OCCUPATION: Formerly Google, now a graduate student at stanford
Origin: Born and raised in germany, but iranian citizen
Years in the us: 7
Can you tell me your name and where you're originally from?
My name is Omid Scheybani, and I was born and raised in Germany, in Nuremberg. It's a town in the state of Bavaria. My parents, however, are both from Iran, so I'm a German-born Iranian, basically.
Tell me about your path from Germany to the States and eventually Silicon Valley.
I graduated 2009 after having studied in Germany and Argentina, and it was very clear for me that I wanted to go and live abroad. I ended up taking a job at a tech company in Dublin in Ireland. After two years working for them, I got the opportunity to transfer to the U.S. and be based out of Mountain View and live in San Francisco, which for me was a big dream, to live in the States. That was in 2011.
Walk me through your experience in Silicon Valley, where you've worked and what you're working on now.
When I came in 2011, I was already working for my company for two years. The following four years, until 2015, I stayed with that company and really lived the Silicon Valley life of living in the city, working down in the South Bay. San Francisco for me, or the Bay Area in general for me, is really the place where I grew up, where I matured, and where I became a young adult in many ways. I owe the city a lot. I feel very connected to San Francisco and overall to the entire Bay Area.
My path after those four years living up in the city was that I got to the point where I wanted to pursue a graduate degree, so I applied to Stanford Business School and got in. Starting 2015, I've started the MBA program and I've been living down in Palo Alto. I've seen both the San Francisco life as well as the South Bay life.
What's your experience generally been like as an immigrant in America? What has been really cool about it? What's been challenging?
The funny thing is I never ... Until two weeks ago, I never even thought of myself as an immigrant. It was a label that I never used. It wasn't part of my identity. I know I was not an American because I didn't have the citizenship, but I always saw myself as a fully contributing and highly integrated member of the society, paid my taxes, embraced American values, lived the American dream in many ways, and suddenly you get this stamp on you which says you're an immigrant. Not only that, you're also from one of those seven countries we just suddenly decided not to like.
That was never part of my identity. I never looked at myself that way. Now suddenly I feel society looks at me that way, or society projects these labels on me. That's a new reality I have to struggle with.
Until two weeks ago, I never even thought of myself as an immigrant. It was a label that I never used. It wasn't part of my identity. I know I was not an American because I didn't have the citizenship, but I always saw myself as a fully contributing and highly integrated member of the society, paid my taxes, embraced American values, lived the American dream in many ways, and suddenly you get this stamp on you which says you're an immigrant. Not only that, you're also from one of those seven countries we just suddenly decided not to like.
Yeah, let's talk about the last couple of weeks. What was your reaction and how did you feel when Trump's immigration policies were enacted a couple weeks ago? You felt personally affected.
Yeah. I literally woke up in a new world when I went to bed on a Thursday and woke up the next day on Friday and saw things unfolding in front of me as the executive order was signed and then instantly put into practice. I couldn't believe what was going on. I remember checking the news all the time trying to understand if I'm affected by that or not. The reason why I say that is because I've always felt very protected. I was always felt very much on the safe side of things with my dual citizenship on the one hand and also my U.S. green card on the other hand.
Over the course of that Friday and the Saturday that followed, it became more and more obvious that the way how this new order is being interpreted is in a way that includes dual citizens and green card holders. I remember, in complete disbelief, emailing my immigration lawyer with whom I worked in the past on getting my green card, and I was like, "I'm not affected by this, am I?" Within minutes, I got the response saying, "You better be staying in the country for now and you cancel all your travel plans because we don't know where this is going. As things look right now, you're affected too."
The way I felt was very humiliated, to be honest. Suddenly I felt degraded as a second-class person in this country. You need to know traveling for me is absolutely essential to my identity and my self-understanding. Having that being taken away from you and then really being imprisoned suddenly from one day to the next, knowing you cannot leave and return safely to this country which you call your home, that took some time to digest. It took me a few days.
Yeah, I can imagine. Can you walk us through, for those who don't quite understand, if you tried hypothetically to travel right now, what things do you take into consideration that someone like me wouldn't, especially now?
I want to say in the six years that I've been living in the U.S. I left the country 57 times and I returned 57 times. Every time I returned, I would hear, "Sir, welcome back home." It's just a sentence I'm not sure if I'm going to hear in that manner again. The way I think about travel now is what do I need to take with me. What kind of data points do I need to show potentially if I'm being pulled aside for secondary investigation to really prove that my life is here, my work is here, my friends are here?
