By Nazenin Ansari
In May 1875, Mirza Mohammad Ali Mahalati became the first Iranian to visit the U.S. and acquire American citizenship. Known as Hajj Sayyah for his tireless traveling (he spent 18 years touring Central Asia, Europe and America), Hajj Sayyah stayed for 10 years in the U.S., and became deeply impressed by U.S. President Ulysses Grant, who he met several times. Grant had been instrumental in introducing the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted African-American men the right to vote. On his return to Iran, Hajj Sayyah became a vocal advocate of political reform and human rights, and played an active behind-the-scenes role in the Constitutional Revolution, which heralded a new Iranian socio-political order.
Since Hajj Sayyah’s trailblazing experiences in the late 19th century, generations of men and women of Iranian heritage have secured U.S. citizenship – and some have gone on to pursue public service careers in the United States. On November 13, 2016, four Iranian-American women – all with positions at the White House or the State Department – took center stage at the Iranian American Women’s Foundation leadership conference in Washington D.C.
The event happened days after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential elections. The electoral outcome meant that two of the speakers, Ferial Govashiri and Pantea Faed, would be leaving their White House jobs in January 2017. The mood on stage could have been somber. Instead, these women gave a sense that they would continue to strive for progress through public service.
“There is a bigger calling there: that you have to work for the greater good of the country, and if you are not there, who is going to be there to help?” said Ferial. “If our group of women weren’t in the White House at the time that we were, then Nowruz parties wouldn’t have happened, and the rest of the White House wouldn’t have seen our culture.”
Profiles of three speakers:
Sahar Nowrouzzadeh comes from a family consisting primarily of doctors, scientists and engineers. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1970s so that her father could complete his medical residency. He passed away when Sahar was only a few years old. Her mother raised Sahar and her two siblings single-handedly, working multiple jobs to send them to private schools and provide them with the best possible education.
Sahar is the first Iranian-American in history to serve as a Director for Iran on the National Security Council (NSC). While her primary duty is covering the Iran Portfolio on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, she is also the first Iranian-American to serve as a State Department Persian Language Spokesperson. At the UN General Assembly in New York earlier this year, she took on the duties previously carried out by the formidable Alan Eyre, whose mastery of Persian language and poetry has impressed every Iranian he has ever come across, and who has regularly appeared on Persian language news outlets and social media.
In her 12 years of public service since joining the U.S. government in 2005, Sahar has received numerous awards from a variety of agencies including the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Counterproliferation Center, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She was part of the U.S. presidential team responsible for supporting the nuclear negotiations with Iran: “I think it’s hard for those of us who were so involved in it to zoom out completely to see where we fit in as individuals, but I think we all do share the feeling that what was achieved was historic. While you may not have a sense of your individual role, you feel the weight of tremendous responsibility in serving the greater good.”
Ferial Govashiri has served as personal aide to President Barack Obama since 2014. She controls the daily information flow in and out of the Oval Office, and manages high-level daily meetings, including those involving heads of state. Her special place as a member of the White House staff was highlighted when the President expressed how “incredibly proud and protective” he was of her in a personal video message sent on the occasion of her recent wedding.
Ferial’s journey to the White House began in the summer of 2007 when she worked on then Senator Barack Obama’s election campaign. For the first five years of the Obama Administration, Ferial served on the National Security Council (NSC) – first as a Senior Advisor to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, then as Senior Advisor to the Chief of Staff and the Director of Visits at the NSC.
Ferial is a second-generation Iranian. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. after her father completed his medical studies in Iran. Mr. Govashiri had to retrain in the U.S. to be able to practice there. “I’ve watched my parents work very hard,” explains Ferial. “I didn’t think there was another way.”
The constant presence of her grandmother was a powerful connection to her Iranian roots. “I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where my grandma was babysitting me and cooking dinner every night. Every day, we would sit and watch ‘Days of Our Lives,’ and I would translate the show for her. My whole life has been going to school and being an American. When I come home, the language is Farsi, and we eat Persian food and listen to Persian music.”
Pantea Faed serves as Deputy Associate Director of the Social Office inside the White House. As part of a team of four women, she works closely with the First Lady, Michelle Obama, and her Social Secretary to coordinate White House events. These range from cultural celebrations and educational programming to state dinners and press conferences.
Pantea was the engine behind the First Lady’s very first Nowruz reception. The event brought hundreds of Iranian-Americans to the White House, not to mention Afghans, Tajiks, and Azeris. In her welcome speech, Mrs. Obama paid a special tribute to Pantea and her contribution to life at the White House.
“I want to thank and recognize someone special on my staff, Pantea Faed,” said the First Lady. “She has really put a lot of time and love and energy into making this event possible. I am so proud of Pantea. She has just grown here in the White House. And she is sharp and on top of things. She runs our lives – and she does it with grace. We all are proud of her here at the White House.”
Pantea was born and raised in California. Her father encouraged her to apply for an internship at the White House. Within months of completing an online application, she was invited to submit to a formal telephone interview and started work as a White House intern.
“It was really my father who encouraged me to put my first foot forward and apply,” she recalls. “I had toyed with the idea but didn’t think that it would happen. I was very lucky to be accepted.”