Ali Azizi

Harold C. Keller Public Service Leadership Award: 2007

Ali Azizi Acceptance Speech – June 21st, 2007

Mr. Buffington, Mr. Keller, and the National Forensic League, thank you for having granted me this award. I have never worked for an award and never asked for any reward, so I must say I am honored and humbled. I would like to thank my debate coach, Ms Karen Wilbanks. Ms Wilbanks, thank you for coaching and guiding me, and thank you for teaching me the meaning of commitment. I remember that Ms Wilbanks used to give us inspirational speeches. One time I remember that she told us this story that there was an animal farm and the animals wanted to have a party, so they went around to ask each other who would bring what to the party. The cow said she would give her milk, the chicken said she would give her eggs, and then it was the little piggy’s turn. The little piggy said that she would give pork. That according to Ms Wilbanks was the difference between contribution and commitment. I put this definition in the back of my mind and not a single day has gone by in the past thirteen years that I have not reminded myself of this story.

Young ladies and gentlemen, future leaders of America, it is a pleasure to be standing in front of you. I have a question for you. Who has been to Ellis Island? Who has seen the immigration museum? I remember on one of the placards it said: “they told me that the streets in America were paved with gold, but when I got to America I realized that the streets were not paved with gold. In fact, they were not paved at all. Moreover, I was expected to pave them.” I cannot think of a better quote to represent my experience and my feelings toward America as an immigrant.

I was fourteen when I first arrived in this country and I did not speak a single word of English. I remember as the plane from Frankfurt flew over Long Island I thought, ‘wow, what beautifully manicured rows of houses! How organized!’ I was excited to finally enter the richest and most technologically advanced country in our age. I thought I was entering the golden country. There were aspects of this country that I truly found to be golden. I remember as an eighth grader studying and being fascinated by democracy and the American constitution, the stories of the founding fathers, and the Federalist Papers. I thought the political institutions of this country were wonderful. I fell in love with the political institutions of this country and I still love them.

But even from a teenager’s view point it was apparent that not all was golden about this country. I remember on the first day of school I went to the bathroom. Two older boys were in the bathroom smoking something. Upon seeing them I walked back out of the bathroom. And believe me, they were not smoking cigarettes. They chased me to the locker areas, pinned me against the lockers and shouted … something! To this day, I do not know what they said. I would have liked to know. In order to understand what people around me were saying, I resorted to the dictionary. The dictionary became my best friend.

But the dictionary could not help me with cultural differences. I remember as a child growing up in Iran I was told to cross my legs fully, one knee on top of the other. My father had told me that it was impolite for a man to have his legs uncrossed. This is what I was used to. Two weeks after coming to the United States, I remember we had a class discussion and we all sat in our desks arranged in form of a circle. I crossed my legs by placing one knee on top of the other. The other kids immediately started laughing and one said: “Ali, you homo.” What were they telling me? I opened my dictionary and searched for “u-homo.” I assure you, there is no such word in the dictionary.

I learned that in order to survive I needed to integrate and pave my own road in this American land-escape. I learned the language, I learned the culture! I joined speech and debate and like you young ladies and gentlemen I sat in those chairs and debated various policies. Mr. Buffington of the National Forensic League asked me to talk about myself and about my experiences. I have never talked about myself in front of a crowd, so I had to write some notes down. My experiences are inseparable from the politics of the Middle East, inseparable from war, and inseparable from immigration.

I was born in the city of Abadan, near the Iraqi city of Basra in the ancient Fertile Crescent. My first vivid memories came at the age of four in the form of bombardments by Saddam Hussein’s army in what was to be the all but forgotten Iran-Iraq war. Saddam had the backing of the United States government. I remember hearing the red siren before every bombardment over and over again. Believe me, the red siren sends a cold chill down your spine; I hope you never have to hear it. I witnessed dead bodies on the side of the streets and burning and looting of homes and businesses. And although I never saw it, I heard many reports of women being raped. I don’t wish to ever see it again or have anyone else experience it.

