Growing up, all W. Kamau Bell knew about Iran was “hostages, hijacked planes and Jimmy Carter looking like he wished he had stayed a peanut farmer,” he intoned in the latest episode of “United Shades of America,” which premiered on CNN on Aug. 30. But after traveling to New York City and speaking with Persian-Americans, including State Sen. Anna Kaplan, he learned more about Iranian culture.
Kaplan, a Democrat from Great Neck who represents large portions of Elmont and Franklin Square, immigrated to the United States in 1979 — a tumultuous time in the country’s history. In the wake of a popular revolt that overthrew the American-installed shah, exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from Paris to assume power as head of the state, and began consolidating his grip on the country. Kaplan was only 13 at the time, and remembered the schools closing, shooting that took place throughout the day, and the strict curfews that kept people off the streets at night.
Among the chief victims of the regime change was the country’s sizable Jewish population, of which Kaplan was a member, and who, as part of Khomeini’s trategy to undercut more liberal elements of Iranian society, was targeted for state-sponsored discrimination because of perceived links to Israel.
Within the first few months of the revolution, Kaplan was among the hundreds of Iranian Jewish children to flee to the United States as refugees. On an especially cold April night, Kaplan recalled arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and was bused to Crown Heights with four other girls.
Rather than feeling alone, however, Kaplan said she felt excited to start her new life here. “This is the land of opportunity, where anyone can make their dreams come true,” she previously told the Herald. “But if you told me back then that I would now be a New York State senator, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Kaplan was elected to serve the 7th Senate District in 2018, when she defeated incumbent Elaine Phillips by a 10,000-vote margin. A large number of those votes came from high minority-majority areas such as Elmont and Westbury, according to records from the Nassau County Board of Elections, with 80 percent of those who voted in Elmont casting their ballot for Kaplan.
She took office in January 2019, as part of the so-called “Blue Wave” of Democrats gaining elected positions, Bell said in the episode, and became the first Iranian-American elected to serve in the State Senate.
In the episode, Kaplan treated Bell to a traditional Shabbat dinner, complete with a meatball-type dish made with chicken calle gandhi, roasted chicken, roasted vegetables, Persian saffron rice with a slow-cooked stew, Baklava, fruit and berries, derided dates and frozen cashews. She and her family then told Bell about the Jewish-Iranian experience, and said she “stands on the shoulders of so many immigrants, so many women, who have done their part for me to come into office to win.”
Additionally, she said that as a state senator, she tries “to make sure that the opportunities that have been available to me are available to others.”
“I really try to do right by everyone,” she said.