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Iranian Americans’ Hearts Are Miles Away; Groups Scramble to Send Quake Victims Aid

Mon, Dec 29, 2003

Press

The Washington Post / By Caryle Murphy

Neda Toloui-Semnani left Iran 22 years ago as a 2-year-old. She grew up in the District, graduated from the University of Maryland and now works for a nonprofit group in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

As a result, Toloui-Semnani is closer than most Iranian Americans to the unfolding tragedy in her homeland brought on by Friday’s devastating earthquake.

“In a strange way, it feels like 9/11 all over again. There are the same feelings of shock and trauma,” Toloui-Semnani, 24, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “The difference here is that the numbers are astronomical. Also, there is nobody to blame. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse.”

The predawn temblor hit hardest in Bam, an ancient city about 630 miles southeast of Tehran. Iranian officials first estimated that 20,000 people were killed, but tribal leaders have put the number of fatalities at more than 40,000. Thousands of others were left homeless.

For Iranian Americans in the Washington area, who number about 23,200, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, it has been three days of shock and sadness as televised images of the quake’s victims pour in.

“It seems like a death in the family, and it’s even worse when you’re not there,” said Mahnaz Afkhami, executive director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies. “People want to help, but they don’t know how.”

“This catastrophe has two strong dimensions,” said Trita Parsi, 29, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and president of the National Iranian American Council. “One is the human one, the number of people who vanished in such a short period of time. And there is also the fact that this is one of Iran’s oldest cities, one of its prime tourist attractions. It’s a place that many Iranian Americans have visited and remember fondly.”

Iranians who wish to assist earthquake victims face a problem: U.S. economic sanctions against Iran make it illegal to send money and supplies there.

Another complicating factor is that many Iranian Americans who arrived here after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution are reluctant to send money to government-run organizations in Iran.

“Many Iranians in the United States don’t trust the Iranian government in terms of relaying their support to the victims, be it money or other types of physical goods, like medicine,” said Mohammed Sehat, station manager of Rang-a-Rang, an Iranian television station based in Tysons Corner.

As a result, Iranian American groups are donating funds to U.S. charities and nonprofit groups and asking that they be used to help victims of the earthquake.

Parsi said his two-year-old group has raised more than $30,000 through its Web site and will be giving it to the American Red Cross. “It’s to be used only for Iranian earthquake victims,” he said.

The Iranian American Technology Council, an organization of Iranians involved in high-tech companies, is also giving the Red Cross money raised through its Web site, according to board member Shaun Amini.

Douglas Allen, director of the international disaster response unit of the Red Cross, said that all donations received for a specific purpose are used for that cause. He added that this morning, his organization intends to apply to the U.S. Treasury Department — which oversees compliance with the sanctions — for permission to assist victims of the quake in Iran.

Allen added that he anticipated it would be granted.

Several Iranian Americans said they are planning fundraising events to help immediate relief efforts and long-term reconstruction of the devastated areas.

Officials of the National Iranian American Council met yesterday in its Adams Morgan offices to brainstorm about fundraising. “Money is the fastest and most economic way of sending help in the first critical days of a disaster like this,” Parsi said.

Sehat, the television station manager, said that technological advances, especially the growth of such satellite television channels as Rang-a-Rang, have made the disaster and its consequences more immediate to Iranian-born residents of this country.

“They feel they are more affected by it,” he said. The television coverage “has brought this whole disaster much closer compared to previous times. Everyone is really quite shocked with what has happened and in their own way is mourning the victims.”

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more