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January 21, 2014 12:53 PM From the Beltway to the Train Tracks: With Iran in Mind

By Julie Ershadi


Pictured: the author

What do people do when they get out of government-related work? If they came to the profession with hopes of changing the world for the better, some take that idealism to the streets. Others take it to the train tracks.

In the second category would be Patrick Dowd, a former Senate campaign speechwriter and investment banking analyst at JP Morgan who’s based in Washington, D.C. He and a few other Beltway types got together last year to create the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), an organization that puts young writers on crowdfunded train rides across the United States. Those who can raise the minimum amount by the cutoff date get in on the journey, where they travel the country for 10 days and work on a pet project that has some component of innovation, entrepreneurship, or otherwise keeping the American dream alive.

For instance, Roll Call reported in September that Matthew Stepp, a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, organized discussion roundtables with energy advocates at every stop on last year’s route and came up with the idea for an interactive map of emerging energy innovators across the board.

The race is already on for the second cross-country tour, scheduled to take place in March. I personally threw my hat in for a seat on the train in January. My idea: to interview Iranian-Americans in different cities and record their stories in a multimedia final product that will be part book, part documentary.

Lots of people, including some prominent Iranian artists, have given me strong support. Much has come from people I know here in Washington, where I live and write about Iran.

My father came to the United States in 1979, after the Islamic Revolution that led to today’s clerical rule in Iran. He was one of many who came here to get away from what he knew wouldn’t turn out well; he started a new life and a new family — and that’s where I come in. Our story is one among those that millions of other Iranian-Americans have to tell. That’s what I was thinking about when I decided to take a shot at recording these stories with the help of the Millennial Trains Project.

Right now, my project is one of the three most popular on the MTP site, and for good reason: Iran is a big topic, and not just in Washington. The question of whether economic sanctions are sufficient to discourage nuclear capability, or whether all-out war is a viable option against Iran, is one of the predominant national debates. It’s gone in cycles — “Yes, we definitely need to bomb Iran, and we need to bomb it right now” to “Well, maybe not right now right now” — but it’s stayed on the front burner.

What’s more, it’s liable to be an awkward sticking point any time a person’s Iranian heritage becomes a subject of conversation with her fellow Americans.

But the truth is, most Iranians, especially those living in the United States, are anything but fixated on the home country getting nukes and using them. (Even in Iran, popular opinion is startlingly favorable toward the American people.) Many of us love Israel; many of us are indifferent toward it. Most of us, though, are more worried about our jobs, our loved ones, how to pronounce the w sound (which the Persian language doesn’t have), and the occasional tea and bowl of mixed nuts. Really.

Washingtonians, despite being neck-deep in debate on the Iran nuclear deal, probably aren’t that surprised by this revelation. After Los Angeles and Iran itself, the DMV is home to the highest population of Iranians in the world, so my people aren’t really a novelty around here. But I think people will be surprised to learn where else Iranians live in the United States. I sure was, once: while attending college in Pennsylvania, I had an Iranian-American classmate whose family lived in Nebraska, complete with its own little Persian community. It got me wondering: If we’re even in Nebraska, to what other random parts of the United States has the diaspora community spread?

I’m hoping to bring this sense of awe and excitement to people through my project, whose working title is Rose Petal Pathways: Journeys Through Iranian America. I’m confident I’ll find Iranians in each of the cities on the MTP route: Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Louisville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Miami. The message: We Iranian-Americans are everywhere; the Iranians in far-flung American cities are just like their neighbors who have been here for generations — but they might also offer a refreshing perspective on what it means to be American. But, of course, that’s only if I make the crowdfunding goal.

Julie Ershadi is a writer based in Washington, D.C. and the creator of Rose Petal Pathways. Follow her on Twitter: @jershadi

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