2017 Winner

Anita Pourmoghaddam

San Jose, CA

The first time I moved houses, I moved across the world, past entire continents and oceans, to a small home in northside San Jose with my uncle. I was a nine month old Iranian immigrant. I grew to be a year and a half in that home. My parents, my six year old sister, and I all slept in one bedroom the entire time we stayed there. My father, still recovering from his cancer surgery, worked two jobs trying his best to move his family out of his brother’s house. He was a refugee; we all were. But we were seeking refuge because of my father. In Iran, he was in danger because his political activism against the dictator regime inhibited him from being employed and could potentially have lead to his imprisonment. Not only that, but he was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer. He knew that in order to survive, he had to leave. And so we did. It took an enormous strain on my family, but we eventually made it to California.

My father had worked enough days at the Burlington Coat Factory in northside San Jose to be able to pay rent at a small apartment in the more dangerous eastside of town. I was two years old, and we lived there for two more years.

When I was four years old, we moved once again, and this time it was to Section 8 housing apartments in southside San Jose. This is where I’ve stayed for the majority of my life; this is where I live today. Southside San Jose became my home, where danger, fear, and poverty were all that was associated with living in my neighborhood. It wasn’t uncommon to see police cars and ambulances parked in the middle of the road on the drive home. The elementary school I attended was three blocks down from our apartment. Since I was in kindergarten, it was instilled into me and my peers that red or blue clothing was completely off-limits. Back to school shopping was for every color clothing in the rainbow except red or blue. We could not risk any association with the gangs that were heavily prevalent in the neighborhood; we could only fear them.

I grew up on fear. I feared walking outside by myself, and so I rarely ever have in my life. As a young girl, the phone calls from my middle school about dangerous men who had attempted kidnapping girls walking to my school a few streets away from my home terrified me and my parents. I feared being kidnapped and raped. I feared wearing red because I did not want to put my safety at risk and be mistaken for a member of the Norteno gang by my apartment; they left their marks with spray paint on the dumpster across the street from my home, I noticed it everyday looking from my bedroom window. I feared looking out the window too long, thinking that maybe the gangsters would notice me looking at them. I feared doing the most basic things in life.

That fateful time when my father looked Death in the eyes and barely escaped, making us refugees from the country we were born in and from Death itself, ironically turned out to be the biggest blessing in my life.

Despite the constant fear that came with living in a dangerous and violent part of the city, I am extremely grateful for being able to grow up in San Jose. That major move from Iran to San Jose, California made all the difference because I simply would not have been presented half the opportunities I’ve had in the United States. If I were still in Iran today as an 18 year old woman, I wouldn’t have a father in my life. He would probably be dead by the time I could speak in sentences. I wouldn’t be able to voice my opinions in public, or even wear what I wanted to. I would not be the captain of my school’s varsity volleyball team--I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to join a school team; a school team doesn’t exist there. I would not be able to enroll at the number one public university in the world and to pursue my passion for science the way I did in the poor, gang-ridden streets of southside San Jose. I still faced many setbacks in my educational pursuits in San Jose because my family was low-income, but even so, I was able to achieve more here than I ever could in the city I was born in. That fateful time when my father looked Death in the eyes and barely escaped, making us refugees from the country we were born in and from Death itself, ironically turned out to be the biggest blessing in my life. That single move from Tehran, Iran to San Jose, California allowed me to do so much more in my adolescence as a girl and a student, and for that move I am forever grateful. I am thankful that, in this very moment, I can type out the story of how that one single move when I was nine months old changed my circumstances in ways that labelled me as   ‘socioeconomically disadvantaged’ in the United States, but in my eyes, made me extremely fortunate.

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