“The American constitution could have never come about if it wasn’t for what is at the heart of the American idea, optimism. Optimism is a belief in what is possible and any culture that is based on this principal will survive the bumps along the way. As an immigrant I have to believe in that and having traveled the world, I know with all my heart that Americans are good. There is much strife, fear mongering and negativity driving political life in America today which is exploited to move the masses to serve very un-American agendas these days and that can be disheartening. But this nothing new, it’s just a byproduct of change. During the industrial revolution there was a wave of traditionalist movements resulting from the anxiety people were feeling. Skilled jobs were losing their importance and modernity was creeping in. Globalism is a fact and the genie will not go back in the bottle. Not only the U.S. but the rest of the first world is experiencing a backlash of populism and tribalism which I believe will pass.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing, Amir Parstabar, Chief Commercial Officer of TYLT
Thank you so much for joining us! Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
Summer of 1978 in Iran, the wave of protests began and by winter the revolution was in full swing. By Spring of 1979, the revolution had concluded and the fundamentalist forces had emerged as the victors over the other revolutionary groups consisting of communists, nationalist secularists and a handful of other groups across the political spectrum. The purges soon followed and my father was amongst NIOC executives that were put on trial in the so called people’s revolutionary courts. These were tense times for us full of fear. It was in this period that as a 12 year old I experienced the fear for one’s life. My father was eventually cleared of all bogus charges after six months. One such charge was that when he had spent a year in the U.S. in a cooperation program between NIOC and Mobil Oil Company, he was said to have been trained by the CIA! Although he was cleared, he was forced out of the company as a remnant of the old regime.
Growing up since an early age I had a knack for drawing and over the years in school, it became what people noticed me for. During my first year at high school, the Islamic youth which was extension of the fundamentalist government in our school asked me to paint a propaganda mural on our courtyard wall. I refused and turned them down. This made me a marked student as what they termed a ‘counter revolutionary’. Our vice principal, a supporter of the government yet a decent man called my dad to warn him about what was transpiring. My dad asked me to go along which I did to get the heat off of my back and also made a donation to the school to please the authorities. This incident and the issues my sister was also experiencing with the introduction of mandatory head scarfs for girls prompted by parents to consider leaving the country.
At the time, international travel was restricted by the government to those doing business with or on behalf of the government. Civilians were prohibited from leaving the country. People were illegally leaving across the Turkish and Pakistani borders and people were smuggler’s main cargo. Friends of ours had planned their exit and gave us a contact name that we could reach out to once they had made it across and their reliability was proven. We sold everything we could as if we were moving from the city and plans went into motion. I was not allowed to tell any of my friends anything and only our closest relatives knew. The night before leaving, we gathered in my aunt’s house and our closest relatives from both sides spent the night with us. We stayed up all night and it was a sad night filled with anxiety. I remember looking through the back window as we were leaving in the morning wondering if I was ever going to see any of those people again. We took a plane to the border city of Zahedan and met with the smugglers at a predetermined location and were taken to a safe house to wait for nightfall.
After nightfall a group of smugglers left in a truck as an advance party to scout the route across the border. An hour later we all loaded up into a Jeep truck for the journey. My Dad and I were made to lie on the floor of the flatbed where there was already a cargo of contraband to be smuggled. One armed man with is face covered laid down with us and we were covered up. My mom and sister sat in the front with the driver covered in hijab to pass as the man’s family. The truck buzzed through the streets and out of the city. Once outside the city it got off the main road and with its lights off began the track into the freezing cold desert. Once we were a good distance from the road the truck stopped and we were allowed to sit up. It was a clear moonlit night. We were told to hold on tight and brace ourselves for a very bumpy ride through the desert towards the border. The smugglers were Balochi tribesmen indigenous to the region who live on both sides of the international border of Iran and Pakistan with a dialect of their own. I remember being freezing cold, scared and experiencing a kind of fear for one’s life that I had not experienced even during the air raids of the war.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
After our escape from Iran at the beginning of my 10th grade, it took a few months to get to the U.S. and we settled in Incline Village, Nevada where I started my 10th grade in the middle of the school year, it would be a rough adjustment of grasping all subjects with my level of English at that time. Tough, tough two years as one of the only immigrant students there. Despite being super shy and self-conscious at 15 in a new country and a place with virtually any other immigrant kids, I did my best to fit in.
