El Salvador
South Korea


by Milina Jovanovic

Context for Iranian Immigration

History and Government

The region of today’s Iran was occupied by the Persians in the 1500s B.C. Persia fell to Alexander in 331 B.C. and a succession of other rulers. The Greek-speaking Parthians (247 B.C.-A.D. 226) and the Arab Muslims (in 641) ruled Persia until the mid 800s, when it became an international cultural center. In the 12th century it was under the Mongols. During the Safavid dynasty (1500-1700s) the dominant religion became Islam. The Safavid dynasty was replaced by the Qajar dynasty, 1794-1925. Russians and Turks fought for economic control during the Qajar dynasty rule. World War I brought Russian and British troops that made Iran a battlefield.

In 1921 there was a coup and Reza Kahn came into power. Four years later he became shah and changed his name to Shah Reza Pahlavi. He helped modernize the country. During World War II, an Anglo-Russian alliance occupied Iran. In 1953 Prime Minister Mossadegh was overthrown in a joint U.S. and British operation. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah’s son, was brought to power. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi established many westernization programs. After the U.S.-backed shah fled Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned and established an Islamic theocracy.

The Iran-Iraq war lasted from 1980 to 1988 with the involvement of the U.S., the USSR and other countries. Today’s Iran is called an Islamic Republic. Mohammad Khatami is the elected president. Religious officials are led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


In 1998 Iran had a Gross Domestic Product of $340 billion, with a per capita income of about $5,000 annually. According to UN data for the same year, there was total of 15.4 million people in the labor force, which was dominated by agriculture and manufacturing. Men were about four times better represented in the workforce than women. Iran has the world’s fifth largest oil and second largest natural gas reserves. The country is also very rich in minerals and an important producer of agricultural, horticultural and animal products.

Iranian Immigration

Between the 1950s and 1970s mostly students from the social elite and professional backgrounds immigrated to the U.S. The next wave of immigration came between 1970 and 1978. Immigrants came from similar but more diverse backgrounds. The third wave of immigration from Iran after the 1979 “Islamic Revolution” had many different reasons. The reasons usually mentioned by immigrants are personal and economic security, as well as educational opportunities. A significant number of Iranians found political or religious exile. Immigrants from this wave are more heterogeneous in terms of socioeconomic and educational background.

Of the Iranian public assistance recipients who responded to the Summit on Immigrant Needs survey, 55% indicated that the most important reason for their immigration to the U.S. was family reunification. However, they rarely selected a single reason for immigrating and most often emphasized a multiplicity of reasons for immigration. About 47% of respondents checked political problems as an important reason for immigration and 28% thought that the economic situation had an important influence on their decision to immigrate. Similarly, 28% of the respondents emphasized religious persecution. Also 24% of the respondents said that the war in their homeland was an important reason for immigration. The smallest number of respondents checked race and ethnic problems as important issues that influenced their decision to immigrate to the U.S. More than one fourth (27%) of the survey participants answered that they were hoping for better educational opportunities.

Globalization has a very important impact on immigration. Global economic inequalities, as well as geo-political interests in the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf provide the background for conflicts and economic and political insecurity. Islamic fundamentalists often state that their activities are responses to westernization and the destruction of national religious and cultural identities.

Social Characteristics of the Iranian People

Ethnic & Religious Diversity

Iran is a diverse society. Major ethnic groups are Persian 51%, Azerbaijani 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurds 7%, Arabs 3%, Lurs 2%, Balochs 2%, Turks 2%, others 1%. Major religions include: Shi’ite Muslim 89%, Sunni Muslim 10%, and Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i 1%. Even though Iran’s constitution is based upon Islamic teachings, all of these groups coexist.

Family Life

Iranians are very family oriented. They tend to see families and family life as a source of strength and support. This patriarchal society is based on and reinforced by the patriarchal family. Mothers and other female family members are more often expected to take on the role of care providers than male members. Male family members are mostly expected to be the protectors of the family. They are also more often expected to ensure economic support of the family and maintain communication with the outside world. Both children and senior family members can expect care and support. Children are expected to show respect for adults. Seniors are respected and their knowledge and experience are very much appreciated.

