By Steve Holgate
Washington File Special Correspondent
Volunteerism a tradition in both Iran and America
"I am of old and young ...
Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,
Not merely of the New World, but of Africa, Europe or Asia ... "
Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman
Portland, Oregon -- The United States is a nation of immigrants. It is a nation of native citizens. It is a nation of individualists. It is a nation of communities -- including a substantial Iranian community.
The great American poet Walt Whitman understood the paradoxes that shape the United States. Unlike older countries, it is not a nation formed by a long history or a single language or a monolithic culture. It is a nation formed, more than anything else, by a set of ideals.
One of the central ideas of American society, one that is consistent with Iranian traditions, is that neither individuals nor communities have to wait for the government to address their needs. The United States took shape on the frontier, where small communities, far from the centers of wealth, population and government, had to learn to make do with their own resources and their willingness to work together. In common with Iran, it also grew up with a strong religious commitment that emphasized charitable works and the donation of time and money to those less fortunate, as evidenced by the outpouring of voluntary assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region of the United States.
Despite the demands of work and family, and the hectic pace of modern life, fully 30 percent of American adults -- roughly 85 million people -- give their time as volunteers each year. They undertake acts as modest as mowing the lawn at the local church and as complex as organizing charity fund-raising events with ambitious programs and thousands of invitees. Some volunteers shelve books at the local library. Others serve without pay on citizen advisory boards that help set policy for state and local government. Volunteers fill the boards of professional associations and community theater troupes and, on any given Saturday, volunteers come out by the tens of thousands to coach baseball, soccer and basketball.
IRAN'S TRADITION OF VOLUNTEERISM
The volunteer spirit, however, is not unique to the United States. Among other countries, Iran too has an ancient tradition of voluntary charitable activity, based on an innate humanitarianism and the Islamic pillars of faith.
It cannot be any surprise, then, that the Iranian-American community, inheritor of two charitable traditions, has established numerous voluntary associations, strengthening the Iranian community in the United States while making important contributions to the social and cultural fabric of the entire country.
Iranian Americans have banded together to form hundreds of cultural, educational, political, religious and professional associations. A sampling of just a few of these groups gives an idea of the geographical and topical breadth of their activities, and, by extension, of the Iranian-American community: the Iranian-American Chamber of Commerce of Sacramento, California; the Iranian Society of Opthalmologists of Kentucky; the Iranian Islamic and Cultural Foundation of Houston; the Iranian Cultural Society of New Mexico; the Bay Area Iranian-American Voter Association in California; and the Momeni Foundation of Beaverton, Oregon.
THE NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL
One of the most prominent of these groups is the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Like many nonprofit organizations, NIAC has a small salaried staff and hundreds of volunteers providing networking opportunities between state and national government officials and many Iranian-American organizations. The executive director of the NIAC, Dokhi Fassihian, says that the council has more than 200 associated organizations, ranging from professional organizations to cultural and student groups. They address a broad spectrum of issues, including health care and court reform as well as immigration, civil rights and educational concerns.
The council was formed three years ago, Fassihian says, "to facilitate our entry into the larger civil society and to strengthen the value of civic participation among Iranian Americans." Fassihian, originally from Mashhad in northeastern Iran, says, "There's no real problem getting the idea of volunteerism across to our members. It's part of Iranian culture." She says that student groups were among the first voluntary associations founded by Iranian Americans.
"Many Iranians first came here as students. They formed student support groups that have continued to this day," she says. She says they have continued to establish cultural and other voluntary organizations that contribute to the remarkable diversity of the United States.
Regarding the integration of Iranians into American society, Fassihian says, "I think a lot of immigrant communities feel a little like exiles at first. But our community has gotten over that. I don't think there's anything holding us back from being part of the larger American community." She adds that the concerns of many Iranian-American professional and civics groups are the same as those of other American associations, but they differ in that Iranian Americans also enjoy their groups for the social networking opportunities they afford.
Most of the associations, she says, have large volunteer bases. "Most volunteers," she says, "give their time because they believe in their cause and want to help. They want to get involved. They believe that they will be helped as well as helping the organization."
IRANIAN AMERICANS CONTRIBUTE RELIEF FOR HURRICANE KATRINA
NIAC is one of several Iranian-American organizations that have responded to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina. It has set up an Iranian-American Katrina Relief Fund that will allow Iranian Americans to contribute to the relief effort collectively, and to make the community's contributions known.
Since the days of the United States' founding, Americans have discussed the strengths and drawbacks of basing a part of their identity on the original national heritage of citizens. Most Americans believe that having active Italian-American, Japanese-American, African-American or Iranian-American groups, among many others, has only added to America's unity.
Moji Momeni, director of the Momeni Foundation, which provides scholarships for students of Iranian heritage, puts the question into eloquent perspective. "For me, it's a matter of evolution. As a boy I grew up in my dad's house. But I have my own house now. I'm an American. But that doesn't mean I'm not proud to be Iranian. I still love my father's house," he says.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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