Whether or not Urbana resident Fereidoun “Fry” Shokouhi’s life is affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily restricting travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, he is giving his president the benefit of the doubt until the dust settles.
The order signed Friday restricts travel to the United States from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen for 90 days.
“The executive order is a prerogative of the president. Whether you voted for him or not, he is the president of the country, and we should respect that,” Shokouhi said. “The situation right now is very fluid. We want to make sure that we are not overanxious and don’t draw any conclusions until we see how things work out. At the end of the day, we need a week or two to see where it lies.”
Shokouhi noted the White House and federal agencies have come out with different interpretations of what the executive order entails and what its overall intent is. He added that something needed to be done to protect the country, but that the order may have gone too far.
“I do not believe anyone questions that the immigration process has to be beefed up in the sense of the vetting process, but any reference to an individual religion or nationality may be interpreted as a violation of our established laws and values,” Shokouhi said. “Those need to be interpreted by experts, not by me.
“On the surface, it appears the action might be a bit overzealous and might be in violation of the Immigration and Nationality act of 1965. As things eventually settle, then we will see what has really happened,” he added. “… then one can draw conclusions as to whether this is something in violation of the U.S. Constitution or any bills or acts that have been ratified and accepted by Congress.”
A glimpse into the life of an Iranian-American
Born in Iran, Shokouhi had every intention to make something of his life in his native land and was on the verge of beginning his college career there until one historic event changed his plans and life forever.
“The Iranian Revolution happened right when I was graduating from high school,” he said. “The university that I got admitted to wasn’t going to open up, and I wasn’t going to sit and wait.
“My biggest agenda was education, and I decided at that point to look at my other alternatives. I had an option to come to the United States and also England,” Shokouhi added. “I chose the United States.”
Being 18 years old at the time and knowing little about the United States or England, his decision was aided, Shokouhi said, by advice from an Irish friend.
“I’ve thanked her several times for helping me with that decision,” he said.
After arriving in the United States in January 1979, Shokouhi spent some time studying at the University of Texas at Austin before transferring to the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he received two engineering degrees – one in civil and one in mining.
With degrees in hand, Shokouhi, who became a permanent U.S. resident in 1983, began a career in engineering, one that brought him to Champaign County in December 1987. After serving as a deputy engineer and chief deputy engineer for the county for several years, he applied for U.S. citizenship, which he obtained in 1991. It was a day he will never forget as it opened the door to four-and-a-half terms (18 years) as county engineer.
“(Citizenship) gave me the opportunity to be able to serve in a better and larger capacity by being able to run for office,” he said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
As for other Iranian-Americans like himself, he said many of them are doing everything they can to better the country they now call home.
“On the basis of Iranians who come to this country, over 99.9 percent of them become patriotic Americans, responsible citizens and taxpayers,” Shokouhi said. “In fact, 43 percent of the scientists working at NASA, for example, are of Iranian origin.”
He also said Iranian-Americans want the country to be a safe place to live, just like every other American does.
“I have the assurance that every one of them (Iranian-Americans) are in opposition of illegal immigration and any act of terror that endangers U.S. citizens or any persons abroad,” Shokouhi said. “We need to make sure the action (the government) takes doesn’t undermine the very citizens we serve,” he added.
Now retired, when Shokouhi isn’t spending time here in Urbana with his wife, Shirley, their two children, Sara and Kaveh, and their grandchildren, he is travelling overseas to visit his parents, four siblings and friends.
“One of the reasons I decided to retire at an early age (53 years old) was my parents are in their older age, and I wanted to have the opportunity to visit them,” Shokouhi said. “Since I retired, I travel overseas (to Iran) as much as I can to spend time with them.”
His parents, both of whom possess green cards and therefore are considered legal residents of the United States, travel back and forth from Iran, often staying up to several months at a time in the States. While his brother is a legal U.S. citizen, his three sisters aren’t residents or citizens of the United States.
Considering the way Trump’s executive order has been interpreted by different agencies throughout the country, Shokouhi advised his parents to remain in Iran for the time being even though they are legal residents of the United States.
“There are concerns in the back of my mind,” he said. “I’ve advised them not to make any travel plans until we see how it all plays out,” Shokouhi said.
Despite the travel bans imposed by the United States and Iran’s decision to not allow U.S. citizens into its country, Shokouhi is planning a trip to his native land in a couple weeks to visit family. It will be his first time back since March 2016.
He said that since he has dual citizenship in both countries, he isn’t concerned at the moment about being denied entry into Iran or return entry into the United States.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-508-2304 or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.