The Amplify Project is a Cornell-founded project that aims to uplift the stories of marginalized individuals through publishing their stories.
Laila Rahbari is a sophomore in the ILR School with a minor in Near Eastern Studies. On campus, she works in the Einhorn Center as the Senior Manager of Student Programs and President of the Einhorn Leadership Council. Laila is fluent in Farsi, the official language of Iran, and has previously interned for Florida House Representative Anna Eskamani, one of only five Iranians who hold public office in the United States. Upon graduation, Laila plans on attending law school. On May 1, 2023, she sat down with me to discuss her heritage and experience as an Iranian-American woman.
Leaping across a crackling pit of fire.
Indulging in richly flavored ghormeh sabzi.
Celebrating the new year with items that all start with the letter S.
When I asked Laila Rahbari ‘25 about her favorite memories growing up as a second-generation Iranian-American, these were just some of the things that comprised her sense of home. Laila recalled family members jumping over a small bonfire to “cleanse” themselves during Chaharshanbe Suri in preparation for Nowruz, the Persian New Year. While Laila acknowledged the challenge of preserving her parents’ culture, she spoke fondly of her family’s Nowruz celebrations, where a table is set with items all beginning with the Persian letter S and symbolizing themes such as fertility and growth.
Laila’s connection to her heritage has also been shaped by the experiences of her parents, who fled Iran after the 1979 Revolution. Laila’s family identify as Persian-Iranians, the majority ethnic group in Iran, and trace their lineage to Muslim and Zoroastrianism (the ancient Iranian religion) traditions. In sharing her parents’ stories, Laila prefaced her privilege as a U.S. citizen and clarified her intention to not victimize her family or the Iranian people. But, from the stories about her father earning a computer science degree despite knowing little English upon immigrating to America, or her mother waiting tables at twelve years old to support her family, two things were clear: the resilience and ambition of both the Rahbari family and the Iranian people.
In interviewing Laila, I asked her to reflect on the role of the women in her life. While the media minimizes the perspectives of Iranian women, Laila spoke about a culture of strength that women at home and abroad have cultivated.
“Women from Iran are some of the strongest women who I have met. If you look at what is going on in the world, young girls are going to middle school and high school knowing that schools in the country are getting poisoned,” Laila told me, “But, they still choose to go anyway because they have a right to an education, and they want to be educated and… have opportunities for themselves.”
This legacy of female strength runs deep in Laila’s veins — her maternal grandmother was the first woman in Iran to receive a Master of Fine Arts and painted for the country’s queen. Additionally, her paternal great-grandmother was the country’s first female radio host.
On campus, Laila has taken strides to learn about her culture and educate others. Last year, Laila wrote about the Eurocentric origins of the term “Middle East” for
the Women of MENA (Middle East North Africa) publication. As Laila explained, the term “Middle East” “indicates proximity to Europe” and generalizes countries that have distinct cultures and socio-political institutions. Her meticulously researched article epitomizes her commitment to understanding the complexities of her heritage, and she inspires everyone to think about the countries and citizens at the center of our discussions about the Near East.
Laila has also studied Iranian culture and language through her coursework, which has been particularly impactful. In addition to taking Farsi, Laila enrolled in Professor Iago Gocheleishvili’s HIST 3519: History of Iran Through Literature and Film class, where she learned about her history in an academic setting for the first time in her life:
“I came up to my professor after class one day and said ‘This is my fourteenth year of school, and I have never been able to take a class about my own history.’ To see other people not from the country, educating themselves…and also celebrating the history even through the tougher times was one of the most incredible experiences I have had in college.”
To close the interview, Laila discussed what she wished people knew about Iran.
She advised others to educate themselves through unbiased news outlets and consider individuals’ humanity beyond their nation’s politics.
“People must remember that those at the top are not representative of the people of the country. No matter how radical the government might be… people in other countries, especially the people of Iran, want the same things as we do. They want to be free and… have the right to their own education and to vote and all of those things. They are kind and open-minded, progressive people.”
I spotlighted Laila because of her ability to express herself and her kindness toward others. Not only is she an Iranian-American woman, but she is also a community leader and a close friend, whom I deeply admire. I thank her for telling her story and allowing me the opportunity to share it with the Cornell community. I would also like to extend my gratitude for Ainav Rabinowitz, the co-founder of Women of MENA, who advised me on how to best honor Laila’s distinctive experiences. Please check out Women of MENA to read more female-centered stories from the MENA region.
Saila Holsman is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Laila Rahbari can be reached at [email protected]. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.