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Bay Area Iranian-American Voter Association's first fundraiser a success

The Bay Area Iranian-American Voter Association (BAIVOTER), an Iranian-American voter education and advocacy organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, held its first fundraising event on May 18, 2003 in San Francisco to encourage members of the local community to lend their financial support to the eight-month old organization. Held in the distinguished Piperade restaurant in downtown San Francisco, the event drew over fifty Iranian-Americans and other participants, who heard a number of speakers on topics of interest to the community, and helped the group raise close to $3,000. The speakers included San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, Virginia Grandi of the League of Women Voters, Executive Director of Californians for Justice Abdi Soltani, immigration attorney Banafsheh Akhlaghi, and the former Congressional candidate Maad Abu-Ghazalah.

The fundraiser was organized to communicate the group's achievements to date and its long-term objectives to members of the community and to seek their financial support. In addition to the funds raised during the event, close to $500 was contributed through the mail by members of the community who could not attend the fundraiser.

Opening the late afternoon event, BAIVOTER founding member Niloufar Nouri said many Iranian-Americans had for some time felt the need for their community to have a stronger voice in their adopted country, but it was the post-9-11 environment and its potential repercussions for the Iranian-American community that presented the organization's founding members with the urgency to actively work towards achieving that goal.

"The recent INS roundup and arbitrary mistreatment of Iranian immigrants, which not too long ago would have been considered unthinkable, really validated our initial concerns and gave all of us a glimpse into what the future might yet bring for our community," said Nouri, who was the first of six speakers at the event. She said that the recent INS roundup of Iranian immigrants under the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) "helped strengthen our belief that by exercising our right to vote and establishing an active civic presence, Iranian-Americans must secure a real voice that would empower us to hold our elected representatives accountable, and to safeguard our civil liberties as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution."

On the importance of civic responsibility, Nouri said we need to educate ourselves and others on issues affecting the Iranian-American community, and on our rights and responsibilities as effective citizens.

Describing the organization's achievements so far, Nouri explained how the group has collaborated with several other Iranian-American organizations in the Bay Area, attended community events organized by those groups to speak about the importance of civic participation, and registered participants to vote. She said members of the organization have met and spoken with hundreds of Iranian-Americans in the Bay Area to find out about their concerns, and to encourage them to become active citizens.

"More recently, we got together with a group of local Iranian-Americans and helped facilitate a meeting with Representative Anna Eshoo of the 14th California Congressional District," reported Nouri, adding that members of the community who attended the meeting discussed their concerns with the Congresswoman whose district includes portions of San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

The first guest speaker of the evening was Virginia Grandi of the League of Women Voters of San Francisco, which is the local affiliate of the League of Women Voters, one of the nation's premier grassroots citizen organizations. Grandi spoke about the need to get more people involved in the democratic process, and the role of the League in encouraging citizen participation through education and advocacy. She said that the League is not only about women, and that men are also encouraged to get involved.

Grandi explained the type of policies advocated by the League and said that the statewide League of Women Voters of California today passed a resolution undertaking to actively work for the repeal of portions of the USA Patriot Act and other legislation and executive orders that undermine or curtail fundamental rights and liberties set forth in the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

"As a collective voice, we can reach our elected representatives and let them know we feel strongly against the Patriot Act," said Grandi, drawing cheers from the audience. The USA Patriot Act was passed in October 2001 by the 107th Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives hastily adopted the legislation by a vote of 357 to 66, just 45 days after the September 11 attacks. The legislation passed in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 96 to 1, with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis) being alone amongst the U.S. Senators in voting against the legislation.

Regarding sources of funding for nonprofit organizations, Grandi said that fundraising is very difficult in these hard times and most nonprofits are having a tough time raising money even from their long time contributors. She said BAIVOTER needs to find people who would support the organization, "because even if they just contribute $20, in the big picture, every penny helps."

Introducing Abdi Soltani, Executive Director of Californians for Justice, BAIVOTER founding member Cameron Douraghy said it is rare to find Iranian-Americans who have chosen activism as a profession, and congratulated Soltani for his achievements. Californians for Justice is a statewide grassroots organization working to empower communities that have been pushed to the margins of the democratic process.

Highlighting the lack of Iranian-American involvement in the democratic process, Soltani said there is a contradiction in the community, in that it is highly focused on politics, but not involved in it.

"Growing up in Massachusetts, everyone in our house always talked about politics: who ran for government, who was in government, who left government. But it was always about the Iranian government and politics. No one ever talked about American politics and American issues," explained Soltani.

"Here's a community that is so focused on politics, and government, and revolutions, and political process, and change, yet it is completely uninvolved when it comes to day-to-day politics that affect us right here, right now," commented Soltani.

Speaking about the importance of civic participation, and whether it would actually make a difference, Soltani said the rights that the African-American, Latino, and other communities enjoy today is the result of decades of community organizing and involvement by ordinary people. Turning to Iranian-Americans, Soltani said there is a lot at stake for the community in the next three to five years, and that the timing of BAIVOTER's launch could not have been more appropriate. He suggested that the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath have sent a message to Iranian-Americans that they must get involved in U.S. politics.