The survey of public assistance recipients documented similar patterns related to family life and child care. Mothers and fathers are the most likely to take care of their children, according to our respondents. In 24% of the cases grandparents care for their grandchildren. Only 2% of the children of the respondents are enrolled in child care centers. Additionally, respondents rarely choose institutional care for seniors and the disabled. Around 70% prefer in-home care for seniors or the disabled, to be carried out by family members, and 13% preferred in-home care by trained care providers.

However, it would be wrong to proclaim the Iranian family patriarchal and traditional without any modern elements. Especially young generations are likely to think about redefining gender roles.

It should also be noted that many westerners lack knowledge of Muslim religions and societies that place their emphasis on traditional values. Usually, they have difficulties understanding the complexity of social life in these countries. The traditional way of life and the Islamic “dress code” do not necessarily mean that women do not have a significant amount of power and independence.

Health Care Practices

Iranians accept both western medicine and their own health practices. Western medicine is usually used in combination with alternative methods. Herbal treatments are used both for prevention and for symptom management. Family care and support are crucial in times of illness. There is universal health care in Iran. However, there are differences between private and public health institutions. Private health centers tend to offer better services for those who can afford it. In general, immunizations have been effective, but the emphasis has not been on prevention in all medical areas and in all places.

Mental health and illness have been somewhat stigmatized. There are mental health institutions and a great number of mental health patients receive institutionalized care. The rest of the patients rely on the help of their families.

Educational System in Iran

Education is extremely important for the Iranian people. The educational system is highly competitive, especially at the college level. College entrance exams are often difficult. Private schools offer space for more students, but the tuition tends to be very expensive and few can afford to attend these schools. Girls study as often as boys and are likely to have greater academic success. However, after graduating they usually get trapped into a net of traditional gender roles. In general, after graduation, there are fewer jobs than graduates and the situation puts great pressure on young generations.

Iranians in Santa Clara County


More women than men (58%: 42%) responded to the public benefits questionnaire. The average age of the respondents, who were all public assistance recipients, was 59. In 91% of the cases Farsi was most often used in communication. The average number of years living in Santa Clara County for the Iranian group was five years, and for living in the U.S. six years. Most Iranians who responded to our survey reside in San Jose (65%), Campbell, Santa Clara or Cupertino. Only 10% of the respondents live in other parts of the county. In regard to education, 33% of the survey respondents completed more than 12 years of schooling, and 15% completed more than 16 years of schooling.

The average number of people living in the households of Iranian public assistance recipients is three, and in 42% of the cases they had non-family members living in their households.

Only 6% of Iranians who participated in the survey reported that there was no one employed in the family. In most of the cases (44%) two family members were employed and in 16% of the cases even 3 or 4. However, only 7% of the respondents reported a total family income of $90,000 or more. In contrast, 22% reported family income of less than $10,000 and 46% between $10,000 and $30,000. About 20% of the respondents had family income between $30,000 and $50,000, and only 5% had income between $50,000 and $90,000.

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Many Iranians are very cautious to disclose personal feelings and thoughts to non-intimate people. Sometimes, non-verbal communication is even more important than verbal communication. Iranians prefer to use their last name, especially at the first encounter. Seniors are greeted first as a sign of respect. With strangers, their tone of voice may be restrained to a degree.

Emotional Support

About 27% of Iranian public assistance recipients reported that when they have emotional problems they do not talk to anyone. When they talk to someone, they are most likely to confide in their spouses, relatives or friends. These Iranians rarely talk to doctors, teachers, community leaders or religious advisors.


There are differences in clothing styles. However, with the “Islamic Revolution,” religious clothing has been enforced, including women wearing scarves. In rural areas people often wear traditional clothes. Iranian Americans usually wear more westernized clothes. When visiting their homeland, they have to comply with reinforced standards of clothing.


