ATLANTA — Two Atlanta City Council members have accomplished something that's never been done before in the United States. Amir Farokhi and Liliana Bakhtiari, are Iranian-American, making Atlanta City Council the only city council in the U.S. to have two Iranian-Americans serving on it.
Farokhi, who represents district two, was reelected to a second term in November. Bakhtiari was elected for the first time last fall and represents district five.
Farokhi grew up in metro Atlanta. He is a ninth-generation Georgian, as his mother's side of the family goes back to the 1700's in the Peach State. Meantime, his father is an Iranian immigrant who came to the U.S. in the late 1960's. His parents met at Atlanta University. Farokhi's father was a political science professor and planted the seeds of public service and becoming a lifelong learner.
"He taught me to think about folks in need and the least of us, and how we can help each other be successful," Farokhi said. "I think he’s put a premium on education in my life, that community matters, that our relationships with our neighbors and the organizations in our community form the bonds that make life better for everybody.”
In 2017, Farokhi became the first Iranian-American elected official in the South. He said being in local government allowed him to open the doors to City Hall and host a Persian New Year's event, which gave many Iranian-Americans their first chance to step foot in City Hall.
"Representation matters, and I think whether it’s for other Iranian-Americans in Georgia or the South or the country, any sort of ethnic group, we want to see all types of folks that exist in our society reflected in public office,” Farokhi said. "There are oftentimes misconceptions or presumptions people make based on your name or identity. I think that’s true for a lot of folks. But the thing you do is step up, speak your mind on whatever the issue is and lead with an open heart.”
As the councilman in district two faces a second term, he hopes to build on what he called some of his greatest accomplishments working with council: launching the first participatory budget cycle in Atlanta and the largest in the South, committing to spending $1 million on transportation projects downtown and starting a nonprofit that ensures guaranteed monthly income to low-income women for the next two years.
Bakhtiari comes from a family that's been heavily active in politics. Her father escaped Iran in 1982 and instilled a conviction in his daughter to fight for what she believed in.
"Their ideas of politics were fighting for human rights or being involved in revolutions or losing friends to execution or imprisonment for fighting for fair, free and democratic elections or women’s rights," Bakhtiari said. “I started volunteering with my dad at shelters around the city as early as five. He taught me that you don’t ever preach to anyone about how they should believe or live their life. You can respectfully disagree. Always listen. Humanity happens when you listen, and he’s always taught me that when your friend fall, you help them up.”
Bakhtiari grew up in a much less diverse Gwinnett County, where she said she was exposed to racism and xenophobia. She said many of her teachers counted her out because of her learning disabilities and differences.
"I was told that I was what was wrong with this country, that I needed to go back to where I came from," Bakhtiari said. “It’s incredible that my identity finally feels validated and I get to talk about that and my family’s history and that legacy, and everything that was sacrificed to get me here.”
Bakhtiari said she planned to focus on strengthening Atlanta's infrastructure and public services, rethinking public safety and creating more affordable housing. She also wanted to create more innovative ways to provide more access to mental health resources in the city. She sees her election as a source of inspiration for other people of color hoping to pursue a career in public service.
“I’m here to connect folks, to humanize issues and to lay the groundwork for other people like me to follow afterwards," Bakhtiari said. "You don’t have to be perfect. You can be incredibly flawed, and don’t allow anyone to weaponize your past and trauma against you.”