"Because politics is affecting us, we have to be affecting politics," stressed Soltani, who said the rights of Iranian-Americans have come under question.

"Even our right to have our relatives come for a short visit is under question right now, as is our right to be working in jobs that the government might consider sensitive," said Soltani. He added that many Iranian-Americans think that because there are many professionals among them, and the community tends to be better educated, their livelihood would not be adversely affected by the new political climate. Pointing out that Japanese-Americans who faced internment during WWII were also very successful in business and the larger community, he said Iranian-Americans cannot remain passive and expect others to protect them.

"It is important that we get involved as individuals, but we need to be organized and active as a group too," stressed Soltani, saying that our elected officials need to know our community not only votes, but is also informed, educated, and actively participates in the democratic process. Referring to BAIVOTER, he said this is where the organization can play an important role.

One of the evening's highlights was when a guest volunteered to take the stand, and gave a moving account of her experiences defending Iranian and other Middle Eastern immigrants recently detained under NSEERS. Introducing the San Francisco-based immigration attorney who teaches at the John F. Kennedy University School of Law, Douraghy said Banafsheh Akhlaghi has defended many INS detainees on a pro bono basis.

Speaking of her experiences as an immigration attorney since September 2001, Akhlaghi said she has seen Middle Eastern men being round up at their home at two o'clock in the morning by the FBI for questioning.

"I have seen Iranian men in December 2002 be shackled, handcuffed, placed on marshal, unmarked, planes and moved around the country to find housing facilities to encage them, to imprison them," explained Akhlaghi. She said the detainees and their loved ones kept asking her why this was happening to them. "Is it only because I'm Iranian?," they asked Akhlaghi. "The answer is Yes. Because you were on the list," she would reply. "It's very real. It's happening every day," she told the audience.

Akhlaghi commented that the scale of justice is very skewed today in the United States. Addressing the audience, she said the only way to effect change is for people like them to work hand in hand with people like her, and with civil liberties and anti-discrimination organizations, as well as with politicians running for office. "It has happened, and it will continue to happen, until we do something different," Akhlaghi stressed.

Pointing out that she was five years old when she first came to the United States, Akhlaghi said she always knew herself to be an Iranian. "On December 16, 2002, something happened when I saw those men being shackled right before my eyes, with questions asking me: 'How do I get my car out of the valet parking?', 'Who is going to take my child to the birthday party that I'm supposed to take her to tonight?', 'Don't tell my wife, she won't be able to handle this'," she told the visibly moved audience. Akhlaghi said on that day she realized that she was no longer just Iranian, but was now Middle Eastern. "Because these guys told me so. The Department of Justice and Ashcroft told me so," said Akhlaghi, referring to the U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Speaking about the Fourth Amendment, Akhlaghi asked why the detainees were not being granted due process of a notice and a hearing. She said the detainees were being held in perpetuity in jail, with no hearing dates being set.

"I understand there is this amazing document that came to manifestation in seventy two hours, and forty eight hours of the seventy two hours were devoted to an Anthrax threat, and twenty four hours was all they had, our folks in Congress, to read a five hundred page document that has taken me thirty times plus to be able to understand," said Akhlaghi in reference to the USA Patriot Act.

"I understand that the Patriot Act has now come and demolished what we knew to be the Constitution. Demolished what we knew to be the Bill of Rights. I get that this exists, but do they not get a right to a hearing in court?" pleaded Akhlaghi, who is a professor of constitutional law.

Referring to the list of countries under NSEERS, Akhlaghi said Armenia was also on the list, but Armenian-Americans managed to remove themselves from the list in less than forty eight hours. "The Cubans were on that list. Less than twelve hours. I saw it posted, and then it was gone! Why do you think that's so?" she asked the audience. "Because they are organized," suggested Akhlaghi.

Drawing attention to the urgency of Iranian-American participation in the democratic process, Akhlaghi said: "These laws are affecting us TODAY. Our men are being detained TODAY. They are being deported TODAY. Next will be our women, because Ashcroft said so. It's happening to us TODAY." She stressed that the only way Iranian-Americans can become like Armenian-Americans or Cuban-Americans, is for them to unite, not only within their own community, but also with other people of Middle Eastern origin who are under attack.

"We need to get faces -- like the gentleman I just met here today -- faces of the Middle East, in Congress," said Akhlaghi, drawing cheers from the audience.

Welcoming the next scheduled speaker, Douraghy said San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano is a popular and successful activist and an outstanding advocate for his constituents who reward him with landslide election victories. The first openly gay president of the city's School Board, and of the Board of Supervisors, Ammiano has fought hard for the rights of gay teachers, women, and minorities.

Taking the stand, Supervisor Ammiano complemented Akhlaghi for her powerful speech. "In my days in the 70s we used to say she is right on," Ammiano said to sounds of laughter from the audience.

Speaking about voter apathy, Supervisor Ammiano said voting is an important right that has been diminished over the years, adding that voter turnout in San Francisco is abysmal.