Iranians prefer to eat accompanied by family members or other people. It is a common practice to serve tea after each meal. When snacks are eaten, they often consist of fruits and nuts. Rice is a common staple food. In general, foods are classified as cold and hot. Iranians believe that the balance of these two types of food is a key for being healthy. Many Iranian Americans do not value fast food and prefer home-made food. Like other strict Muslims, many Iranians do not eat pork. Beef, lamb, chicken and fish are the basis for many dishes. Rice and beans may be combined.

Religious Traditions and Holidays

Iranians and Iranian Americans celebrate the New Year on the first day of spring. This is connected to the belief that the world was created on the first day of spring, or Nourouz. Every family celebrates with the ceremonial table covered with a Persian rug and seven elements including sabzeh (sprouts symbolizing rebirth), samanu (a sweet pudding symbolizing the sophistication of Persian cooking), seeb (apple symbolizing health and beauty), and senjed (sweet dry fruit representing love). Other elements might be put on the ceremonial table, such as painted or colored eggs representing fertility, Persian flowers, mirrors, candles, the Koran or holy book, etc. The celebration lasts for ten days and usually includes a great number of people, even when Iranians live abroad. Very often, a part of the celebration includes open-air picnics. Every year, there is an all day event at Vasona Park in Los Gatos. Many Iranian Americans and members of the larger community enjoy these events and help promote the cultural heritage.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

The top five needs of Iranian public assistance recipients, as identified by the survey, were medical care (70%), ESL (69%), eye care (66%), dental care (66%), and housing (64%). Survey respondents also demonstrated a great need in the areas of citizenship (49%), immigration legal services, employment training and help finding jobs. The top 5 needs identified in the two focus groups (one mixed and one with women CalWORKs recipients) were similar. Immigration legal services, public assistance issues, employment related issues, low wages and housing were the needs most often mentioned. Focus group participants also emphasized the need for parent education and for overcoming discrimination based on religious and cultural misconceptions.

Solutions for these needs included building more affordable housing, emphasizing cooperation between the housing authority and low income programs, shared housing, help with filling out applications for housing or translation of these applications (including information about credit history), making banks more sensitive to immigrants when providing home loans, and directing Iranian women toward employment training programs and occupations that will not create tensions for more traditional family members. Iranians emphasized that information about public benefits and immigration legal services should be translated into Farsi. They argued that more immigrant and H-1B visas should be issued and that immigration laws should be changed so that more immigrant families can be united. Regarding employment issues, it was stressed that INS should be more effective in issuing work authorization, and workplaces should be encouraged to help immigrants get better training and upgrade their skills. They also advocated for raising the minimum wage.


Only 56% of the Iranian public assistance respondents who were stopped by the police reported that they felt respected. Another 56% felt scared; 33% reported a communication problem and felt mistreated when stopped by the police; another 33 % expressed a lack of knowledge about US laws; and 22% stated they did not know their rights.

When asked about perceived discrimination, Iranian respondents were most likely to feel discriminated against by landlords. Additionally, they were very likely to feel discriminated against by the police, the INS, criminal courts, social workers or eligibility workers, and teachers.

Iranian focus group participants advocated for better cultural proficiency training of public employees and the general public. They proposed media and public outreach campaigns in order to overcome the discrimination they felt. To improve the situation regarding food, they suggested community-based farming and community food distribution.

Barriers to Education, Services, and Benefits

Most often mentioned barriers are lack of English, lack of information, lack of time, and lack of child care. Additionally, IBC focus group participants talked about the lack of transportation options, lack of food delivery systems for seniors, and lack of advocacy on behalf of Iranians. Immigration status and discrimination were also mentioned as barriers to education, services and benefits.

Employment & Working Conditions

Occupational Data

Iranians who responded to the survey reported that they had a variety of occupations and professions. However, none of the respondents occupied a management position. Only 3% reported an occupation related to engineering. About 4% of the respondents were owners or self-employed. Many reported that they changed their original occupation or profession once they came to the U.S. Asked about the reasons, most saw the lack of English, the lack of a license or credential, and the lack of information about requirements as the most important reasons for working in a different area. One tenth of the respondents thought that they were discriminated against and that this was the reason they had to change their occupation. Only 13% of the respondents said that their current job was better than the job(s) they had in their homeland.