I remember that after some of the bombings of Iranian cities, the state owned media would go to the sites of bombardments and film the damage to be broadcast on TV. A couple of times they showed pieces of the bombs used. On one of the remaining pieces of an exploded bomb was written: “Made in the USA.”

We moved to the city of Esfahan in the central part of the country. In the eighties, Iran was undergoing war, revolution, and political and economic isolation. Women were forced to wear the veil and many of their rights were taken away. The opposition and many educated and moneyed people escaped. The war with Iraq was escalating. The draft age had been lowered to 15 and there were rumors that it might be lowered to the age of 12. Rumors had it that they would use 15 and 12 year olds to walk across the mine fields. That was Iran’s technology to defend itself against the much better equipped and American backed army of Saddam Hussein.

That’s when my parents decided that enough was enough and that they would take me out of Iran. I was ten at the time. We went to Istanbul, Turkey where we discovered that having an Iranian passport was useless; no Western country would grant entry visas to Iranians. The only way out was to pay human smugglers and be smuggled across borders. So we did. Fortunately or unfortunately, we were caught and deported from France to Istanbul, where we landed in Turkish jail. That’s where I grew up very quickly as a ten year old. I will not go into the details, but I will say that I remember one evening the Turkish police trying to separate my sister and me from our mother. My sister and I held on to our mother and would not let go. The policemen gave in. They could not separate us. That is when I realized that because of whom I was and where I was from and because Iran was undergoing social, economic, and political upheaval, I would be discriminated against. No country wanted us. But one country listened to us, decided that we had a good case and gave us the chance to start over again. That was the United States. We were granted legal immigration status to move here from Germany where we were staying as refugees.

Because of these experiences I developed a complex, perhaps a psychiatric complex. I came to believe that what I had gone through was because of centuries of bad decisions made by the leaders in the Middle East, and by Western powers. I believed in going back to the Middle East and Central Asia region and making some good decisions that would hopefully start a snow ball effect of better decisions to be made in the future. I believed in rebuilding the Middle East and Central Asia region. That is why I joined the Peace Corps and worked as a public health volunteer in Turkmenistan and that is why after the defeat of the Taliban I joined the International Medical Corps based in Los Angeles and went to Afghanistan.

Let me explain to you my first day when I landed in Kabul, just so that you may get a sense for what 23 years of war can do to a nation. I was on one of the very first UN flights into Kabul, Afghanistan in January 2002. When the airplane landed, I realized that there were pieces of burnt airplanes and human flesh spread all over the taxi way of the airport. The terminal did not have any glass left on it and the roof was caved in. Contrary to popular belief, Kabul is a very cold and snowy place in winter. The snowy wind would enter the terminal through one end and make a hissing noise as it exited the other end. As the taxi that I took drove from the airport into town, I realized there were many pot holes in the asphalt of the road. These holes had been created as a result of bombs hitting the asphalt. Half of the city lay in ruins and in the other half there was not a single building that was not bullet ridden or had unbroken glass on its windows. There was no electricity in Kabul, no internet, and no phones!

I was asked by the director of the International Medical Corps to conduct a health needs assessment of the school of nursing and midwifery in Kabul. I accepted. It did not take a genius to figure out that a whole new system for training nurses and midwives was needed. I then presented my findings to the new Minister of Health, Dr Soheila Sediq, a woman surgeon. I told her that Afghanistan’s system for training nurses and midwives needed to be completely changed. She turned to me and said: “Well, change it.” I told her that I did not have a proper clinical training and our organization lacked the funds to do this job. She in turn told me: “Listen son, either change it or go home, but do not waste my time!”

