Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

People of USM: Reza Jalali

Posted on November 12, 2016 in Community
By USM Free Press

By Muna Adan, Free Press staff

Mention the American dream, and Americans tend to visualize a wealthy family living in a suburban home surrounded by white picket fences. Yet, to many immigrants who are chasing that dream, those same words evoke a chance to rebuild a life torn apart by war, poverty and persecution. To them, the American dream is the ideal that every American, born or naturalized, has an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through their hard work, determination and initiative.

Reza Jalali was born in Qasr-e Shirin, Iran, amid the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—a dictator. He was encouraged to leave Iran by his family because the state was arresting anyone who was politically active. Jalali, at the time, expressed his thoughts and beliefs through politically motivated poetry. During his teenage years, his family sent him to India to seek higher education. Immersing himself in the culture and studying with students from various backgrounds provided Jalali with a rich experience that he would not have received if he stayed in his home country.

In 1979, as Jalali was about to graduate, the Iranian Revolution occurred. Months later, the revolution was followed by the Iran-Iraq War. After receiving his undergraduate degree in Engineering, Jalali returned to Bangalore University in Bengaluru, India.

“I went back to get another degree so that I could legally stay in India,” he said.

After obtaining his second undergraduate degree, Jalali accepted his fate of being a displaced person. He had no country to return to and was at risk of being deported from India.

Facing an uncertain and dangerous future in Iran, Jalali applied for refugee status at the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in New Delhi, India. His case was accepted immediately, however, the challenge was to find a country that was willing to resettle him. In 1984, he had an in person interview with United States immigration officials touring India.

“Many Americans do not understand that when you are coming legally to this country, the process is very, very long and complicated,” he explained. “It is nothing like what some anti-immigration politicians would have you believe. The vetting process, in terms of security, is quite complex.”

After an intense and lengthy process, Jalali relocated to Portland, Maine.

In 1985, when Jalali arrived, there was an active refugee resettlement community in Portland. Nevertheless, there were very few services and resources for them. Jalali was denied job opportunities because of his last name, where he came from, his accent and his background. Despite having two college degrees, he was unable to find a job. There were a lot of adjustments to be made. Now, looking back, he is pleased with how Portland, Maine, has evolved into a safe and accepting community. Jalali was an active member in creating that change.

“My passion has always been to be the voice for the voiceless and to bring visibility to our new neighbors―whom I prefer to call new Mainers,” he said.

Jalali devoted his life to amplifying voices and changing the narrative of how less fortunate communities are perceived. He fights for the weak and speaks for those who are marginalized. He does this work because he does not want future generations to face the barriers and hostility that he did.

Jalali is an educator, a writer and a community activist. As the Coordinator of the University of Southern Maine’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, Jalali describes himself as a cultural broker between the University and the multicultural students.

In recent years, Jalali has been recognized for his accomplishments. In July, Maine Magazine included him in a list of 50 Mainers who are charting the state’s future. Similarly, in the 1990s, while he was serving on the national board of directors for Amnesty International, Jalali appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The show focused on the issue of human rights across the world.

Immigrating to the United States was the beginning of Jalali’s new journey. He vividly remembers a day when the beauty of living in this country became surreal. In 1992, Jalali was given an opportunity to travel to the White House as part of Amnesty International’s delegation.

“While sitting around this big table, I looked at my shoes and thought, ‘Wow, they know I am poor, all they have to do is look at my shoes and they know,’” he said.

The contrast between an expensive carpet and his worn-out shoes stood out to him. Jalali, a former refugee, was there to speak with Andrew H. Card Jr., the Deputy Chief of Staff during George H. W. Bush’s administration, to discuss the plight of Kurdish refugees fleeing Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

Jalali’s story demonstrates how, when provided the chance, one can rebuild their life, reinvent themselves and live freely and dignified—while helping others in the process. To come from a hopeless situation yet still be given an opportunity to dream, pursue and achieve is what this nation is built on. That is what the American dream is made of.

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