The first year was very tough, with my dad still in Italy, my sister and I lived with my mom who was working hard as an RN and we were adjusting to living to a much more humble lifestyle. My mom was still struggling with her war experience which made for some uncomfortable moments. I was experiencing anger and depression while some kids at school were not making it any easier by the racist remarks and the calls we would get at home.
By the second year I had made friends and was getting to start leading a more normal teenage life like thinking about girls, getting invited to parties, playing sports and so on. I was blessed with two amazing teachers who encouraged me tremendously and urged me to pursue what came naturally to me, art. Mr. Carter, one of the two who fought U.S. government, made bulletin board for my political cartoons. I dreamt of becoming a political cartoonist and idolized Conrad, a prominent American editorial cartoonist.
My dad joined us in the second year and my parents decided to move to Santa Barbara where we had more relatives. It was also closer to LA which was and has been the hub for the Iranian-American community.
Start senior year in Santa Barbara, I begin to fall in with the popular crowd, start drinking, partying and chasing girls. My grades drop while running with the fast crowd. I let loose and all my pent-up feelings and emotions pour out leading to brawls over the smallest things. I no longer take the prejudiced remarks lightly and react dramatically. I’m building lifelong friendships and feel that I have a home for the first time in a long time. After graduation, I studied political science as I thought that I would eventually attend law school. Half way through the year I realized that I wanted to go after my passion and attend art school so I begin researching art schools in L.A.
After spending a summer in Santa Barbara building a portfolio, I submitted an application to Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design and was accepted. In 1987 I moved to Los Angeles to begin my education to become a creative professional. I did two semesters of Fine Arts and illustration Foundation year while experiencing a life on my own for the first time. In the late 80s, the La Brea to Downtown portion of Los Angeles was a seedier part of town which was a mix of low income, Central American immigrants and artist communities. This is where I lived. I was lucky to have my beginnings in this part of Los Angeles where it was an adventure to say the least. Underground clubs, experimental art performances were all the rage back then and that intrigued my senses, already conditioned by less than normal circumstances of my past. I embraced the alternative scene L.A, to offer.
I always had a sense of responsibility to my parents for all the sacrifices they had made uprooting themselves to seek a better life for me and my sister in America. So it wasn’t long that I realized that I needed to be a more realistic about my future and that is when I found out about Art Center College of Design, Pasadena. Realizing that it was a more professional commercial design school ranked as the top three in the country, I decided to apply and switch schools. I was accepted to attend Art Center if I was willing to start all over again with the loss of two semesters and I did not hesitate.
This was the beginning of what was to become a very successful career for me and the impetus of working in the entertainment/advertising agency, including two agencies of my own, Deadline in 1996 and Mindhard Creative in 2011.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Mr. Richard Carter was my high school U.S. Government class teacher at Incline High School. He did much to encourage what he felt was a talent of mine, doing political cartoons. He made me feel that what I was about and my opinions mattered. I was a teenager that had endured the trauma of upheaval and being an immigrant. It was a very confusing time for me and his actions did wonders for my self-confidence. He put up a board in his class with a sign that read ‘AMIR’S CORNER’. I would create editorial cartoons addressing current affairs and he would add them to the board which ended up being two pages in the yearbook. I am forever grateful for having had the luck to have such a teacher in a pivotal time in my life. I lost touch with him over the years but the last I know of him is that he became a principal in a high school in Reno.
So how are things going today?