That was a wake up call! That’s when Mrs. Wilbank’s remarks about commitment versus contribution came to my mind. I decided to commit! I spent the next few months writing proposals and knocking on different donors’ doors. Finally we got some money to start the project. We along with financial assistance from the US government brought consultants from the Johns Hopkins University to design the midwifery program. The Aga Khan University took over the project and brought consultants to redesign the nursing program. It was while working with the physicians on this project that I got inspired to become a physician so that I could train doctors in poor developing countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, and Bolivia. So I applied to and got accepted to medical school.

I came back to the United States only to discover that this country was a completely different country than the one that I had left three years earlier for my Peace Corps assignment. In this new America I was a walking national security threat. I had difficulty traveling. It did not matter whether I travel domestically or internationally. Most times when I travel I have been taken for interviews. So often four letter “S” has been placed on my boarding pass and I am taken to a separate area for a full body and luggage search where they take out and examine my belongings underwear by underwear. I fit the profile. Every time I fly domestically I have to present my passport, which does not help me much, because I have visas from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, you name the dangerous country and chances are that I have been there. The passport control people seem very nervous and angry every time they see my passport. To make them angrier I decided to travel more.

But then there is hope. Judge Motz gives me hope, my patients, particularly my Iraq veteran patients give me hope, and the people I worked with in Afghanistan also give me hope. Let me tell you why these people give me hope.

On Monday June 11, 2007, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of the US federal appeals court wrote the majority opinion on the case of Ali Al Marri. Al Marri had been studying computer science in the US and since 2003 has been detained in a military prison with the suspicion that he may be a terrorist sleeper cell. Judge Motz wrote that no citizen or resident of the US may be kept in “indefinite military detention. This would have disastrous consequences for the constitution. We [the people] refuse to recognize a claim to power that would alter the constitutional foundations of our republic.”1 This statement gives me hope, because the judge is paving the road to a full realization of the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution of the United States.

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t get me wrong! I have traveled a lot in the Middle East and Central Asia. I have seen a lot of people who resent the United States and would like to inflict harm upon its people. I do believe that their anger at the US is mostly related to the US support for Israel, nevertheless they would like to harm this country. Our government has every right to go after these people and to protect itself and the people of the US, but let’s not forget who we are.

Future leaders of America, let me remind you of the words of our constitution. The 5th Amendment states “no person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime unless on a presentment of indictment of a grand jury…” And the 6th Amendment further states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy public trial by an impartial jury…” Nowhere in the constitution did I see the words that the government shall create a Guantanemo style prison and keep prisoners indefinitely without a charge just on a mere suspicion. Nowhere did I see that since the government cannot use torture to extort information from prisoners on the United States soil, it has permission to transfer people held on suspicion to countries like Tunisia, Ethiopia, Yemen, or East European countries where torture can be used. Let’s fight terrorism, but let’s not forget who we are and what our values and constitution are. I do not care which side of the political spectrum you stand on! Both sides have tried to limit civil liberties and take civil rights away in times of war. I do not take a political stand on this issue! Rather, I take a moral stand. Let’s recognize that even terrorists or suspected terrorists as despicable as they may be have rights under our constitution.

Another story of hope concerns one of my veteran patients. He was a young twenty three year old when I met him two years ago. He was a tough guy from small town Texas, who wore cowboy boots, tight jeans, and a cowboy hat, and drove a truck. He had joined the military at the age of 20 with the idealism to serve his country and spread democracy. When in Iraq on one patrolling mission he and his fellow soldiers in the tank had heard gun shots. He told me he could not tell where the gun shots were coming from. Like any soldier in that situation he started firing back in all directions. When the dust settled, he realized that he had just killed two four year old Iraqi girls.