Things I'm thinking about is documentation that I'm an enrolled student at Stanford, or potentially even my rent contract to show that I actually have a livelihood here. I've also been wondering ... I've been very vocal, so how do I deal with potentially having to go through my social media? I don't know the answers to that. I think much of that I need to figure out on the spot should that ever be a question.
I think I can offer a lot through the things I've learned and my experience, and I have to ask myself, "Does it make sense to offer that here in this country or maybe go somewhere else where I'm more welcomed? Why should I stay if people here don't want me?"
For now, what I'm thinking is, obviously, try to avoid high-risk countries which I normally used to travel to, try to bring as much documentation as possible, try not to stay out of the country for too long. I just don't want to be in a position where I'm being questioned for having been outside the country for a little too long and then potentially lose my status here in the country. I'm worried about these things, but much more than I ever was before.
How do friends and family factor into this?
The five days following the executive order, for five consecutive days I was under the impression I would also not be able to go see my parents, who live in Germany, but who also are dual citizens. Despite their valid 10-year tourist visa for the U.S., according to that interpretation, it was that they wouldn't be able to come and I wouldn't be able to leave and return.
That was a shock, I think, for all of our family, especially ... My brother also happens to live here in Silicon Valley. He's here on a visa, so it wasn't very clear if we as a family would anytime soon be reunited. I think now, as a few weeks have gone by, my brother and I, we both feel much more confident to go and travel. At the same time, we know there's a lot of uncertainty.
We hope our parents come. My mom wants to come in March or April. My parents are supposed to come for my graduation over the summer. I hope that the situation by then is stable enough for them to feel confident to embark on a trip like that. The worst thing that I could see happening is for me to be here waiting for them and then getting a call hearing that they've been returned or declined or turned down.
In the six years that I've been living in the U.S. I left the country 57 times and I returned 57 times. Every time I returned, I would hear, "Sir, welcome back home." It's just a sentence I'm not sure if I'm going to hear in that manner again.
You talked about feeling this different way, feeling this otherness that you didn't feel before these policies came into play. Do you feel like it's improving now or getting worse for you?
I think, to be very honest, I have received an incredible number of messages of support and love and just affirmation that I belong here, which has been fundamental in my ability to deal with what has been happening over the last few weeks. At the same time, though, I think ... I sometimes feel it is a bubble that we're in here, and I feel very protected. I have a cushion of support around me, but increasingly the question I have to ask myself is what am I doing here.
I know I'm on the coast and I know I'm somewhat protected, but I still live in a country where a large number of people don't want me here. People that support the ban, for example. I really start to think increasingly about what is keeping me here and what am I fighting for. I'm not even an American citizen, so what am I actually fighting for?
Additional to that, I think I can offer a lot through the things I've learned and my experience, and I have to ask myself, "Does it make sense to offer that here in this country or maybe go somewhere else where I'm more welcomed? Why should I stay if people here don't want me?" I know this is a little dramatized, but these are some of the thoughts that I have.
Right. It's like why contribute to a place that doesn't necessarily want you.
Can you tell me more about when you had to cancel three flights recently?
I ended up canceling one, not the other two.
That's good. That's good.
I was supposed to be in Mexico City right now.
Aw man, Mexico City is so great.
I know. I'll go back sometime.
When that order was signed, in the days following when I understood that I'm affected by it, the very first thing I did was just check which flights I had coming up, which trips. There were three, and the very first one, which was just happening a few days following to Mexico, I canceled that one, painfully so because I was really excited. It was part of a startup that I'm working on, and I was going to be in Mexico City and interview a few companies for that.
I canceled that trip and then had two more trips coming up, one personal and one related to school. The personal one, I tabled at that point in time. Eventually, I decided to go on that trip, which is going to happen very soon, because now I feel somewhat safer than I used to.
Then the third trip, which was a study trip to Europe, to Italy, I instantly got in touch with the school, and the 10 days following there was a lot of back-and-forth with the administration and myself discussing whether it makes sense or not. What we did was we monitored the situation to see how things are evolving, and eventually I reached a conclusion that it's safe enough for me to go, given the latest changes.
Things have changed a little bit since we first communicated, and you feel a little bit safer now ...
... just a tiny bit. You would be willing to maybe take a flight.
I'm just curious about your emotions and fears around what could happen from here.
I have some interesting thoughts on that. Myself and many other people who have citizenship of the countries mentioned, there's a reason why we're not living in those countries. Part of that reason is there is a lot of unpredictability by the government over there. It sometimes doesn't feel safe. Also, given the policies that those governments have, there's a lot of paranoia and anxiety in the society. It's always like you never know.
