From Iranian refugee to Navy linguist: LCDR Ahrar’s realization of the American Dream

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Zachary Foster
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing, Public Affairs

Through trial and tribulation, he resisted the hand dealt to him by life and forged his own path to success and fulfillment.

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Shahram Sean Ahrar’s journey started in the city of Shiraz located in Southeastern Iran. Ahrar lived with his father, mother and sister and spent his days either in the classroom or on the wrestling mat.

During Ahrar’s teenage years, the peaceful standard of living he was accustomed to was launched into disarray.

In 1980, Iran and Iraq engaged in a violent war, rampaging through both country’s cities and devastating the lives of thousands.

The war consumed more of the two nations everyday. In response, the Iranian Army went door to door forcing young men from their families to fuel their efforts.

Ahrar was faced with a life-altering decision at the age of 16. He could stay with his family and risk being drafted into the armed conflict, or he could flee and start his life over.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran is a dictatorship,” Ahrar said. “There was a war going on between Iran and Iraq at the time and the Revolutionary Guard Corps was enlisting and drafting teenagers into the military force. It was something that I did not believe in and did not want to do. The decision was clear; I needed to leave.”

The Iranian revolutionaries took control of the American Embassy at the beginning of the Iraq-Iran War and captured 52 hostages, holding them prisoner for 444 days. This permanently scarred diplomatic relations between the two countries.

As a result of the chaos that pursued, Ahrar and his mother fled to the nearest embassy in Turkey to plead for a student visa. Luckily, his uncle lived in America and needed little convincing to take in the young refugee.

“I remember the conversation that my dad had with my uncle on the phone when the decision was being made,” Ahrar said. “He told him this, ‘He's a very low maintenance kid. He's very disciplined. You don't have to do much with him. He will keep his nose in the books.’”

Ahrar quickly obtained all the required documentation to live with his uncle. All he needed was one signature from the attendant.

Thousands of refugees flooded the American embassy in Istanbul daily and attendants were given strict orders to limit applications. Ahrar’s fear and vulnerability was shared with the others attempting to escape war. If Ahrar’s reasoning to go to America did not stand out in the eyes of the attendants, he would be denied.

Ahrar reached the front of the line after hours of waiting. His paperwork had been cleared, but he was met with a single question to prove his worth.

“What guarantee do you give me that if I give you this visa and you go to America, you won’t stay over there?”

Taking a minute to decide how to respond to the attendant, Ahrar chose his words carefully as this interaction would decide the fate of his life.

“For me to sit here tell you 10 years in the future I will for sure come back to Iran after I finish my studies, I would be lying to you, and I'm not here to lie to you today,” Ahrar responded. “I'm here to apply for a student visa.”

Without hesitation, the attendant stamped his paperwork.

“If you had said anything except what you just told me right now, I would have denied your visa on the spot,” the attendant said. “But the honesty of a 16-year-old is what's making me give you this visa. Have a good day and study hard.”

Within a month, Ahrar was off to live with his uncle in Joplin, Missouri, bringing his dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen with him. He said goodbye to his family, knowing the moment he left, he most likely would never see his home again.

“I’m a father now to an amazing 15-year-old son,” Ahrar said. “It wasn’t until I had him that I understood just how hard of a decision that must have been [for my family].”

Ahrar made it to the United States and was able to continue his studies without fear. However, he was met with a problem. He did not speak English.

According to Ahrar, growing up in Iran instilled a diverse mindset in its citizens. It was encouraged that residents learn multiple languages like Persian Farsi and Afghan Dari. Unfortunately for Ahrar, Western influence had fled the country with the American embassy taking their language with them.

One day, Ahrar’s uncle greeted him with a green dictionary titled, “Farsi to English,” and came with a new household rule: all conversations and questions needed to be translated into English to solicit a response.

Ahrar relentlessly studied English in addition to his high school curriculum with the hopes of passing his classes. The cycle of hearing, translating, understanding and formulating a response burdened his life for months.

Ahrar learned the English language throughout his younger years and built a life for himself in America. He excelled academically and athletically in high school, which provided him the foundation for success in college. He continued competing in wrestling while preparing to graduate with a Bachelors of Art in English Literature at the Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Despite the positive trajectory of his journey, Ahrar was met with a complication. His visa was only valid during his time as a student, and with his graduation date quickly approaching he needed to take immediate measures to remain in the country.

“When I was preparing to graduate, I received two letters from the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” Ahrar said. “The first said, ‘It’s been nice having you!’ and the second said, ‘Alright, time for you to leave.’”

Ahrar knew if he returned home to Iran he would be prosecuted by an unjust system. With time running out, Ahrar’s roommate took him to the local INS office to make a case for U.S. citizenship.

To Ahar’s surprise, the meeting went well. He sat with an INS agent and described his situation. He described the war in Iran, the forced enlistments and the fear his return would lead to an unfavorable punishment.

“ [The INS] took my friend and I into a separate room for some questions,” Ahrar said. “They asked if he could vouch for me and if I had $75 available. Of course, we said yes, and by the end of the day I had a temporary work visa and a promise that they would look into my situation. About a week prior to my graduation, I received my green card and was allowed to stay.”

With his safety secured, Ahrar looked toward the future. He loved his time learning, wrestling and building relationships in college. His experience led to a lifelong passion for teaching and coaching.

For the next 30 years, the young refugee transformed into the well respected Coach Ahrar. He made a comfortable life for himself and devoted his time to becoming a better coach and family man.

One day, a few months prior to his 40th birthday, Ahrar sat deep in thought at his desk. He contemplated if coaching was bringing him the fulfillment he wanted in life. He frequently thought about serving the country that had given him a newfound life, but had never committed himself to a career change.

He picked up the phone that day and called the U.S. Navy recruiting office. By the end of the year, he was off to Officer Training School commissioning as a human resources officer.

“I can tell you that my commission into the U.S. Navy was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Ahrar said. “You've got a 16-year-old kid coming from nothing, with nothing. As an immigrant, it's huge. It’s something that I’m incredibly proud of, and I hope one day my son goes to the U.S. Naval Academy to become an officer.”

Ahrar’s skills as a human resources officer and familiarity with both Middle Eastern culture and language was quickly put to use.

In 2021, President Joseph Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security to lead Operation Allies Welcome. The two-year-long mission served to relocate and temporarily home Afghan refugees within the U.S. in response to the Global War on Terror.

After a brief break in service, Ahrar was sprung into action at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, as a cultural liaison between the U.S. Army and refugee population.

Ahrar had a different perspective than most translators. He not only learned the language and culture firsthand, but he understood the fear of restarting life thousands of miles away from home.

“I remember talking with a group of Afghan women,” Ahrar said. “They told me they were journalism majors studying in Kabul before coming to Fort McCoy. I told them, ‘I know things are very uncertain right now. Believe me, you are in a good place. You will need to study hard, and work to learn the language. It's not going to be easy, but know that you're not the only one who has ever immigrated to this country and has gone through what you’re going to go through.’”

Today, Ahrar’s actions as a linguist during Operation Allies Welcome earned him a position at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, working alongside Navy Reserve Special Operations Command Central as a human resources officer and Iranian cultural specialist.

Ahrar’s story conveys persistence, resilience and hope. His realization of personal achievement and helping others find their own is a testament to the ever-present American Dream. From Shiraz to Wisconsin, being a refugee and immigrant, a college graduate, a coach, a husband and father, and a service member, Ahrar is a shining light for those who have dreams despite what life has given them.