Things are great, I have a lovely marriage and I’m blessed with a set of twin daughters, first generation Iranian-Americans. I am a partner in a consumer electronics company and I’m doing what I love, that is making a living designing and being creative. It’s been an amazing journey.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have never forgotten where I come from and as a reminder I have the backpack I left with framed on my office wall. I try to dedicate a portion of my time to helping other new arrivals. At my previous company, I would help employ immigrants in the creative field. Other Iranian Americans would refer people to me and I would help them out to show them a path into a professional life in the U.S. in the field I was working in. Currently I volunteer in an organization called Pars Equality Center that assists new Iranian immigrants to assimilate into everyday American life. I am also very active in American politics. I am involved in volunteer work during elections and try to help on issues that I feel can have positive impact in the country that adopted me so that I can give something back in a small way.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
1. Taking politics out of immigration: I do like the idea of a point system where skill sets and education can be a factor in granting entry but at the same time not at the expense the core idea of an open arm to the huddled masses. We cannot lose our values of Justice. A point system if applied should not be a tool to preserve ethnicity by traditionalists.
2. Being from an undesirable country based on geopolitical battles should not be a litmus test for barring potential immigrants. Many of us come to America from those countries precisely because we are more aligned with American values. The Iranian population, from a country dubbed as a member of axis of evil, has the most pro-American sentiment in the whole of the Middle East.
3. Data based on a track record of past immigration from a point of origin should be considered. My particular immigrant cluster of Iranian-Americans has shown that it has contributed much to the American economy. The average income of Iranian-Americans is 50% higher than the rest of the nation. 57% of Iranian-Americans hold a bachelor degree while the national average is 24% and the number of Iranian-Americans holding a graduate degree is three times the national average. Iranian-Americans are a major force in tech and Silicon Valley; these statistics should be considered when it comes to future immigration regarding this particular point of origin.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Never forgetting why we came here to begin with and let that forever be a driver for not giving up.
2. The beauty of America is that it rewards quality and it is a merit-based society so whatever area of interest you have, if you are good at it you would be rewarded. Most immigrants come from societies were path to success was through a narrow field of professions. In America you don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer to be successful. Follow your dream and stay at it. I went to Art School.
3. Assimilate, assimilate, assimilate. Understand the society you live in and while staying true to your heritage, don’t imprison yourself within the familiarity of your own immigrant community. Master the language and understand the idiosyncrasies of the society you have chosen so that you can function and relate with the native-born population.
4. Consume the pop culture and media which drives trends in your adopted country.
5. Be confident, as an immigrant you are an American by choice. People like you built this country because they have the drive that people who are born into it might not have. You are the seasoning that makes America tastier.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
The American constitution could have never come about if it wasn’t for what is at the heart of the American idea, optimism. Optimism is a belief in what is possible and any culture that is based on this principal will survive the bumps along the way. As an immigrant I have to believe in that and having traveled the world, I know with all my heart that Americans are good. There is much strife, fear mongering and negativity driving political life in America today which is exploited to move the masses to serve very un-American agendas these days and that can be disheartening. But this nothing new, it’s just a byproduct of change. During the industrial revolution there was a wave of traditionalist movements resulting from the anxiety people were feeling. Skilled jobs were losing their importance and modernity was creeping in. Globalism is a fact and the genie will not go back in the bottle. Not only the U.S. but the rest of the first world is experiencing a backlash of populism and tribalism which I believe will pass.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
So many but I can narrow it down. In the early stages the soundtrack to my journey was The Clash. The lyrics spoke to me, the idealism they put to music meant a lot to me and I spent many nights in my room listening to the first album I ever bought, London Calling. Joe Strummer is gone but man I would have loved to meet him. I have followed Fareed Zakaria from the days he wrote for Newsweek and I have so much respect for his intellect and the grace with which he puts forth an argument. A lunch with him would be a gift. And then there’s John Stewart, my man. His outspokenness, everything he stands for and the way he influenced pop culture in a meaningful way made me a fan. If I had a time machine, I would have liked to meet Susan B. Anthony. She did so much to further the cause of equality in the United State.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Originally published at medium.com