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Name: Azadeh Shahshahani
Job: National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project Director, ACLU of Georgia
Why did you come here originally?
My family decided to come because of educational opportunities and basically for my future. I came when I was 16; it was December 1994. I was actually born right after the [Iranian] revolution, four days after the revolution. So actually my name Azadeh it means "free spirited." It comes from Azadi — it means freedom. A lot of girls in my generation were name Azadeh kind of signifying the hopes of my parents' generation for what the revolution would bring. Which, you know, unfortunately a lot of those hopes were shattered.
Where are you from in Iran?
Tehran, it's a big city, very vibrant, it's going to be 20 years since I left. So, at least at that time, each neighborhood had its own set of shops and people knew each other, and it was just such a sense of community to the different neighborhoods.
What are some misconceptions people have about Iran?
I think perhaps their portrayal sometimes in the media of Iran being a very dangerous country where people are not necessarily being friendly, whereas people are very friendly. People are very hospitable, they are open to having visitors. It's a really beautiful country to visit.
Describe America in three words.
I really like living here. I do. I like a lot of the personal freedoms that are afforded to people, but I think of it in a very nuanced way obviously because I do work with the ACLU, and I'm also [president of] the National Lawyers Guild, so I'm very much aware of the human rights violations that people are being subjected to every day. The misconceptions that some Iranians would have about the U.S., you know, land of the free, all of these freedoms that you know Americans have, well have you ever been to a U.S. jail? What about Guantanamo? And then again what about U.S. foreign policy?
I think a lot of people think that, well, if you live in America you have all sorts of freedoms, which you know it is partly true, I would say, on certain levels civil and political freedoms perhaps. Some Americans are afforded a certain level of civil and political rights, but there's a big but. It depends on, again, what your race and ethnicity and religion is. There is definitely that misconception on the part of some.
What are the differences in human rights between the U.S. and Iran?
I left at a young age, when I was 15 almost 16. I wasn't politically active at that age, I wasn't at the university. It's really hard for me to kind of judge what type of human rights violations people are experiencing. Definitely people who are politically active, especially during [Former Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, active in a way that was opposed to Ahmadinejad, they were definitely experiencing crackdowns. People were imprisoned. With the new president [Hassan] Rouhani, there has been an opening, but there's definitely a lot of room still for civil and political freedoms.
I think perhaps a misconception or misconstruing of what human rights means. Human rights is a holistic way of how you look at human rights. It's not just civil and political rights, which you know in the U.S. you have seen, especially in the government, the politicians and sometimes the media emphasizing. And human rights sometimes encompasses your social and economic security, and so I think there is a lot to be said as to how a person's human right to health and food and social security are being respected in the U.S. as opposed to some other countries, such as for example Iran.
Maybe Iran might not be a good example because there is a lot of poverty, but the government has tried in the past to, for example, on the education front there have been several advances, health care, providing health care for at least the basic level of health care. Some other countries, for example Latin America where some of the basics are provided for everyone, regardless of how much money you have. But in the U.S., I think we've got a long way to go before there is universal health care, before there is food security for everyone, regardless of where they were born or where their parents are from, [and before everyone is] guaranteed an education.
The U.S. is lagging far behind some other countries in terms of economic and social rights. That is something I think Americans should keep in mind in terms of claiming our rights, claiming our human rights. That is something to think about. I think it all depends on which socioeconomic background you have.