The image of the kids’ bloody faces has haunted him ever since. He suffers from an extreme case of post traumatic stress disorder. He cannot sleep, he cannot hold a job, and he has let go of his wife and little daughter, because he cannot focus on them. What does the medical system do for him? Well we followed the protocol, we gave him anti-depressants, and gave him anti-psychotics, and prescribed group therapy sessions. None of this has truly worked. I told him to let go of the incident. I certainly could understand and condone his actions on the battlefield. After all, he was in a war zone, but he cannot forget or let go! He is human! He has a conscience. But he gave me hope because one time he turned to me and said “you know, going to Iraq I realized that Iraqis were human just like us: they ate and drank and lived in regular houses and wanted their children to go to school, and wanted to work. In fact most of them did not even care about politics, nor were most fundamentalist, they just wanted to live.” This young man, despite his experience and his current condition was paving roads and making in roads with the people of Iraq as he embraced their humanity. This young man’s realization that we all are human gave me hope.

I have yet another story of hope to tell. I realized through my work in Afghanistan that there was no dormitory for women from rural areas to come to Kabul to be educated as nurses and midwives and it was the rural areas that needed the largest number of nurses and midwives. I had the vision to build a dormitory for these women. I wrote a proposal. I went to donors and went to the Kabul city government to obtain land to build the dormitory. I remember waiting outside the city hall for many days in the cold snow. In the end the city wanted bribes from us, which we refused. Finally, the director of the hospital that was located across from the school agreed to donate the land behind the hospital for the building of the dormitory. The government of the USA gave the money and on my last day of work in Kabul, the Afghan Minister of Health and the American Ambassador signed the memorandum of understanding for the construction of the dormitory. What a great way to spend US tax payer dollars. I was happy and felt accomplished.

But as with anything in the Middle East and Central Asia, you never know what will happen next. Later when I was in the US in medical school, I found out that the land where we planned to build the dormitory was a mass grave of people who had been killed during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back in 1980s. I thought the dormitory would never be built. But just a few weeks ago, my boss from when I worked in Afghanistan, a Canadian lady, took a trip to Kabul. She came back to inform me that I would be proud to know that the dormitory was finally built on the grounds of the nursing school itself rather than the grounds of the hospital across from the school. And the nursing school had been recruiting women from rural areas with the permission of the village elders. We did it Ms Wilbanks! You taught me commitment and as a result of my commitment to this cause Afghanistan now has its first dormitory for women of rural areas to be trained as nurses and midwives.

Ladies and gentlemen, the image of the USA abroad has been tarnished, but by paving roads and building inroads with people of other nations we can change that image. I am glad that president Bush offered to double the amount spent on HIV/AIDS and other health conditions in Africa. This was a step in the right direction. In 2004 in Iran and in 2005 in Pakistan there were great earthquakes and a lot of people were affected. In 2004 there was also the tsunami. In Iran the US Red Cross took an active role and in Pakistan and in the case of the tsunami, the US military was quick to provide generous aid. The locals were pleased and chose to go to the American medical aid tents over the tents erected by other nations. On a National Public Radio interview an old very conservative religious man in Northern Pakistan was interviewed and he said: “if America would use its soldiers more in this way than for purposes of invasions and occupations it would totally change its image.” The voice of this man was broadcast all over the US. I believe in what he said.

By paving roads and making in-roads with people in need regardless of whether they are in this country or other countries we can improve this country’s image abroad. And by improving the image of the United States we may be able to achieve more peace and avert more terrorist actions than any of our bombs or invasions of other lands would ever achieve. Ladies and gentlemen, just like my Iraq veteran patient discovered, we all live in one world, one globe. The American dream of owning a house, a car, getting a decent education, and a decent job, and having the right to vote so that we can shape our future, is not just an American dream. No, it is a global dream. Every human being in this globe would like to own a house and a car and get a decent education, a job, and have the right to vote. So join the Peace Corps, the Ameri Corps, Teach for America, the Red Cross, and a myriad of local, national, international, humanitarian, and non-governmental organizations that are trying to pave roads with the people around the globe. And by paving roads and making in-roads, we will be helping the people of this country and all other countries get a little closer to actualizing that global dream.

1 Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” airing on June 12th 2007 on the National Public Radio.