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12/26/10

NIAC Member Profiles: Vahid Jahangiri - The Humanitarian

Source: National Iranian American Council (NIAC)

Vahid Jahangiri has led an extraordinary life. Since his graduation from the University of Baltimore with a Bachelor's degree in International Management, he has dedicated his life to improving the human condition in places where most people would never even think of traveling.

From a young age Vahid wanted to explore the world, but he didn't know his travels would take him from Tehran to Idaho and Washington State, Washington, DC to Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the most violent, disease-stricken regions of Africa.

The former restauranteur currently works for the International Lifeline Fund, whose mission is to find low cost, high impact technologies that help people in need across the world. The ILF works with other organizations to address health issues on a variety of different scales, synthesizing programming and implementation with technology.

Vahid explains that the people in the villages and enclaves use the ages-old method of cooking food and keeping warm: an open fire. A bundle of sticks on the ground is literally the extent of the technology they use and understand, but this, coupled with furniture production, has led to rapid deforestation in many areas of Africa (West Africa alone has seen 90% deterioration). Children have to walk for 6 hours just to gather firewood and water as the areas in their immediate proximity have long since been cleared of potential resources. This also produces a conflict of resources - cutting down a neighbor's tree or drinking from a neighbor's well can quickly lead to a life-threatening dispute.

The story gets worse. The open fires present health issues, as the gases and carbon dioxide released cause respiratory and ophthalmological problems. Additionally, there is toxic waste present in their waters; waste that breeds bacteria and diseases that wreak havoc on the health of the consumers.

The solutions the ILF has produced are organically built stoves. Stones and bricks (made of rice husks) are synthesized to create a cylindered chamber. Vahid encourages the locals to paint their stoves as well, to give them a sense of belonging and love. Often times the team presents a cedar-ling with the stoves, which the Africans take home and plant.

Teaching between 120-180 women a day to build and use the stoves, the constant humanitarian finds joy at the sight of the smiling people, the laughing children. In an area of the world ignored by most Westerners and exploited by multi-national corporations, there is some progress being made.

A major problem the ILF and individuals on the ground face is getting the message across to the locals. Many Africans persist in drinking brown dam water out of habit. Explaining to them that is no longer necessary because there's a freshly dug well nearby (ILF is responsible for 120 wells in N. Uganda alone, providing 70,000 people with clean water) is an extremely difficult task - ages-old habits are tough to break. "Putting a hole in the ground and bringing forth clean water is a romantic idea, but it doesn't mean anything without the proper sanitation training. When I'm on the ground, I start the sensitizing exercises with the children. It's harder for the teenagers and adults to come to grips with the changes," Vahid explains.

Humanitarian work is not his only love, however. Vahid has great passion for his Iranian roots and, simultaneously, the current and future place of Iranians in the world. He heavily emphasizes the importance of the younger Iranian American generation, as he believes his generation has become too jaded by bad experiences (and rightfully so). Even so, it is vital that both generations unite to present a unified face to those around us, no matter what our internal politics.

When Vahid first arrived in the US at the age of 14 there was "no trust between Iranians." Since then, he has been involved in the Iranian American community, working to ensure the next generation does not suffer the same divisiveness as his, with people having splintered into sub-groups based on their political opinions. "The past is great, and we celebrate it accordingly. But it's time to focus on the future. Forget the sub-labels - we are all Iranians."

Vahid loves the US and the opportunities it gives its citizens and immigrants. Though he could "barely" speak English in high school, he was student body president, involved in theater, and captain of track & field.

So how does he survive in areas of Africa controlled by warlords and militias? "I don't judge anything. I look at things in a comprehensive way - it's crucial to keep your emotion out of it. Building trust and staying out of the local political arena is vital to our success on the ground." He draws a line between this and the lack of emotion required to run a successful political organization in Washington, DC. The main reason he supports NIAC is because of its "clear and comprehensive direction - as a community that's what we have to do, to examine the situation [between the US and Iran] realistically," he states. "Organizations that let emotion control their path will not succeed."

Vahid stresses that success is not easily attained; explaining organic stoves and building wells is extremely trying at times, just as is pulling a large, politically diverse community of about one million into a cohesive unit. But these are the good fights. "I only have what - twenty, thirty years left. I want to have made a difference in the end, not have sat all day in an office."

Profile of some of the other members of NIAC

  • Saeed Toossi - The Adventurist
  • Amir Farokhi - The Community Activist
  • Forough Parvizian-Yazdani - The Perpetual Ambassador
  • Roya Behnia - The Mentor
  • Abbas Zeineddin - Local Advocate & Future Lawyer
  • Neil Behzad Fazel - Triathlete, Professor & Bridge Builder
  • Elham Khatami - Using the Power of the Pen

About NIAC

The National Iranian American Council is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. We accomplish our mission by supplying the resources, knowledge and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision making by lawmakers. (read more)

National Iranian American Council
1411 K St. NW  Ste. 600
Washington, DC 20005 
ph: (202) 386-6325

Webwww.niacouncil.org
Blogwww.niacINsight.com
Facebookfacebook.com/niacouncil
Donatewww.niacouncil.org/donate

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