Even myself, when I go back home, I don't always know. Am I going to be okay? Did I maybe do or say something that maybe will piss someone off back home? Maybe I overstepped my boundaries without really knowing it and I will get into trouble the next time I go back to the country where my parents are from.
I think now the most burning question for me, with regard to everything that has happened over the last few weeks, is really having to think more seriously about where I want to live and where I want to commit to, which country, which city, and which society I want to be part of for the next few years of my life.
There's always this uncertainty when I go back to Iran. Did I maybe overstep my boundaries in some form or capacity while I was abroad working on my different projects? You just never know. You have to live with this uncertainty, and as strong as you would like to be, it does impact your behavior, and your thinking, and your sense of safety, and your sense of self.
Now suddenly what I see happening here in the U.S. is I'm having very similar conversations that I normally have with friends in Iran. People say, "I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I can do that. I don't know if I can give an interview on camera because I'm currently in the green card application process, and I'm afraid if I say something I will be ... the process will be halted and the card will be taken away from me."
What I see happening is that the very same paranoia that unfortunately exists in the societies in some of the Middle Eastern countries because of the unpredictability of the government, I now suddenly see that here, which is just insane because here this country has been such a refuge for us. Now we have to deal with the same paranoia and anxiety that some of us are feeling back in the Middle East.
It's not to that degree yet, but you see signs. For people to decide not to give an interview or for people to decide not to show up at a rally because they're afraid that this might have implications on their status in this country, or they just have no idea what it might lead to, and they have to deal with that uncertainty and unpredictability, these are things I know from other parts of the world, not necessarily from the U.S.
Yeah. How do you go about your day-to-day of getting a graduate degree when you have this existential threat looming over you? How do you just try to live like a normal person?
The first two weeks were just so chaotic I skipped almost every class I had because I couldn't pay attention anyway. What I started to do is just try to get back into my routine of going to the gym, meeting friends for dinner, doing my homework, all the very basic things, just to find distraction.
I think now the most burning question for me, with regard to everything that has happened over the last few weeks, is really having to think more seriously about where I want to live and where I want to commit to, which country, which city, and which society I want to be part of for the next few years of my life. I'm graduating this summer, so having to make ... I already have to make a decision about job and location, and now I feel I have so much more data points that might feed into my decision. Unfortunately, these data points are ones that might eventually lead me to another country or another place for a few years before I feel maybe safe enough to come back to the States.
Yeah. My last question for you would be what are your hopes for the future. What do you hope that people learn from this experience and even from this interview with you?
I think the number one thing I hope will result out of everything that has been happening here over the last few weeks is that people become active. I'm really hopeful, and I think we have seen signs of that with a lot of the demonstrations, that people understand that we live in times where staying silent is not an option anymore. You have to show up, you have to stand up, and you have to speak up. I think that's where I see us going right now as a society.
Thinking more of the other side, thinking between our side and the other side, after all, we're still sitting all in the same boat and we're playing all on the same team, but I think it's so much more important now than it was ever before to have dialogues, to engage, to listen, to empathize, but also to help them understand. I think all of us here in the Bay Area and beyond, we all are talented people. We are all good at something, and we should use that one thing as our strength and as our toolkit to lead these dialogues. For me personally, it's writing and speaking, so that's what I do. My photography, that's also what I do. These are my skills, and I'm using them to hopefully change other people's opinions.
I think all of us here in the Bay Area and beyond, we all are talented people. We are all good at something, and we should use that one thing as our strength and as our toolkit to lead these dialogues. For me personally, it's writing and speaking, so that's what I do. My photography, that's also what I do. These are my skills, and I'm using them to hopefully change other people's opinions.
What I really hope is that, over time, people understand that policies like the one recently signed through the executive order around immigration are not achieving the goal they set out to achieve. I completely support that if there are terrorists or if there are dangerous people posing a danger to the country, then you ideally as a country want to be protective and have policies that protect you from that, but dear God, please put in policies that actually have the impact that you hope they have because right now they don't and they're affecting a lot of innocent people's lives, doctors, students, families, employees, businesses, as a result. I think this policy has been creating more harm than benefit.
I think, after all, I'm still extremely privileged to be living in the Bay Area and have an incredible support network. I totally understand that not everyone in the U.S. who has been affected by that has such support. I also understand that there are a lot of people who have been so much more affected than I have, and I feel very sorry for them. What I hope is that my story, at the very least, can hopefully change some people's minds, and that also all stories can be heard. That's what I'm really hoping for.