Mohammad Mottaghi is an Iranian immigrant of Turkmen heritage. He was once a professor, consultant and conservator of ancient Islamic art. Now, he is an Aramark employee and a security guard at the Fralin museum.
““When I came to Charlottesville, I had to start at zero,” Mohammad said.
The Mottaghi family — Mohammad, his wife and their then-teenage son — moved to Charlottesville in 2012 from Isfahan, an Iranian city steeped in a legacy of such historical and artistic grandeur that it boasts the motto, Isfahan
nesfe Jahan. “Isfahan is half of the world.”
It was in Isfahan that Mohammad, now 58, reached the height of his career. In addition to holding a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in art conservation from Pardis College, he has multiple certificates from UNESCO to maintain
world heritage sites. In 2008, the Iranian government hired Mottaghi to oversee restorations of the city’s Historical Bazaar, an ancient marketplace and plaza.
Mohammad said he enjoyed the work that he did at the heritage site, but was also aware that Isfahan, like the rest of the country, was becoming increasingly unstable. Aside from periods of political unrest, a population that has more than
doubled itself in the past 30 years has led to a congested job market, increased pollution and the rationing of resources.
“In Iran, everything was collapsing,” Mohammad said. “The economy — there were so many jobless. The air was polluted. We had no water. The climate was changing.”
Mohammad knew that he had to find a way to move to the United States, for the sake of his family.
He began applying for an immigrant visa through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, commonly known as the green card lottery, in 2001, and would repeat the process nearly every year over the next decade. In 2012, he finally won.
Mohammad described the atmosphere of confusion that enveloped his family as they prepared to leave Iran. They only had a few months to get their affairs in order. They boxed up their possessions and stored them in attics of neighbors and
friends. They sold whatever wasn’t necessary, including Mohammad’s carefully cultivated personal library.
They also had to determine where exactly they wanted to live. His son scoured the internet for Turkmen names in the United States and found two Turkmen families in Charlottesville. One was a family of refugees, and the other were the first
Iranian Turkmen green card winners to move to the city. The Mottaghis decided they would be the second.
Mohammad’s favorite job that he’s ever had — what he loved even more than working at the heritage site — was teaching art conservation. He worked at several Iranian universities throughout his career, and his primary
passion has always been encouraging the younger generation.
He says that he embodies the character of “the professor.” Teaching is how he defines himself. Which is why, when Mohammad moved to the United States, he wasn’t just leaving half of the world behind. He was leaving behind
a piece of his identity.
“When I came here, I said now I can’t teach — I can’t work as a conservator, a professor,” Mohammad said. “When I came here, I said, I so miss it. My heart is depressed. During the first six months,
I wanted to cry. But I controlled myself, breathing deep. Breathing, breathing.”
Many workplaces in the U.S. do not honor foreign degrees — it depends on the nature of the degree and where it was received. A lack of English proficiency will often force immigrants and refugees to start at the bottom rung of the
educational ladder when they come to the United States, even if they had extensive, high-level careers in their home countries. The stipulations of their green cards also require them to find work quickly, which limits the range of
their employment opportunities upon arrival.
Harriet Kuhr, director of the International Rescue Center in Charlottesville, said that one of the main challenges that educated individuals face in the resettlement process is the transition to low-level jobs.
“What’s hard is, if you’re an engineer and bringing this resume, you might have been doing it for 20 years in Baghdad or something, but you’re going to be competing for that same job with American candidates,”
Kuhr said. “Sometimes it’s a lot harder for people from professional backgrounds than it is for people with not a lot of education because of the expectations. I think that’s really frustrating.”
Mohammad’s first job in Charlottesville was at the Royal Indian Restaurant. He said that he missed working in a collegiate atmosphere during this time, and being completely severed from his past career made his transition to life
in the U.S. even more difficult.
After about a month, he applied for a job at U.Va. as an Observatory Hill dining hall employee. He thought that working at O’Hill would be the most effective way to get as close as he can to what he loves — interacting with
In his initial interview with Aramark, Mohammad joked, “In Iran, I teach the brain. Here, I want to teach the stomach.” He says that the students he meets at work often teach him right back. He asks them to write English phrases
on napkins that he will take home after his shift and copy down into a notebook. Their energy revitalizes him.
Even though he enjoyed his job at O’Hill and was excited to be surrounded by students again, Mohammad still wanted more. In 2017, Mohammad told his friend who had connections at the Fralin that he wanted to work at Arts Grounds,
and found out that a part-time security guard position was open. He saw this opportunity as a foot through the door into what he has always loved. He told the manager of the Fralin that working at the museum, even as a security guard,
would be like being “born again.” He got the job soon after.
Mohammad sees his job at the Fralin as a college course. Walking through the doors of the museum is like going to school. The art communicates with him, and working alongside it renews his desire to further his education in Charlottesville.
A degree at an American university is Mohammad’s goal at the moment. However, before he can reach it, he has to prove a certain level of English proficiency measured by a standardized assessment called the TOEFL test. He has taken
and retaken numerous ESL classes so far, and hopes to achieve the required proficiency and get back to a university by his 70th birthday. That gives him about 12 years to continue to work toward this dream.
Even though he isn’t exactly where he wants to be career-wise at the moment, Mohammad has never doubted his decision to move to the U.S. He sees the benefits of his choice when he looks at his son, who recently graduated from the
University and now works as an engineer in Washington, D.C., or when he thinks about the friends he has made or the enriching experiences he and his family have had here.
When he first announced he was moving, Mohammad’s friend told him he was crazy. He had a coveted job and his life was better than most in Iran. Who could know what would happen in America? He would be gambling everything he had ever
“Maybe,” Mohammad had replied. “Or maybe my action could be my gambit.”
He’s thankful that he took the risk.
When Khadija Hemmati left Afghanistan in 2016, she brought her five children and her ex-husband with her. Her mother, her sister and her sister’s family had been living in Charlottesville for several years and had told her great
things about their new home. Khadija applied for a green card online, packed up her belongings and moved her family to Virginia.
Life in Afghanistan was difficult, especially for women, due to issues like illiteracy, a lack of employment options, child marriage and gender-based violence. Khadija, 34, had grown up in Iran with educated parents, which gave her more
opportunities than many of the women she knew. Khadija studied computer science in Iran, but was not able to pursue further education or a career when she moved to Afghanistan.
The possibility of independence and security — for both herself and her children — is what spurred Khadija to leave Afghanistan.