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A Nowruz Lesson for a New Generation of Iranian Americans

03/17/11 By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Shahan Deyhimi says she has spent decades teaching the language and history of her native Iran "to make a bridge, not a wall, between two cultures."

Washington - The first-graders are practicing their song about the days of the week. The older children, with a pretend microphone, are learning their lines for a Mullah Nasreddin folktale. The littlest boy is ready to ask, in clear Persian, for a gold coin from Uncle Nowruz.

As the children at the Iranian Community School in the Washington suburb of Vienna, Virginia, prepare for the traditional program to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian new year, they also embody a new generation of Iranian Americans. It's not just that nearly all were born in the United States: Some are two generations removed from Iran, and many have only one parent of Iranian descent. In a larger society unfamiliar with Nowruz, let alone the Persian language, successful schools such as this one at the back of a small office building on the town's main street are a major force in perpetuating Persian culture.

Shahan Deyhimi said that was her primary goal in founding what became the school not long after arriving in the United States from Iran 31 years ago. "I started my organization with two students, which were my grandchildren," Deyhimi said. Those grandchildren are now 33 and 36, both married; Deyhimi's school has grown to more than 200 students, and although she has trouble getting up stairs, she still oversees the school at age 85.

"I liked Iranian language and culture - that's what I grew up with - so I decided to try what I can do for my country," she said.

Children who grow up in the United States "have to know their roots," Deyhimi said. Despite the politics in Iran and its troubled relationship with the United States, the children "shouldn't be ashamed that they are Iranian; they should be proud that they are Iranian."

Al Canata says his Iranian-born girlfriend jokes that "my Farsi's going to be better than hers and ... she's not going to be able to keep secrets from me anymore."
The school is "nonpolitical, nonreligious and non-money," she said, laughing. It survives on tuition and donations.

Students begin as young as 3; the topics include Iran's history, geography, literature and music. "We're reading about the history of Iran and interesting stories and poems, and funny jokes," said Nazlee Sahraeyan, 13, who counts herself as fairly fluent in Persian after learning to speak it with her Iranian-born parents and taking three years of classes. She narrates the older children's Mullah Nasreddin play.

Deyhimi said one of her goals is "to make a bridge, not a wall, between two cultures." She noted that many of the school's adult students have no Iranian roots.

Al Canata, 31, is one of them. His family emigrated from Italy about a century ago, and he recalled his grandmother trying to teach him Italian when he was a little boy and being not the least bit interested. In college, though, he was interested in Iran and began to study its language. The interest blossomed after love intervened.

"Once I moved here, about seven years ago, I actually posted on a Persian message board looking for a Persian restaurant, and that's how I found my Persian love," Canata said. He pushed himself to learn the language more and can practice with his Iranian-born girlfriend - and with her mother when she visits from Iran. He also practices in online Persian chat rooms, where he said people sometimes don't believe that he is "a gringo on the other side trying to learn Farsi."

The cross-cultural bridges extend even further: Canata said he and his girlfriend also are studying Italian together - with an Iranian-American teacher - and when they visited his family in their ancestral home town of Genoa, Italy, they all went to a Persian restaurant.

Tina Azimi said she started bringing her sons, 6-year-old Emil and 10-year-old Artin, to the school after a less-than-satisfying trip to Iran in 2008. "They were having a difficult time over there. They were bored. They didn't understand what people were saying," Azimi said. "So I decided to come to this school. So next time we have a trip over there, they'll be fine. And when we go here, my older one, Artin, he fall in love with this school."

Deyhimi said it's only natural that her students today feel less of a connection to Iran than students did 25 years ago. Some say they don't want to learn Persian because they are American, she said, but the school tries to make the process fun, and little by little, they come to enjoy it. And those who have the chance to visit Iran, she said, "they love it."

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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