Working Conditions

Of the survey respondents, 93% reported that they work for just one employer. They often work for a small company with less than 25 employees (39%). On average, they work around 40 hour per week or less. None of the respondents reported that they worked for an immigrant employer. Iranians usually do not have paid vacation (62%), medical benefits (54%), or sick leave (46%). More than one quarter of the respondents were required to work swing, graveyard or weekend shifts. It should be noted that 8% of the respondents reported that they were injured in the workplace.

Small Businesses

About 55% of the survey respondents reported that none of their family members had a small business or were self-employed. On the other hand, 45% reported that they had family members who either started small business or were self-employed. According to the survey respondents, the most important barriers to start a small business were getting a loan (82%), not knowing how to get started (47%), lack of English (45%), lack of knowledge about what business idea might be successful (37%), and lack of information about legal requirements (34%).

Public Benefits in the Iranian Community

Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits

Iranians on public assistance knew the requirements for food stamps and MediCal much better than for all other forms of assistance. Only 24% of public assistance recipients knew the requirements for CalWORKs and only 22% felt that they knew the requirements for CAPI . Most Iranians feel that aid levels are inadequate to live on. Only about one quarter felt CalWORKS was adequate; about 18% thought that the amount for SSI was adequate; only 17% said that the amount for food stamps was adequate. Many of the respondents shared this opinion regarding MediCal (45%). Of those CalWORKs recipients who responded to the question about the amount of time to become self-sufficient, 33% said that the 5-year limit is not adequate. They all stated that it is crucial to learn enough English before starting with job training.

Culturally Competent Services

Almost 46% of Iranian CalWORKs recipients said that they did not understand written materials, 90% said that they did not understand orientations, and 63% said they did not understand phone calls. Over 95% of the respondents said that they did not understand food stamp orientations, 90% did not understand phone calls and 92% did not understand written materials related to food stamps. With MediCal, 59% of the respondents did not understand phone calls or written materials, and 76% reported that they did not understand MediCal orientations.

About 75% of recipients thought that they were treated with respect by county workers regarding CalWORKs and food stamps, and 86% of the MediCal recipients felt they were respected. They thought that there was good communication regarding public benefits between eligibility workers and themselves. Questions about the respect of the culture of Iranian Americans were often answered positively. However, less than half of CalWORKs recipients thought that their culture was respected by their social worker or eligibility worker.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

Almost half of the survey respondents had children under 18 in school. If they had options, these parents would prefer that school instruction were offered in both English and Farsi (61%). Only 17% of the respondents would like their children to be taught exclusively in English. These Iranian parents reported receiving various services at school. The most frequently used services were related to school lunch and breakfast programs, and after-school activities. Almost 28% said they participated in parent meetings and 11% said that they were using homework centers. Only 6 % of parents reported that they were getting information from their children’s school in a language they understand. As reported by the parents 11% of their children were using on-site child care.

Employment Training

Iranians who responded to the questionnaire said that they received vocational or professional training most often at community colleges (55%) and universities (9%). They were most often trained as receptionists or office workers. All other training was equally dispersed among many occupations and professions.


Most of the survey respondents evaluated their English skills as average (36%) or poor (29%). Only about 11% said that their English skills were good or excellent. Additionally, 24% of the respondents reported “no English skills”. According to participants in the survey, there are multiple needs for English. The greatest need was for every day situations (53%), followed by the need to fill out applications and other paperwork (44%), for employment (42%), and for community involvement (28%). For 23% of the respondents improving English skills was a precondition for continuing education.

Answering the question about the best ways to learn English more quickly, the surveyed Iranians said that having classes offered closer to their homes (53%) and having friends fluent in English (43%) were the most important factors. Also, a significant number of respondents thought that using TV for learning English (33%) and improvement of transportation options (36%) would be very helpful. Offering better schedules during the week would also be an important improvement for 31% of the respondents. One fifth of the respondents thought that tutoring would be the right solution for them. Other suggested options such as use of computers, audio materials, longer classes, weekend classes, job-related classes, on-site child care, and work-site classes were important for fewer of the respondents.


