New York has given me that Refuge
In this film, refugee South Asian LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Khan talks about her migration from Pakistan and her life in New York as a trans woman.
What is the role of homesickness for you? Is there something like homesickness? Would you say that New York City by now is your home? Can you tell me more about the Center that you’re heading at Columbia University and how maybe your refugee experience influences that as well?
The question of homesickness for me is palpable. I would say I have two homes. I’ve expressed this since last fall when I started a blog, and the name of the blog is “Tales of My Two Cities”. That captures obviously this feeling that I do consider Tehran and New York. If there are two cities in the world that I could consider home, it would be these two cities.
Tehran is now very complicated feeling for me because I lost it twice, I even lost it three times when I was sent to boarding school in the UK at the age of eight… I became distant from my language and the culture and the education. Then I lost it again in 1979 when the revolution happened, that I was not able to even go back to Iran. And then I lost that again in 2016 when I was expelled. I have bittersweet feelings about Tehran. It was as if I wanted to remake Tehran into my home…
I wanted to make Tehran my home again and I wasn’t allowed to… I felt that as soon as the doors of the prison closed. I realized that this country, regime, government, culture as it is, for better or worse, is telling me: No, you don’t fit here.
When we physically left the country in 2016 I lost [that hometown]. I am homesick because of Tehran, because it’s a place I want to share with my wife and with my daughter. And when she goes back, she now understands the context, but she has to experience the country of her birth without her father and that makes me sad.
In New York City I feel at home in a way an immigrant feels at home. In Iran, Tehran I could never feel like an immigrant… Now I feel like an immigrant here in New York. I feel like a very privileged immigrant because I have a job, I teach in a very eminent and wonderful university, and I have great friends and I have ability to do research and teach.
I didn’t leave New York because I disliked it. But I have complicated feelings about New York City. But I’m here. [I might say I am falling out of love with Tehran and falling in love with New York, a place that has accepted me.]
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.