Azadeh's Story

“People who were involved in the progressive movement in Iran were later put in jail or killed or assassinated so it would not have made sense to me to remain in the country.”

Azadeh Khalili was 16 when she left Iran and came to New York City. She had been involved in progressive political movements in Iran and her family decided it would be safer for her in the US.

Azadeh protested, but ultimately came to New York in the summer of 1978, alone, essentially an unaccompanied minor.

“…coming to the US was incredibly scary. I couldn’t speak English so I couldn’t understand the conversations around me… you know just as a teenager trying to figure out money, trying to figure out language, trying to figure out culture.”

A year after she came to the US, Azadeh’s visa was revoked. Even though she was taking English classes and going to school, her application to renew her visa was denied. She then received a letter of deportation.

“I mean I couldn’t go back home and also the European countries were not accepting any Iranian students so I just had to stay put in the US.”

Azadeh applied to The New School as an undocumented student. There, she studied social research and connected to progressive social movements in New York City.

Following graduation, however, Azadeh was turned away from job after job because of her status. In a twist of fate, she was hired by the NYC Human Rights Commission to work for the AIDS discrimination unit.

“The goal of the AIDS discrimination unit was to fight for the rights of people perceived to have AIDS or people who had AIDS… People with AIDS and HIV were being fired from their jobs, they were being kicked out of their homes, they couldn’t get health care. So we were resolving the majority of those cases through mediation and that was my job.”

While working there, Azadeh found out about amnesty or the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. This bill provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who could provide proof they had been living in the country before January 1st, 1982.

“I was scared walking in and they were so reassuring, so helpful and I went into the process very hopeless, not really believing that I could get legalization through the process…”

But she did. Azadeh says she was ecstatic when she got her green card, that so many possibilities opened up to her.

Since then, Azadeh has continued a path of public service. She was appointed by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’ as the deputy commissioner of immigrant affairs and then was the first Executive Director of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Commission on Gender Equality.



StoriesTammy Arnstein