Three out of every 10 public assistance recipients reported that they were naturalized U.S. citizens. Of those who were not U.S. citizens, it was most often reported that they needed the following help: citizenship classes (46%), legal advice (43%), help with filling out the application (43%), disability waiver information (38%), English literacy classes in their own language (24%), and paying or waiving the $250 INS fee (22%).

Communication & Outreach in the Iranian Community

Most of the surveyed Iranian American public benefits recipients reported that they are best informed by listening to radio in Farsi (52%), reading a newspaper in Farsi (45%), and speaking to friends (42%) and family members (40%). However, they are also likely to get information from TV in English (42%), from the Internet and TV in Farsi (25%) and from radio in English (15%).

Most reported that they had modern appliances in their homes. For example, 99% of the respondents had a TV and a VCR, 97% a telephone, 88% a radio, and 66% a computer. Additionally 44% reported having Internet access and 25% had email accounts. They were least likely to have fax machines and newspaper subscriptions.

Iranian immigrants have established several TV and radio stations broadcasting programs in Farsi. However, TV programs are commercial. Community oriented TV is needed. A radio program was broadcast from San Mateo until recently. There are several newspapers published in Farsi: Andisheh Publications, Iran Today, Iranian Journal, and Pezhvak Publications – all based in San Jose.

Iran Community in Action

As a part of Immigrants Building Community (IBC), initiated as participatory action research by the Summit on Immigrant Needs, Iranian immigrants have been meeting regularly and the result of their engagement is the Iranian Community Services Resource Center. Iranian women and men work in the Center to share their professional knowledge and expertise for the improvement of the community as a whole. With the establishment of a community newsletter and information hotline, for the first time it is possible for Iranians to receive referrals and information from a single source, in Farsi.

The Center is a result of the community understanding of participatory action, mutual empowerment and shared understanding of the role of community activists and leaders. This assumes that leaders are multiple, not embodied in the figure of a single person. It also assumes that leaders work for the benefit of the community at large instead of self-interest.

Iranian public benefits recipients who responded to the questionnaire confirmed that they are very active. For example, 48% of the respondents stated that they are involved in a religious organization, 36% in a community organization, 12% in neighborhood organizations, and 12% in school or parent organizations. Over 15% reported that they were registered to vote. When asked what prevented them from voting all the time they were most likely to say that the English ballot was too difficult and that they did not understand the voting process. There were 4,599 registered voters born in Iran in the county in the year 2000. In addition, the number of actual voters increased four-fold between 1990 and 2000, from 312 to 1,215.

Other evidence also indicates that Iranians in Santa Clara County are very active. For example, they sponsored the “Spring Celebration along the Silk Road” on March 2,1997 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. They received Proclamations from Governor Wilson and the Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County on March 18, 1997 for Iranian Heritage Day. They organize annual Iranian arts and cultural events. The Iranian Federated Women’s Club and Payvand Cultural School also organize cultural and art events.

The Iranian Federated Women’s Club is a local nonprofit educational and service organization that promotes and introduces the Iranian community to the Bay Area. Their local charitable endeavors include scholarships and projects such as Braille and audio books for the blind, the El Camino Bell Project of California, and service to the elderly. The Iranian Federated Women’s Club has adopted Payvand, an Iranian Cultural School located at De Anza College that fosters an interest in Iranian culture by teaching Iranian heritage, traditions and language.

Iranians also have the Yaraneh Resource and Support Network for Iranian Families and Communities, a nonprofit organization with the goal of helping Iranian and other immigrants coming from the Middle East. Professionals of Iranian origin established the Society of Iranian Professionals and the Persian Center based in Santa Clara.

In addition, the Niosha Dance Academy is attracting and training many young Iranian Americans in traditional and modern dance and music. As traditional Persian Music becomes more popular in the U.S. among Americans and Iranian Americans, Nejadís Music Academy in Campbell has become a very popular and important center for a number of both Americans and Iranian American students of all ages. SIREN (Services Immigrant Right and Education Network) is a nonprofit organization in Santa Clara County that provides free citizenship services, an Immigrant Q&A hotline, and Information and Referral in Farsi.