Professor Karim Explores Iranian-American History, Immigration for NEH-Funded Digital Archive

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Friday, February 08, 2019
Black and white photo of Alexander Karim on Ellis Island in 1946
Alexander Karim (in foreground), the father of Professor Persis Karim, arrives on Ellis Island in 1946. Courtesy of Persis Karim

Professor Persis Karim, director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies, received a $12,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to pilot a digital archive that will document the migration history, contributions and development of the Iranian-American community in the Bay Area.

Featuring photographs, oral histories and historical documents, the project complements some of the center’s work, including an upcoming conference that marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution and the largest migration of Iranians to the United States in history.

“Many things happened in the lives of the Iranians who left Iran in the immediacy of the revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war that have not been processed or documented,” Karim says. “Iranians had their history partially erased from the cultural landscape of Iran, and continue to face stereotyping and prejudice in the U.S., because of the political tensions between Iran and the United States.

“The Iranian diaspora community here in the Bay Area has not shared their stories with their families or the general public, so this digital archive will be an opportunity to preserve a slice of their history and share it with others.”

Numbers vary, but estimates are that more than 200,000 Iranian-Americans live in Northern California, Karim says.

The archive will include documents from her father, Alexander Karim, who was born in 1915 in Paris to Iranian parents who eventually moved back to Iran after World War I. He first came to Ellis Island in 1946 to research the U.S. railway system after having been a chief engineer of the Iranian National Railroads during the occupation of Iran by British and Soviet troops during World War II.

After documenting his research for one year, he sent the report to Iranian government, but did not get any feedback because of the tensions back home. Eventually he became what Karim says is “an accidental immigrant,” like many of the later Iranians who came here for education and thought they would return to Iran but whose lives were interrupted by larger historical events like the revolution.

For the future, Karim envisions that this project will lead to a nationwide network of faculty and students producing a digital archive of the Iranian diaspora.

— Ufuoma Umusu

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