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Pain of discrimination stirs empathy and radio show

When Shahrokh Nikfar came to the United States at the age of 16, images he saw in Hollywood movies meant he expected to see cowboys with guns and trucks.

Because he went to Texas to attend high school, his expectation was confirmed, but he found it was not true everywhere.

Since then he has experienced how media shape prejudices directed at others and him.

Shahrokh Nikfar
Shahrokh Nikfar

His parents wanted him to study abroad to expand his understanding. He went earlier than expected, because the revolution started in Iran and they thought he would be safer in the United States.

"At first, I was popular at school. Girls thought I was cute. I had many friends. When the hostage crisis started, media demonized Iranians," he said. "Those who had loved me soon hated me."

One day he missed the bus and walked to school. Students passing him in a car spat on him, swearing at him for being Iranian. He walked half an hour with a caravan of cars yelling at and spitting on him.

After high school, he came to Spokane, where his sister was a doctor at the Veterans Hospital, earned a bachelor's degree Gonzaga University, and then earned another bachelor's and two master's degrees in business.

He worked in corporate management for a medical software company, the World Trade Center in Tacoma, a corporation in Southern California and a consulting firm.

"I was not happy working for corporations I was bothered by the corporate culture," Shahrokh said.

"The corporate world does not care about human beings. It's about profit and productivity. I was at odds with it."

Six years ago, he decided to volunteer. Elected to the Spokane Human Rights Commission, he learned of fair housing law, civil rights and nonprofits.

Shahrokh Nikfar2

Then he discovered the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, where he now works. The alliance seeks to end housing discrimination based on religion, nationality, gender, disability, race, color, familial status, sexual orientation and marital status.

"I had experienced discrimination when I tried to rent an apartment on the South Hill when I was a college student. I went to a new complex with a banner announcing specials for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. It said, ÔCome on in,' so I went in.

"The manager handed an application to a Caucasian woman. I said I was interested in renting an apartment. The woman manager said nothing was available. I said, ÔYou have clearly just opened. The banner says to come in. There are no cars in the parking lot.'"

She told him to "get out."

Shahrokh knew he had experienced discrimination because of his accent and national origin.

"I knew I could bury it or be angry," he said. "I buried it."

With the Fair Housing Alliance, he felt he could make a difference for others. He started to volunteer and advocate for others who experience discrimination.

"I want to turn pain into hope, knowing no one needs to accept discrimination," he said.

The alliance offered him a part-time job on a six-month project. When he finished it in three months, they created a position for him.

Shahrokh is happy to work with people who share his concerns and accept him. He feels at home.

With the Fair Housing Alliance, he educates property managers and landlords on the law. Sometimes an audience is hostile when he discusses discrimination.

At one session, a woman landlord said, "I don't want to rent to people from the Middle East. They are all terrorists."

Shahrokh was shocked. The memory of his experience of discrimination in searching for an apartment came to the surface. He shared the story.

Shahrokh at KYRS

"Just because I am from the Middle East does not mean I'm a terrorist," he asserted. "There are 1.5 million Iranians in the United States, and none has done an act of terror. My sister has been here as a doctor for 25 years. One brother is an architect and another is a college professor. We give to the community. To hear that you would not rent to me hurts me."

Five minutes later, she came to Shahrokh with tears in her eyes and hugged him, saying: "I didn't realize what I was doing. What I just did was what was done to my Irish parents when they came. No one wanted to rent to them. I'm so sorry."

"I knew I made a difference," Shahrokh said. "I had opened her up, so she would no longer be afraid and would share her awakening with others."

Shahrokh's faith background influences his values and his life.

He was born Muslim, because 95 percent of Iranians are Shia Muslim. Islam in Iran differs from Arab countries.

"Nationalism and our Persian culture are first, not religion. Our culture goes back 7,000 years. Often Islam and Persian culture, based on Zoroastrianism, are at odds," he said.

"Islam was forced on Iran. Those who did not convert were massacred," he said. "Over 1,400 years, however, Iran has changed its practice of Islam."

Shahrokh went to a mosque only once. When he was 10, he heard about a mosque event with "yummy cream puffs and pastries."

"Islam in Iran is more a spiritual than a religious experience," he said. "Few pray five times a day. Prayer is more about meditation than submission. It's about connecting ourselves with God. In Ramadan, my family ate less and shared food with the poor.