"Why are people not voting? Why are young people not interested? A lot of it is that there has been corporate interests that have taken over the political process," stated Ammiano, who also pointed out that the right to vote is taken for granted by many.

Regarding the lack of civic participation among minority communities, Supervisor Ammiano said a lot of it has to do with cynicism.

"My folks were Italian-American. They came from Italy, they didn't vote, they didn't believe in it. In Italy it was all corrupt, so it had to be the same in Newark, New Jersey," said Ammiano, drawing laughter from the audience. He added that voter education is one way to overcome the cynicism.

Referring to the point brought up by the previous speaker about the high level of civic activism among the Armenian-American community, Supervisor Ammiano said Armenian-Americans have been able to introduce education about the Armenian Genocide into the San Francisco public school curriculum with the help of people on the Board of Education such as Ammiano.

"I think that is a way to educate people about the Mid East too, because I think particularly Disney and the media have been very stereo-typic about that. People do not see the humanity. People do not see the diversity. People do not see the contribution," of the people of the region, said Ammiano, who has been on the Board of Supervisors for the past eight years.

A candidate in the upcoming San Francisco mayoral race, Ammiano drew cheers from the audience when he stated he was proud to say that everyone on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, except Supervisor Tony Hall and Supervisor Gavin Newsom, voted last January for a resolution opposing the USA Patriot Act and related executive orders that remove protections of civil rights and liberties from the people. San Francisco is among a growing national movement of towns and cities that oppose the USA Patriot Act and what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has referred to as the federal crackdown on civil liberties. So far, more than 100 cities nationwide have passed resolutions condemning the legislation. Other Bay Area cities that have passed resolutions against the USA Patriot Act include Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, Union City, Mill Valley, El Cerrito, and Pinole.

The last speaker of the evening was another member of the audience who volunteered to say a few words as a former Congressional candidate for the House of Representatives in the 2002 elections. Maad Abu-Ghazalah, who ran as a Libertarian candidate for the CA-12th District seat in the House and lost to incumbent Democrat Tom Lantos, received the second highest number of votes nationwide among all third party candidates running in races with both major parties present.

Abu-Ghazalah suggested people need to start getting engaged instead of complaining about the system. "There is no rule against people from our community running for office. There is nothing that said you can't have a name like Maad Abu-Ghazalah on the ballot," he said, drawing laughter from the audience.

Regarding the state of the country following the 9-11 terrorist atrocities, Abu-Ghazalah said people are being judged by ethnicity and by religion, which goes directly against the separation of church and state, as enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Noting that the media and the Bush administration are claiming the biggest problem in the world today is Islamic fundamentalism, Abu-Ghazalah suggested that the biggest problem is not Islamic fundamentalism, but religious fundamentalism and lack of tolerance in general.

"Whether it is the lack of rights for women in the Persian Gulf area, whether it is Jews in Israel confiscating land from Palestinians, whether it is John Ashcroft singling out Muslims for detention and deportation, the problem is fundamentalism and lack of tolerance," remarked Abu-Ghazalah. He said people of Middle Eastern origin, because of their background and experiences, are in a position to know what the lack of religious tolerance really means, and need to be the most vocal group in society in speaking out against it

Abu-Ghazalah further commented that First and Fourth Amendment rights are now in question, putting the Constitution in jeopardy. "A lot of people are starting to see that, and those of us who are affected by it the most need to get organized," stressed Abu-Ghazalah.

Speaking about the need for unity among different ethnicities, Abu-Ghazalah said diverse ethnic groups need to get beyond the lines that divide them.

"If you are on a concrete floor with shackles, next to a man from Pakistan, I think at that point those lines are going to mean a lot less to you. I think at that point your commonality is going be the bond between you, and that is the kind of bond I'd like to see happening before we all end up on that concrete floor, so we don't have to end up there, so our children don't have to end up there," said Abu-Ghazalah.

Wrapping up the evening after the last speaker, Douraghy thanked everyone for attending and reminded the guests to support BAIVOTER financially.

The event was organized entirely through the efforts of volunteers who provided the logistics, food, and music entertainment. Commenting about the event, BAIVOTER founding member Arash Alavi said the fundraiser was successful beyond expectations.

"The venue was perfect, the musicians were outstanding, the food was excellent, and most of all, the speakers and guests were fantastic," said Alavi. He added that such events provide a great opportunity to meet members of the community, who can hear public personalities speak on matters of interest to them.

Alavi said the group will be holding similar events around the Bay Area in the near future.

The Bay Area Iranian-American Voter Association (BAIVOTER) is a nonprofit, non-partisan, volunteer organization, working to encourage and facilitate the informed and active participation of Iranian-Americans in the democratic process, through a combination of voter registration, voter education, and advocacy. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, we educate ourselves and others on issues affecting the Iranian-American community, and on our rights and responsibilities as effective citizens. BAIVOTER is a 501(c)(3) public benefit corporation founded in 4Q 2002. For more information, please visit, or send an email to

... Payvand News - 6/6/03 ... --

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