Iranian Family Embraces Both Cultures Saeid Zeiaei and his wife Hadija Faraji became U.S. citizens last year. They have two young children born in the United States. The family embraces America but continues to preserve their Iranian heritage, too.
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Iranian Family Embraces Both Cultures

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Iranian Family Embraces Both Cultures

Iranian Family Embraces Both Cultures

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Even when immigrants feel like Americans, they do not forget their homelands.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden is going to introduce us to a family from a small village in Southern Iran. The family is working hard to be both American and Iranian at the same time.

Saeid Zeiaei and his wife, Hadija Faraji, both became American citizens just this month. Their story begins when Saeid came to U.S. to attend West Virginia University in 1988.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Zeiae ended up in West Virginia because his parents had friends there. That made his dad feel better about sending him so far away. Zeiae says what little the Iranian media says about Americans isn't good, and when he got here, he discovered the misperceptions cut both ways.

Fellow students would ask if his dad had an oil field. They figured that was the only way he could afford to go to school in the U.S.

Mr. SAEID ZEIAE: Or they were asking, like, do you guys, everyone have a car there, because every time we saw a movie, they portrayed people either walking bare feet in desert or everything's in chaos. And that's the only impression they got from that country.

LUDDEN: Of course, these days, when Zeiae and his family go back to Iran, people there remark on how casual and modest they dress, not like those fancy duds they see in Hollywood flicks.

ZAHAR: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of piano playing)

LUDDEN: Today, the family lives in a spacious house in Centreville, Virginia. Daughter Zahar is three. Son Ahmad is six and likes to tinker on the piano with an assist from dad.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

LUDDEN: Zeiae is a dentist. He met his wife, Hadija Faraji, on a trip home nine years ago. Now, she's a teacher's assistant at their children's school. They moved to this area near Washington, D.C., in part, to be around a larger community of Iranians. And Faraji still marvels at how familiar their new home can feel.

Ms. HADIJA FARAJI: We have everything, even non-religious and religious. We have everything.

LUDDEN: There's a regional Persian American Yellow Pages that lists Farsi speaking services and contacts of every kind. There are three different mosques close by. Every evening, the family watches Iranian satellite TV.

(Soundbite of TV)

LUDDEN: Numerous channels are put out by this huge Iranian community in Los Angeles. This movie is beamed directly from Tehran, on a channel tailored to expats.

Mr. ZEIAE: They have lessons in Farsi - cooking lessons, religious lessons.

LUDDEN: And it all helps Iranians here feel closer to the home they left. Yet as the kids run around playing, Zeiae and Faraji say there is something missing.

Mr. ZEIAE: Sometimes, you're in an atmosphere where everyone speaks Farsi. All the paintings on the wall are Iranian. The food is Iranian. The menu is Iranian - everything's Iranian. But when you look next to you, even though he's Iranian, he's not your uncle. He's not your brother. He's not your cousin.

Mr. FARAJI: I feel that sometimes, you know, like in the middle of the night, I'm thinking, how I chose this kind of life, you know, to be far from my family forever. Sometimes, I get headaches. And I keep blaming myself at how come I chose to be far from my family, from my parents.

LUDDEN: Then, they'll visit Iran, and after two weeks, Faraji says, she's missing her life in Virginia. Zeiae rejects the term Muslim American. It's a political term, he says, used by those who want to isolate us. While he and his wife have heard stories of Muslims in the U.S. being harassed, they've not had a bad experience themselves.

Still, being here has influenced their attitude toward their religion. When you're in a majority Muslim country, Zeiae says, you can take your faith for granted, slack off going to the mosque.

Mr. ZEIAE: But here, suddenly, you becomes a point that you're a minority, and you kind of want to hold that group together. You try to be on time, you try to learn, you try to be a better person. If anything, it worked better for me.

LUDDEN: So you're a better Muslim in America?

Mr. ZEIAE: I guess.

LUDDEN: Already, six-year-old Ahmad is learning to recite the Quran.

AHMAD: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: Little sister Zahar will learn that, too, but for now, she's eager to share another song.

ZAHAR: (Singing) I love you, you love me. We are happy family.

LUDDEN: Saeid Zeiaei and Hadija Faraji marvel at how their young children are absorbing two cultures, learning to speak both Farsi and English. They hope to keep taking the kids to Iran every few years so the whole family will feel there's a place for them in both Iran and America.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

SIEGEL: The people we've heard about this half hour are among more than 11 million naturalized citizens in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security also estimates that there are 8 million more immigrants who are here legally, over 18 and eligible for citizenship.

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