"Zoroastrianism is the basis of most religions, introducing ideas of good and evil, heaven and hell. Most religions borrow from each other," Shahrokh said.

In Iran, Islam and Persian culture come into balance, he said.

"Any religion has fundamentalists who want the destruction of the earth before the Messiah comes," he said. "Most people of faith, however are not like that."

Shahrokh did not practice Islam, because as a child he asked questions about everything that did not make sense. At eight, he asked the religion teacher what Heaven looked like. The teacher said it was like a table full of food that never ended with seven beautiful women serving the food.

"I asked if a woman died and went to heaven if there would be the same feast with good looking men," Shahrokh said.

The teacher told him to leave.

Shahrokh believes terrorism arises from the desperation of people who have suffered so much pain that they have lost hope.

"To prevent terrorism, we need to stop our terrorism," said Shahrokh, a U.S. citizen who also sees himself as a citizen of the world.

In his desire to educate Americans about the beauty of Persian culture, Shahrokh began volunteering with KYRS Thin-Air Radio, 92.3 FM, which is also in the Community Building with the Fair Housing Alliance.

"Media can have much influence. In World War II, Nazis used the same strategies with media that government and corporations use with media today," he said.

Shahrokh said media can inspire positive action or brainwash people to commit atrocities, as Nazis did to demonize Jews before committing atrocities against them in the Holocaust.

Since Sept. 11, he said, media has demonized people from the Middle East, including Iranians, even though those involved were Saudi Arabians. The picture was so contrary to what he knew about Iranians and his culture.

Upset by what media conveyed about people from the Middle East, especially Iranians, he decided to do something.

Former United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan once said: "If you know their story, you won't hate them," Shahrokh quoted.

"So I decided I would tell stories of Iranians to counteract the false images and to humanize Iranians," he said.

Shahrokh started The Persian Hour radio show on KYRS from noon to 1 p.m., Saturdays.

He shares stories of growing up in Iran, plays Persian music, interviews people and offers Persian recipes.

"The best way to develop relationships is by breaking bread," he said, noting that several people have tried the recipes.

"It's heartwarming to have an effect on people's thinking," he said. "I feel compelled to do the show to counteract negativity."

When he works out in a gym, dozens of TV shows on different stations are about hate and fear.

"I can't give up. I will continue on this one tiny radio station to do this one tiny show," said Shahrokh, who hopes to reach people filled with hate and fear, so they might begin to ask questions.

"If I can make someone wonder and ask questions, then I help that person," he said.

He also hopes Iranians who are afraid will follow him in identifying themselves as Iranians.

"Iranian Persian culture and history are beautiful, filled with compassion, love and poetry, but not flawless. I am willing to say how proud I am to be an Iranian. If I can do it, other Iranians can, too," he said. "I want to encourage other Iranians to be agents of change, too."

Shahrokh said there are about 350 Iranians in Spokane, so his audience is 99 percent Americans.

Historically, people living in ongoing fear may eventually commit atrocities and justify them, as Nazis did against Jews, as Jews do against Palestinians and as Arabs do against Jews, he pointed out.

"We need to stop the cycle," he said, "and do what is right."

Because corporations own most media, he knows media and governments benefit corporations.

"That has nothing to do with humanity. It's about profits and productivity," he said. "How can we expect media as tools of corporations to tell us the truth?"

Shahrokh believes everyone needs to take responsibility.

"I can blame government and corporations and media, but if I say it's not my fault, there is nothing I can do until they change.

"That's wrong, because we can make change by our personal choices, even simple choices such as starting an organic community garden," he said.

As KYRS gains in audience, he believes other media will begin to offer shows about human issues so they won't lose their audiences.

"For them, it's about money," he said, "Once small media are successful, other media follow."

Shahrokh quoted Mahatma Gandhi's challenge for people to "be the change they want to see."

"It starts with us making a choice. I saw others caring and was inspired. Now I pass it on. I may affect 10 other people to change and pass it on.

"When we stop the pain and fear in us or learn to deal with our pain in a positive way, we become positive. Positive energy attracts people with positive energy, and soon we are surrounded with people full of positive energy," he said. "Then every day is an adventure."

For information, call 325-2665 or email


Copyright The Fig Tree © January 2008 - By Mary Stamp