On Oct. 3, I landed in Detroit for a three day out-of-body experience. I walked down the escalator, staring at a banner that welcomed me to “America’s great comeback city,” out through baggage claim and met the founders of Write A House, a unique non-profit aimed at giving writers permanent residencies through rehabbed houses in Detroit to keep forever. Three hours later, I welcomed close to 100 people to my new home - a phrase that still feels strange to write, or even say. The night began and ended in a blur, in beaming smiles and hellos, in a news crew ambush, in the smooth countertops I brushed my hands against, the new wooden floors I walked on carefully in heels, in handshakes and speeches, introductions, congratulations, in conversation and community.
Almost two weeks prior, I was sitting in an apartment in Mongolia, when I found out I had won. I was there through a generous International Reporting Project fellowship, spending close to a month reporting on maternal health issues in the country. It was 2 a.m., I had just barely recovered from an all day reporting excursion out in the slums of the capital and I ended up mixing orange juice with the popular Mongolian brand of Chinggis Khan vodka and washing it down with a chocolate bar before falling deliriously asleep to celebrate.
Even in that slumber, I knew my life had changed. I knew that I could finally slow down and breathe, I could really take the time to examine what I wanted out of life and more importantly, what I wanted my work to reflect. The relief of being given the opportunity to take a deep, introspective dive into my own feelings was overwhelming, and some of this had to do with realization that my generation, much less writers from my generation might not ever be able to do the thing that had become synonymous with America: own a home.
I had grown up watching my parents come to the U.S. as refugees from Iran, escaping violence and war, working harder than I had ever seen anyone work, and become home owners in a few short years, at least a decade before they stood and recited the oaths that would make them citizens of this country.
Even the potential attainability of that dream had never even been something for me to consider as I came of age at a time of recession and foreclosures coupled with an unfortunately unrelenting passion for a profession that did not pay.
For a very long time, I let an orange suitcase become the one consistent physical object I knew of in my life. I came home and watched property prices rapidly balloon every few months. I never thought I would have the space I craved, the space that came with silence, that would allow my work to expand to a place it never quite felt it had the room for, the space that would hold my strange collection of mugs, the one where I would be able cook dinner for friends who for so long offered up their own homes as surrogate spaces for me.
After spending hours meeting people at the welcome party for the home I now have the privilege to call my own, I am slowly getting used to the fact that I’m not watching anyone else’s life unfold in front of me but my own.
Beyond the actual physical space though, this is a chance to be actively part of city with such diversity and history that I have been gravitating to for years.
To understand my deep affinity for Detroit, you have to understand two things: the people I like to write about, and the people I come from.
I am interested in places that are misunderstood, in issues that aren’t exactly obvious, in the grit that does not make it in daily consumption cycles and even in the mundane that is not actually mundane, when you take the time to look at it closely. Human beings are prone to polarization, we search for the black and white of it all, never paying attention to the gray, the context or nuance that can lead to heightened perspectives. These are the areas I gravitate to both in my work, where I’ve written about the intersection of issues for hidden populations, including what medical marijuana access means for those in assisted living facilities, Europe’s stateless Kurdish population in the age of ISIS, a lost generation of people within the transgender community and black midwives who are attempting to change unforgivably high infant mortality rates within the African-American community.
Detroit has suffered frequently from extreme narratives, but the diversity and complexity of this city aren’t normally found in mainstream media news cycles. If you’re looking, really looking, you’ll see that it’s a complicated, layered place and that it has more going on than what fits into neat soundbites and slideshows, more - both serious and lighthearted elements - than what is summed up in stories about saviors swooping in to well, save it.
In many ways, Detroit mirrors the circumstance of the people I come from, a people who have had over 100 years of history in this city. For over 3,000 years, Armenians have built a rich, complex culture and history that has often been tainted by extreme loss, trauma, violence, war and genocide, where 1.5 million people were killed at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Shuffled to the fringes of society and history, denied agency, reparations and recovery, the physical, economic and psychological scars are in many ways present today. Now scattered around the world, we have been uprooted not once, or twice, but several times, from different countries, because of different circumstances, never finding a place we could truly label “home.”
Many Armenians, who miraculously survived and fled such horrendous loss after the genocide in 1915, found their way to Detroit and into Ford’s factories, their population reaching around 40,000 at one point. Today, perhaps the most obvious Armenian connection to the city comes in the form of the Manoogian mansion, donated to the city by Alex Manoogian, founder of the Masco Corporation and the man who introduced the Delta faucet to the world. But there is much Armenian history hidden here beyond this in need of exploration - I mean, there’s a statue of our most celebrated (and tortured) musician in the middle of the city, and the University of Michigan-Dearborn has the only Armenian Research Center attached to an American University. There's also one of my favorite people, Jack Kevorkian, a native of Detroit who I was fortunate enough to interview six months before he died.
Though it informs us and still impacts us, Armenian identity is more than trauma and loss - we have important social and economic issues that need addressing, we have a history that we ourselves still need to discover, much less the world who either misunderstands or does not know about us in the first place. We are not just made up of kebob and references to the Kardashians and in Detroit, we occupy an overlooked space I am eager to discover.
This identity, and struggle with it, and for it, reminds me of Detroit, a place that I once read was called the most misunderstood metropolis in the world.
But if there’s also one thing that ties my own background, the one I consciously have chosen to pursue, and Detroit, its resilience. Resilience is what comes through for me, for myself and for the city I will now call home.
I want to pursue the stories of those people and places that have remained on the fringes, the issues you need to look at twice to really see, the ones that take time and patience to really understand. I want to learn and listen from those who know the depths of Detroit, the ones who have been here from the beginning, I want to listen to myself and do the kind of journalism that matters to me. Sometimes, I want to have more agency, instead of just delivering a message of agency.
In a matter of days, I will soon be back at the house I walked into on Oct. 3. This time, it won’t be full of people welcoming me to Detroit, it will be silent and empty, and be filled with the enormous amount of thoughts that will probably be jutting out from my head. The move, the win, the new billing address, will all be real and with it so will my excitement and anxiety. Will I be able to adapt? Will I fit in? Will I be able to continue to pursue freelance journalism and the stories I care about? Will I be able to listen to myself and feel confident in taking my work in new, challenging directions? Will I be able to do all of these things while also remembering to take out the trash and cook meals in the most glorious kitchen I’ve ever seen?
After leaving Iran in the midst of war and revolution as a refugee with my parents and landing in the U.S. almost 30 years ago, I’ve lived in several places in my lifetime, including developing countries that deal with some of the exact same issues that Detroit is dealing with, but something about this is different. Maybe it’s the responsibility that comes with a house, or the responsibility I will feel towards Detroit, in making sure I give it the same, if not more attention, time and respect I’ve given everywhere from Los Angeles to Yerevan, but I’m using resilience as both my personal and professional guide this year as I embark on life in a raw, intricate city that is the most exciting place to be in the U.S. right now.