmakers. There are a few private producers that fund and take on projects but most of the time they are still getting help from the fund. I wanted to experience working on a range of films and genres and have the opportunity to even be considered to work on them. Also, as a woman, there are a lot of female producers, writers, directors, actors – and many successful ones in Israel, however, there is a general notion that the right path is: high school, army, higher education and career. Somewhere during the last two, you need to get married and have kids. If you’re single at 30 and have an amazing career but aren’t married or/and don’t have kids, then something is wrong with you. “You devote too much time for work”, “you’re too picky”, “can’t settle”…. It becomes the center and everything else you’ve accomplished so far becomes unnoticeable.
In America – from what I have experienced in NY – that’s not the case. When people meet me, they compliment my achievements. They focus on what I do and what I can bring to the table. Here, I don’t feel strange that I’m single, because my personal life doesn’t matter in business. And that’s the way it should be. Also, there are so many organizations that do not exist in Israel such as “New York Women in Film & Television” (NYWIFT), “Women in Production” (WIP) and “NY Women in Communications”. Their programs, educational material, screenings and gathering are empowering and helpful. This kind of organization does not exist in Israel in this capacity and that’s one of the uniquely supportive aspects of the industry in the US.
REZA: Can you share an “only in America” type of story that you have experienced with your work or life that made an impression on you?
SHANI: I was invited to a Tribeca Film Festival luncheon hosted by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff. Everyone was there from Jeff Goldblum, Kelly Lynch, Rosie Perez and Claire Danes to Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro! The director Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy, Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) was sitting in the table next to me. Being that I am obsessed with the Bourne series (books and films) I wanted to introduce myself so badly! Even just saying something like, “I will work for FREE, just give me an opportunity to shadow you on a film set, learn from you and prove my skills.” But I didn’t…. That was a huge lesson for me to always take the plunge and reach out. Worst case, I’ll get a no. If I don’t try to reach out to people, it will always be a no.
THERESE OHRVALL & JOEL JAGERROOS
THERESE: Stockholm, Sweden.
JOEL JAGERROOS: Lapland, Finland.
REZA: What do you do?
T & J: We are a photography team. We were both trained as fine art photographers at Parsons Paris and Parsons, the New School of Design in New York, but our practice has been more focused on the editorial and fashion side of photography. In addition to executing the shoots, our studio produces and provides art direction, consulting and retouching services.
REZA: How and why did you migrate to the U.S.?
T & J: We both transferred to Parsons the New School of Design in New York from Parsons Paris in 2008. We were best friends in college, so we were always helping each other out, assisting one another as well as exchanging creative
Portfolio Review, our professors as well as very highly respected New York photo editors suggested that we team up, as our work and style looked identical to one another. Shortly after graduating we had the talk and Therese + Joel was founded.
T & J: Straight out of college we were commissioned to photograph the last King of Egypt for the Wall Street Journal. We were both flown to Geneva, Switzerland where we found our way to His Majesty’s mansion. The shoot was a success and we continued working for the Wall Street Journal with subjects ranging from supermodels, actors and religious leaders.
In 2011, we were selected as one of The 30 Emerging Photographers to Watch by Photo District News, which is one of the most respected magazines in the photo industry.
We teamed with an extraordinary artist and formed Rourke Studio in New York, and applied for the O-1 artist visas. Our studio serves a wide range of clientele, ranging from small businesses to multinational corporations, and brands both local and international, established and emerging. Our client list includes publications such as TIME, Wired, the Wall Street Journal, Bullett Magazine, the New York Post, S Magazine and REVS, to name a few. We have also exhibited our work internationally at museums and galleries such as The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Milk and F.L.O.A.T. Galleries in New York City, Gallery S. Bensimon in Paris, Ricoh Ring Cube Gallery in Tokyo, The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and Krasnoyarsk State Museum in Siberia. Our work has been featured in publications such as Vogue Italy, Converse, Sheriffi, PDN, and GQ Italy.
REZA: What does living in the U.S. mean to you and your craft?
T & J: Living in the U.S. means opportunities: The photography industry in the United States, and especially the community here in New York, is very open and approachable. In contrast to many European countries, talent is not tied to hierarchy and social norms that at the end of the day just feel unnecessary. The U.S. and particularly New York City exert a significant impact on media, art, fashion, and entertainment worldwide and it is wonderful to be able to collaborate and work with simply the best.
Growing up in Nordic Welfare states made it possible for us to study abroad – through student stipends and low interest loans offered by the government. Applying for foreign universities is not necessarily a norm – rather, most students in Finland and Sweden participate in exchange programs. Yet the safety system back home enabled us to take the risk and come to New York.
New York appealed to us because of its status as being the center of the arts – even though we don’t have the same safety nets and benefits in the United States as we have in Sweden and Finland, the career opportunities are greater.
There are numerous studies on the economic advantages of a robust immigration policy, but positive reports and favorable statistics have not altered the negative perceptions surrounding immigration. Amid a mired economy, neither political party has been willing to highlight the benefits of immigration to our recovery. The re-election of President Obama was in no small measure due to widespread support among Latin Americans and women. Immigration reform aimed at legalizing the status of millions of foreign nationals who live among us is on the Administration’s agenda for the second term. If the recent past is any indication of what is to come, immigration reform is likely to meet resistance by the conservative wing of the Republican Party that calls for removal and deportation of undocumented foreign nationals. The media is likely to focus on the political aspect of legalizing the undocumented, but again, immigration is not merely about “illegals.”
James Madison said, “America was indebted to immigration for her settlement and prosperity. That part of America which had encouraged them most had advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and the arts.” And so it continues that we welcome extraordinary foreign nationals, who replenish our society and industries. I am fortunate to live in a city that is a magnet for exceptional talent. New York is truly the world’s capital for arts and commerce and this is in no small measure due to the outstanding creatives and entrepreneurs who brave the move to a new country and call this great nation home.
Think of them, the next time you hear the word immigration.