Madison Alder Shiva Bidar Speaks on
Immigration at Madison Downtown Rotary
Immigration Heartaches and Joy
|Clockwise from upper left: Rotary keynote
speaker Shiva Bidar and her “family”; 2018
Rabbi Swarsensky Award recipient Dr. Suresh
Chandra (m) with his daughter and wife; Shiva
Bidar delivering her remarks at Rotary.
By Jonathan Gramling
Perhaps without intending it, the Madison Downtown Rotary, at its weekly Wednesday luncheon on March
14, made a strong statement about immigration and its impact on American society.
First, Dr. Suresh Chandra — an ophthalmologist with UW Hospital, a Madison Downtown Rotary member and
an immigrant — received the Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award for his work in
combating blindness in India and other parts of the world through Combat Blindness International.
And then Madison Alder Shiva Bidar spoke about her own immigration story as the keynote speaker. Both
Chandra and Bidar are examples of immigration’s importance to the vitality of America.
Bidar was born and raised in Tehran, Iran in pre-revolutionary Iran and had a wonderful childhood.
“I was born to a middle-class family, living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, with parents who
were non-practicing Muslims,” Bidar said. “My story would not be complete if I didn’t tell you about the
strong women in my life, my two grandmothers and my mother. My paternal grandmother came from a small
village, she did not know how to read and write but she sure knew the importance of always living with
compassion and love. My maternal grandmother was one of the first women to go to the university in Iran.
She was an original feminist, she made sure I knew as a woman that I could do and be anything I wanted
to. As a side note, let me tell you that my maternal grandmother decided in the late 1960s to go down the
Amazon River by herself and she did it. When I tell you she was the original feminist, I really mean it.”
The Iranian Revolution forced Bidar’s mother to take the children to live in Spain while her father remained in Tehran.
“They made that decision because they wanted their children to be safe,” Bidar said. “It is the story of immigrants the world over. With a few suitcases we left Iran
for Spain. My father stayed behind because it was not supposed to be for long. Indeed, the first-generation immigrant heart always keeps this glimmer of hope that
one day we will go back to where we came from. Many songs have been written about this. In Valencia, Spain, my mother suddenly became the sole parent of three
young children in a new country. She had to learn the culture and language. We did not see my father for four years; he was not allowed to leave Iran. For years our
evenings with the family were a constant changing of TV and radio stations to listen to the latest news about the Iran/Iraq war, Tehran under bombing and aunts,
uncles and cousins fleeing to the countryside. I spent my formative years in Spain. I learned to use my voice because a quiet little girl from Iran who was different
was not going to survive the bullying in a school in Spain unless she had a voice. I made sure to have that voice and I think I’ve made good use of it after that.”
Eventually Bidar received a scholarship to come to the United States to study. She made Madison her home. And while Bidar is now the chief diversity officer for
UW Health, it’s been a difficult road to success.
“I can be boxed into the narrative of the successful immigrant created by Hollywood and the media, the American Dream and the land of opportunity,” Bidar said. “I
love this country of which I am now a citizen. My love for this country also means that I want to be sure to not perpetuate a narrative that makes everybody feel
comfortable. The complexities of the immigrant experience are often dismissed or overlooked. The struggles of the first generation are real. We are forever caught
between two worlds, in my case three! We are orphans, we left our roots, we experienced loss, the mourning and the grief is never over with. It’s like asking an
orphan at a young age to forget that they are different from the rest, that they are not an orphan. We have to start over in a new country; we have to create our own
path. This is the land of opportunity because we make it so. Doors don’t just open, we knock hard to open them, breaking through barriers with perseverance and
While immigrants are expected to become assimilated, Bidar feels that is a very Eurocentric concept. Instead, Bidar feels that immigrants are distinctive threads
that contribute to the fabric of the community.
“It is my strong belief that we should instead value the fact that immigration is about integrating one’s life experience into the fabric of this country, because it is
through diverse lenses and experiences that we can continue to make this country better and stronger,” Bidar said.
There is a certain drive that immigrants have — often times having nothing and having experienced tremendous loss and vulnerability — that directly and indirectly
benefits the entire community.
“Our lives are shaped by this loss, our destiny is to be here, to turn our loss into our strength and to create a family and community right here in Madison,” Bidar
said. “We impact the community as a preschool teacher, as a county social services specialist, as the first Dane County immigrant affairs specialist, as a
community college professor, as a doctor, as a healthcare administrator, as the founder of the Latinx LGBTQ youth organization, as the executive director of Centro
Hispano, as the city council chief of staff, and just as importantly, as the people who made your food today, who get up every day, with that lingering sadness of not
knowing if they will ever see the loved ones they left behind again, and go to work because their children’s future matters more than they do.”
Bidar feels a sense of solidarity with all immigrants no matter what their background is and how they came to the United States. While she has experienced
success, she refuses to allow this to separate her from her fellow immigrants.
“Some of us have been the lucky ones: we have been able to find a path to citizenship,” Bidar said. “Here is another myth that I would like to dispel, the good
immigrant — the documented immigrant — versus the bad immigrant — the undocumented one. Given the broken immigration system, your immigration status is
truly a matter of luck — what country you came from, when did you come, who did you fall in love with, what did you decide to study, were you able to have a great
immigration lawyer. All of those things make us different between documented and undocumented. In the meantime, our undocumented immigrants and their
children, our dreamers and their parents, are systematically and purposefully kept from the American Dream. The American Dream shouldn’t consist of being scared
every second of the day. In reading about Rabbi Swarsensky, one quote from him was repeated frequently “Build bridges, not walls.” How timely. In 2018 some are
still talking about building walls.”
While Bidar is still separated from her natural family by distance and the Muslim visa ban,
they still stay connected with her father texting her during her speech. They are her
“cheerleaders.” But life is about close, “Family” relationships and Bidar has found another
family in Madison.
“Once you have lost your community you know you don’t want that to happen again, it shapes
you and you are driven to honor the sacrifices made by giving back,” Bidar emphasized.
“People constantly ask me, ‘Why do you do so much?’ I am joined in my commitment to giving
back to our community by my new family and community. We give back because we know this
is our country. This is our community. And we do not want to lose them again. They include
many people in this room today, my Latinx family, community leaders, UW Health and City
Council colleagues who are also part of my American family.”
Immigrants play a vital role in community life on so many different levels, from leadership
positions like Shiva Bidar’s to the immigrant who does physically demanding tasks that few
others want to take on. All of their efforts contribute to the vital, high quality of life that the
Madison area enjoys.