Accepted but not embraced. A new home chosen with limited control. Refugees have to make a difficult choice: escaping their past for an uncertain future. For Mia Manzari (who asked to not use her real name) making a new life in Las Vegas meant leaving her family and financial security behind for her faith.
Born in Kerman, Iran, Manzari and her three sisters were raised in the Islamic faith. She never considered religion to be a choice. But in 2006, when she moved to Shiraz in southwest Iran to pursue electrical engineering at Shiraz University, curiosity got the best of her.
“[At] university, you have more access to information, and you can research and study,” she says. “I was far from my family. … It was a good opportunity for me to learn and decide what I want to be.”
While in school, she became involved with the Seventh-day Adventists, a Protestant Christian denomination. Drawn to the faith through investigation, she decided to dedicate herself fully.
In 2012, Manzari and her husband traveled to Armenia on a 21-day visa with their two friends to be baptized. It was during that trip that their place of worship in Shiraz was raided on the Sabbath. Members and nonmembers—some who were there to observe for the first time—were arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, a branch of the Iranian armed forces known as the Sepah whose role is to protect the Islamic system from foreign interference.
Islamic principals guide Iranian government policy, and even though its constitution recognizes minority religions such as Judaism and Christianity and their practices, the government’s actions often contradict constitutional language.
Manzari and her husband later learned the government swept the Shiraz church leader’s home and obtained information about its members. “If we went back [to Iran], we were going to get arrested,” she says. After the request for an extended visa in Armenia was rejected, she and the group traveled by bus through Georgia to Turkey to buy time in order to decide whether or not to return home.
“It was hard to make the right decision, because if we went back home, we didn’t know how it was going to be, how they were going to treat us,” she says. “We would have to spend the rest of our lives in jail, or we would have to lie and say we are not going to be Christian again and [convert] to Islam.”
Manzari and her husband claimed refugee status in Turkey in 2013, where they stayed for a year and a half through the vetting and relocation process.
In 2014, they touched down at McCarran International Airport and spent their first night in Las Vegas at Palace Station as Catholic Charities prepared their home. A nonprofit, Catholic Charities is federally recognized as Nevada’s refugee office overseeing resettlement. It accepted 3,000 refugees in 2016.
Manzari found a position packing vitamins for ProCaps Laboratories through a workforce agency. Her managers took notice of her work ethic and offered her a full-time, in-house position. But when she mentioned her I-94 visa, which allows for employment anywhere in the United States, on her résumé, the company said they could not hire her.
“It doesn’t matter how hard it is going to be finacially [here], my spirit is going to grow.”
According to Manzari, her counselor at Catholic Charities printed documents to inform the employer of her work eligibility, but it didn’t make a difference. “I felt so bad,” she says. “I was like, ‘OK, we are not going to be happy in this country.’”
She later found work—a series of odd jobs, including positions at White Castle and The Cosmopolitan—but has since been unemployed. After sending out more than 100 résumés in her field of study, she says she’s only received about 10 interviews. “It is hard to find a job. It’s hard to prove yourself. They always look at you or judge you as an immigrant, as a person who came here without any knowledge,” she says.
“I’d probably have a good life financially [in Iran]. I’d probably be an engineer and living in my country by my family and my friends. … It doesn’t matter how hard it is going to be financially [here], my spirit is going to grow.”
To find employment, Manzari is trying to enroll in a master’s program for engineering at UNLV. She is hoping to be accepted into the student-teacher work program so she can avoid taking out loans. Her second option? Become a truck driver.
“I was telling my husband I want to be a truck driver for a while. I don’t want to be around people, especially with what’s happening now,” she says, laughing, referring to the current administration’s intent to suspend refugee immigration. “When people ask, ‘Where are you from?’ it’s hard to say ‘I’m from Iran—I’m Persian,’” Manzari says. She believes it was a good decision to become refugees, but she misses the closeness of community and kinship in her home country.
Manzari compares the way people in Iran disagree with their government to the way some U.S. citizens disagree with their own. “The government is totally separate from the people. I am one of the people of Iran … but the thing about my country is, nobody can say we disagree.”