Iranian student seeks to someday create a Middle Eastern Cultural Center at UConn

Junior business major Kassra Farahbakhshian is striving to bring Middle Eastern students together at the University of Connecticut.  (photo courtesy of Farahbakhshian

Kassra Farahbakhshian often visits Iran with his family, but he’s only ever been there in the winter. 

"My parents like to say that I’ve only ever seen it in black and white because it’s all snow and concrete,” Farahbakhshian said, laughing. “It’s the warmth of the people and the culture and how inviting everyone is as they ask you to come see this and do that with them.”

He came to the University of Connecticut in 2014 as a pre-medical student, later switching to business. As a junior, Farahbakhshian is striving to bring Middle Eastern students together through a student organization called MESA (Middle Eastern Student Association). 

He and others hope to someday make MESA a fully-fledged cultural center alongside the many that occupy the fourth floor of the Student Union. 

“It’s very ‘iffy’ right now, but we think we can turn this into a cultural center,” Farahbakhshian said. “It’s unprecedented in every single way, but that’s not going to stop us, hopefully."

The organization, he says, will aim to consolidate separate groups that exist on campus today — everything from the Iranian, Turkish, Armenian and Arabian student organizations to those founded for Jewish-Americans. 

“Over winter break, I thought that if we just organized and formed a club that we could all contribute to year after year and work together to form a sense of unity, that would be better than just single event every year,” Farahbakhshian said, recollecting the annual Middle Eastern Festival he helped organize with different groups across campus. 

Farahbakhshian’s vision is to unite Middle Eastern students from conflicting cultural, ethnic and religious groups. Just because older generations within these representative countries don’t get along doesn’t mean students descending from those groups can’t either, he argues. MESA would also spread positive perspectives of the Middle East in an America he says misrepresents what the Middle East is truly like. 

“They think it’s all bomb craters or people killing each other or oil everywhere, but that’s not true,” Farahbakhshian said. “That’s the thing we’re trying to clear up.”

The more Farahbakhshian visits Iran (he says he has visited more than 10 times), the more he appreciates the Middle East. Even though he was born in Los Angeles, Farahbakhshian would not be here today if his parents had not emigrated from Iran, fleeing war. 

Both his mother and father left Tehran, the capitol of Iran, independently during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and moved to Canada, where they fatefully met. 

“Once they got married and my dad found a stable job, he went to Los Angeles with my mom and I was born,” Farahbakhshian said. “After their whole struggle leaving Iran, from what I’ve heard from my parents, you just get more interested in it.” 

They think it’s all bomb craters or people killing each other or oil everywhere, but that’s not true. That’s the thing we’re trying to clear up.
— Kassra Farahbakhshian

That’s why Farahbakhshian is embarking on an Honors thesis project exploring the economics of Iran after the embargo and 1979 revolution. He hopes to increase his understanding of his culture’s history. 

Nonetheless, he says he’s scared.

President Donald Trump’s administration threatens Middle Eastern immigrants and is increasingly fostering negativity toward Middle Eastern citizens. 

“When Donald Trump was elected, I cried,” Farahbakhshian said. “I like America because it gave my family an opportunity to start over again.”

The current political climate is making that less of a reality for other Middle Eastern people, he said.


Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.