Sunday, November 29, 2020

An Account of the Iran Hostage Crisis: One Iranian Student's Experience

Guest blogger: Yalda Nia, law student, University of San Francisco

There is an inside joke among the townspeople here that we are not from “Boulder”, Colorado, but rather, “the Republic of Boulder.” Why? Because the people here have a unique proclivity to stray from traditional political thought and, sometimes, abandon it all together. Our town is an anomaly. A happy, insulated, unpunctured bubble.

            In the autumn of 1979, my dad, twenty years young at the time, moved into Baker Hall as a sophomore transfer student to the University of Colorado Boulder. My dad was one of the numerous international students from Iran, which accounted for the largest international student population in America during those years, with an F-1 visa.

Newspapers were delivered the November day two months after he moved in -- the year’s most stunning story had broken: fifty-two American embassy officials were taken hostage in Tehran, Iran. Jacque would wait for his turn to use the single TV in the Baker Hall common room while my dad and Ali would eat a quick dinner at neighboring Libby Hall. Together, the three friends would watch the news hour every night for the majority of the Fall 1979 semester. “I didn’t think much of it. It felt just like how it does now when I see news about Iran -- just another conflict in a far-off land,” recounts my dad. “We were more concerned with getting an education.”

            In the spring of 1980, the FBI summoned the international students from Iran to the Foreign Students’ Office on campus. Each student was photographed, fingerprinted, and identified. The ordeal took no longer than ten minutes, according to my dad. No follow-ups. No questioning, besides foreseeable administrative inquiries. Nothing. During the summer of 1980, my dad was hired as a full-time research assistant by the university. How his student visa was not questioned for the number of hours he worked, I will never understand. “And, you know, Boulder people didn’t care either. No one was unfriendly to us. We were just regular college kids, and we were treated as such.”

            Still, in the spring of 1980, after working at the local Burger Chef on Arapaho Avenue and 28th St. for about eight months at $1.90 per hour, bank accounts of every Iranian student were frozen. With university tuition deadlines creeping up, what were Iranian students like my dad supposed to do? A minimum wage job flipping burgers for twenty hours a week wouldn’t get my dad anywhere near the thousands of dollars needed to pay the university. Whatever money my humble grandparents mustered to wire my dad for his education was locked by the government. How could students on F-1 visas stay students, and thereby stay in the country, if they could not pay the university and keep their status as a student? Luckily, for my dad, his boss and friend at Burger Chef offered to loan him the money to pay for school. My dad was fortunate.

            After graduating in 1982 with a baccalaureate in engineering, the F-1 visa that allowed my dad and plenty of other Iranian students to study in Colorado was coming to a quick expiration. There were two options for my dad: either return to Iran or get another visa to stay in America. Subsequent to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran and Iraq engaged in an eight-year war that would be remembered as one of the worst catastrophes in the Middle East ever. Facing a likely draft and possibly dying from chemical weapons attacks in battle did not inspire a particularly strong urge to return to Iran, as one might imagine.

So, it came time to chart another course to retain his F-1 visa or somehow apply for another visa. He continued studying engineering for another two years for a masters degree. Still, the Iran-Iraq War was not over. After dabbling in a PhD program for several years, the large engineering firm,  IBM, petitioned for my dad to acquire an employee visa, which paved the way for lawful permanent residency status. In the early 1990s, my dad was ultimately granted citizenship shortly before my older sister was born.

I tell this seemingly sleepy story not to relay a testament supporting a common narrative of students’ experiences during the Iran Hostage Crisis, but rather to illustrate the fortunate circumstances that permitted my father to build the solid foundations of a life in America, unlike many others. My father’s story is an exception to the general rule. The same shelter the people of Boulder -- the “Republic” itself -- showed my dad is the same spirit and soul that shined when Boulder formally declared itself a sanctuary city in 2017 before Donald Trump was sworn into office. This happy, insulated, unpunctured bubble is the stable home that afforded my dad and his friends the luxury of a relatively undisturbed college experience.


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