Kian Tajbakhsh about his Double Refuge in New York City

In an interview with the We Refugees Archive Team, Iranian Political Exilee and Coordinator of the Committee on Forced Migration at Columbia University Kian Tajbakhsh talks about how New York City provided him refuge not once, but twice. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

How you made your way to New York City? What led you to New York City? When did you decide to take refuge there?

My name is Kian Tajbakhsh. I was born in Iran in 1962, and I spent my formative years as an adolescent after the age of eight or nine doing my schooling in the UK because my father was a civil servant, and he was traveling, and I was sent to boarding school in the UK. 1979 was the year I graduated from high school in the UK, and it was an impactful year because it was the year of the Iranian Revolution. My father was in exile because he had been a government civil servant. He had to leave Iran and stay out of Iran. My mother was living in New York City since the early seventies, and she became a U.S. citizen. She had to go to Europe to take care of other family members who had been exiled as a result of the 1979 revolution. She wasn’t in the United States to host me. As a result of the revolution my visa situation was put into crisis. I had been trapped, I had an Iranian passport, and I had a student visa until 1979. Only by dint of the fact that I enrolled at a university was I able to stay in the UK. By that time the UK government had decided to be much more restrictive with Iranian citizens. When my first degree finished, I did a B.A. and an M.A. at London University. But when that finished, they told me: The only way that you can stay in the UK is if you either enroll in another further postgraduate degree or if you get a job. And I was unable to get either. It was a combination of not wanting and not able to do either. So, I left UK. The only other alternative was to go back to Iran. There at the time in 1984 was in the middle of Iran-Iraq war and I would have been immediately drafted into the military and that was something I didn’t want to do.

I came to New York City in the fall of 1984. At that time, I was lucky to have a Green Card because my mother had emigrated and settled in New York. Because I was her first child, the immigration laws at that time allowed me to get a Green Card. After five years – in 1989 I became a naturalized U.S. citizen. That’s the back story about how I first came to New York. And in a way I did come here as the refugee essentially from the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war. It was the only place I could go.

After a several years of working in community activism and doing local government planning (I’m an urbanist and political scientist by training) working in low-income neighborhoods in New York City I decided to become an academic. I received my PhD from Columbia University in 1993 and then I got my first academic job at the New School for Social Research in 1996. But in 1997 after Iran began to open up after the election of President Mohammad Khatami, I decided I would try to go back to Iran and work and study and do research there.

[…] In 2007 I was arrested for promoting Western forms of democracy as the representative of the Open Society Institute (today called Open Society Foundations) which was founded by George Soros and was considered controversial and unacceptable in Iran. That was the accusation. In 2007 I was arrested along with two other people who were working for international organizations and U.S. organizations promoting human rights and democracy inside Iran.

I was held for five months in solitary confinement in Evin Prison in the wing for political prisoners, and I was then told that I should leave Iran, or I cannot do any more international work… It took a little time for me to find employment outside of Iran … I had been a high-profile political prisoner. I had been put on the list of supported U.S. citizens by the American government and by the White House and US Secretary of State. This marked me as someone who was supported by the U.S. government. And I’ve been called a traitor to my country. I did have two passports. I had a U.S. passport, and Iranian passport. Once I got out at the end of 2007, I got out of that prison on parole I realized I would not have a professional future in Iran… […]

In the summer of 2009, I was preparing with my wife and my daughter to leave Iran to take up a position at Columbia University, but the Green Movement protests [erupted]… […]  That summer I was arrested along with thousands of other people. And this time, rather than release me like in 2007…the government was very serious in prosecuting the case against any international organization and especially American organizations that were promoting Western forms of liberalism, human rights, and democracy.

They decided to try me in public. It’s fair to say this was the largest mass show trial since the Stalin show trials. I was put as Exhibit A on the stand. It was televised which is against Iranian law. I should not have been exposed before being convicted. But I was put on live television. […]

I had been put on trial to expose the connection between the reformists inside Iran with the organization that I worked for. And the reason for the George Soros connection is that I was the representative of the Open Society Foundation inside Iran. I was tried. The prosecution brought a case of capital punishment against me. They said: You would be executed for treason because you had admitted to working for what they believe was a hostile foreign government, even though I said, that the Open Society Institute was not a foreign government. But then my sentence was reduced to 15 years in prison for undermining state security and working with a hostile foreign country.

My situation was complicated at this point when the Obama White House and Hillary Clinton, who was the Secretary of State, publicly announced that I was being supported by the U.S. government as a U.S. citizen, they demanded my release and a fair trial and so forth.

But that complicated my situation greatly, although ultimately it saved me. It was complicated only because I was now being treated as an American citizen, but I was also an Iranian citizen. […]

From 2010 to 2016, for over six years, I was under house arrest, although most of that time I was allowed to leave the house, but I was only allowed to have a private life. I could meet only family, I could  walk my daughter to school. But I was not allowed to work. I was not allowed to do research, I was not allowed to meet non-family members and I was obviously not allowed to travel outside the country. In January 2016 I was released as part of the Iran nuclear deal. I was one of the five Iranian-Americans that were negotiated by the Obama administration as part of the 2016 deal, and then we left the country…

[…] Thanks to the extremely generous and warm and consistent support of the “Free Kian campaign” that was organized by friends of mine and colleagues, particularly a close friend of mine, Pamela Kilpadi, who was a former colleague at Open Society Institute, but also Columbia University offered me a temporary visiting professorship position at Columbia University.

We ended up in February of 2016 here in New York. As much as one can claim this is where I found a refuge… of course I spent many years in New York City before, I knew this city. I knew colleagues at the New School and at Columbia… Compared to probably 99% of other exiled scholars or certainly refugees, I had a much smoother landing. But the fact remains, that my wife had never lived outside of Iran, and neither had my daughter. We were told we were given four days to leave Iran after that negotiation in 2016…. We ended up here and that’s the story of how we found refuge here in New York City.

So ultimately, we could say you found refuge twice in New York?

I was about to say for the second time… You’re right. I can put it this way, for the second time.

Kian Tajbakhsh – Iranian Political Exilee and Coordinator of the Committee on Forced Migration, Columbia University. He was born in Iran and came to New York in the fall of 1984 for the first time. In around 2000-2001 he decided to move back to Iran and leave his academic position. In 2007 he was arrested for “promoting Western forms of democracy” for the first time and in the summer of 2009 a second time. After spending more than a year and half in Evin Prison, from 2010 to 2016 he remained under house arrest unable to work or leave the country. In February of 2016 he was released and returned to New York City with his family.

Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with Kian Tajbakhsh in the spring of 2022. The interview was edited for length and clarity.