© 2020 Mohammad Modarres  | All photos by R. Lash at TED

  • Mohammad Modarres


In the mid-1970s, nearly 45,000 Iranians were studying in the USA. Iran’s economic influence and political relationship with the USA had created an educational bridge between the two nations. My parents arrived as students during this period — unbeknownst to each other. My father, a recent high school graduate, flew to Michigan with his sole American contact being the phone number of a distant family friend. But he lost this number in transit. The next day he began looking for work and, over the next three years, he supported himself with jobs in restaurants while he also learned English and studied to become an architect. My mother, accompanied by her older siblings, enrolled in high school in Arkansas.


Their youth was cut short when the 1979 Islamic Revolution happened in Iran. Sanctions on Iran meant that financial support from their parents ended. My mother made ends meet by selling her paintings. Owing to the hostage crisis, open bigotry became common across rural America. My father was forced out of college. He never became an architect, but years later he did complete a film degree. My mother was consistently harassed by her classmates. Her hijab would be yanked as she would walk on campus. Her locker was routinely trashed and her belongings stolen. Nonetheless, after the revolution in Iran, there was no question that America had become their new home.


My parents met in Kansas. Each of them believed strongly in the values of their faith, in family, and in art. My mom is an exceptional painter and my dad a technical drawer. They also shared the experience of being, in a sense, stranded Iranians who were not yet fully Americans. Over the next 20 years, as the Mohammad's became Mo’s and the Sepideh’s became Sepi’s, my parents proudly kept their identities and worked in any capacity they could. I grew up in a household that followed four principles: always do what is right; be true to yourself; be a voice for the voiceless; and don’t forget to draw every day. This code was passed down to my sister and me.


In the mid-1990s, as luck would have it, my father’s film degree became useful. He started a production company that produced children’s educational content for the Iranian diaspora. He never became an architect, but he did help build the imaginations of thousands of Iranian children around the world and created a community by using the tools provided to him. He was the first scrappy entrepreneur I knew.


The best part for me was that as an 8-year-old, I watched my father’s office transform into a creative space where puppets were being filmed for well-known shows. My dad’s work filled a void in our community. Growing up Iranian meant seeing an absence of fair representation in the media. My father was solving that problem and I was his first admirer. With my mother now a pre-kindergarten teacher, they had both found their calling in education — a fitting field considering our surname “Modarres” means teacher.


Unfortunately, the aftermath of 9/11 became another hostage crisis, this time for my sister and me. A series of eerily familiar events happened in our hometown in New Jersey including my mother being punched in a local mall and I was physically beaten just outside of my high school grounds. When neighborhood kids dumped blue paint on our front door, my parents told me to “let it stay.” It was only years later that I realized seeing the paint every day served as a constant reminder that hate exists and we must persist no matter what.

And my sister and I did.


What should have provoked me, motivated me. And I wanted to conquer every test. As the son of artists, I used my pen and pastels to speak out against the growing bigotry against Muslims, LGBTQIA+, African Americans, and other marginalized communities. Yet even as my 9/11 illustration was published in the New York Times and donated to the 9/11 Museum, I was still confronted with inappropriate language and threats.


Thanks to resilient parents who had faced this climate before, my sister and I rose above the hate. And my parents passed on their form of the American dream — rooted in helping people — to their children. My sister and I both studied public health and pursued different careers in healthcare. She spent years in Sierra Leone working on the Ebola outbreak. I co-founded a biotechnology company that is creating therapeutics for people with autoimmune disorders. We both continue to use art, although less frequently, as a medium to educate.


The 2016 political cycle brought around another wave of hate speech and violence against the most vulnerable communities in America. The days of doing nothing are over. Using tools familiar to me, I produced products and programs that promote unity and dialogue across different communities. This led me to develop the first-ever “Interfaith Meat” that is Halal and Kosher at the same time. It has been used to bring Muslim and Jewish communities together at “Shabbat Salaam” interfaith dinners, to celebrate their commonalities, and to openly speak about how we can tackle this rise in bigotry together. A symbol of inclusivity, it has naturally developed diverse spaces made up of people willing to listen to differing perspectives. From San Francisco to New York’s Times Square, the dinner series celebrates our nation’s greatest strength — unity in diversity. Inshallah, it will continue to nourish the acceptance of nuance and the appreciation of diversity. 


My experience as the child of immigrants means that the American dream is alive and well in my home and my family’s home. I am proud of how our family’s identity embraces this country’s highest aspirations. While many immigrant communities have faced a backlash — Jews historically and Muslims today — our struggle to be part of a united America is one we will continue to champion. 


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Mohammad Modarres is a TED Resident and the founder of Abe's Eats.