December 11, 2020

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Sarah Sakha headshot
Sarah Sakha MIA '21 is concentrating in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy and specializing in Technology, Media, and Communications.
Sarah Sakha MIA ’21 was born in Phoenix, Arizona, to Iranian parents. Now living in West Harlem, she connected with both her home state and her heritage by volunteering remotely for political campaigns this fall.

 

Sakha worked with Arizona Democrats to elect Joe Biden and new U.S. Senator Mark Kelly. She also gave her time to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), through which she connected generally with Iranian voters and volunteered for Yassamin Ansari, an Iranian-American candidate for Phoenix City Council. In the months leading up to November, she spent her days phone banking, text banking, and engaging with voters in English, Farsi, and even some Spanish. 

Sakha said she has always been engaged with politics and had previously volunteered with NIAC’s New York chapter. But this election, she felt a particular responsibility to be involved.

“NIAC’s goal this year was to make the largest Iranian-American voter outreach campaign in history,” she told SIPA News. “And I definitely wanted to be a part of that.”

Sakha said her Iranian heritage is critical to her involvement in politics.

“Anything I do professionally, or even volunteering work, I try to gear it toward, ‘What can I do as an Iranian American straddling both worlds and two identities?” she said. “Oftentimes, Iranians who are here don't have immigration status, or the standing to freely speak out about certain issues. But I'm a citizen here I have the privilege to be able to do so.”

Sakha’s upbringing—she attended a predominantly white, all-girls Catholic high school in Scottsdale, Arizona—was very different from her subsequent experiences in diverse, progressive communities. Sakha attended Princeton as an undergraduate; at SIPA, she studies Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy with a specialization in Technology, Media, and Communications.

She’s especially interested in Middle Eastern politics and the Middle Eastern diaspora. And, like many of her Iranian American peers, Sakha cares deeply about the threat and impact of sanctions on Iran, among other issues.

“There was another round of the most austere sanctions put on recently,” she said. “It was emotional because it also coincided with the passing of Iran’s foremost musical and political icon, Mohammed-Reza Shajarian. It was interesting to see that juxtaposition.” 

Other issues affecting Iran, its residents, and the diaspora include COVID-19 and getting personal protective equipment into the country, the “Muslim ban” and immigration in general, and the Iran nuclear deal. Sakha touched on the importance of normalizing relations with Iran generally and the significance of politics in the wider region. 

“The potential for war, any of the instability and volatility [in the Middle East],” she said, “affects Iran and Iranians financially, culturally, and so on.”

At the end of November, Mohsen Fakhrizdadeh, a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, was killed. 

“Waking up to the news… made my stomach churn,” Sakha said. “I braced myself for what was to come, what could come. I couldn't focus on my work for the rest of the day.”

The threat of a potential attack on Iran has been on Sakha’s mind since then. Every day, she wakes up and checks Twitter, expecting the worst.

“The past year especially has consisted of thatwaking up each day to see if the U.S. had gone to war with Iran yet,” Sakha said. “The stress of that takes its toll, so I try to channel it into writing and organizing, as I can.”

With a new administration comes the possibility of political change.

“I am hopeful that sanctions could be rolled back, at least to a degree,” Sakha said.

At the same time, she expresses concern about “the humanitarian impact of our military actions in the Middle East, because ultimately, all these countries are connected militarily and economically, and one country's instability will affect others.”

She also hopes to see more Iranian Americans joining the ranks of political and agency leadership, so that “people from these communities who have the real lived experiences, the language background, and the training to be able to advocate for our own community.” 

This potential for political change, as Sakha sees it, is partially thanks to her home state. When she first started receiving notifications that Arizona was swinging blue, she couldn’t believe it. “I was like, there’s no way,” she said. “But then I was like, this could happen.” Biden’s victory was officially called, and she started screaming. “I looked out the window… and everyone was screaming and banging pots and pans.” But at the forefront of her mind was Arizona. 

“For 24 years, I have not claimed my city or where I'm from,” she said. “But finally, I'm actually thinking I'm proud to be from Arizona.”

Along with Arizona’s flip, Sakha said, one of the most fulfilling parts of volunteering this fall was connecting with fellow Iranian voters. She said many of them, at first, expressed a sense of hopelessness about the future or a general mistrust of politics.

“People were like, I don't know who you are, and I don't know if I can trust you,” she recalled. “But being able to break through and talk about these policies… Some of them were so grateful, and it [felt] good to be able to culturally and politically connect.” 

Looking to the future, Sakha hopes to continue to take part in political organizing after SIPA. 

“Being a part of the excitement of everything, the momentum, the passion… I'm hoping it'll carry and I'll be able to be more involved.”

— Aastha Uprety MPA ‘21