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LI firehouse reflects Persian population

Firefighter Joshua Banilivy, 18, hangs up his uniform

Firefighter Joshua Banilivy, 18, hangs up his uniform at the firehouse. Great Neck has the second largest Persian population in the United States, and the Vigilant Fire Department has taken notice. About 25 percent of its members speak Farsi. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Great Neck Vigilant Engine and Hook & Ladder Co. is writing a new chapter in a familiar American journey.

Behind the traditional trappings -- freshly waxed red firetrucks and racks of firefighting gear -- is a force that reflects the changing nature of the community it serves.

About 25 of the 100 volunteer members identify themselves as Persians -- men and women of Iranian descent -- who speak Farsi and are Jewish.

As a result, the department has a kosher grill and utensils, and practice drills aren't scheduled for Friday nights or Saturdays to avoid conflicting with the Sabbath.

"We bend and we adapt to everyone's needs," said Vigilant Chief Scott R. MacDonald, who has been with the department for 20 years and grew up in Great Neck.

The Persian-American community now represents 38 percent of the population in Kings Point, 25 percent in Great Neck Estates and almost 24 percent in Great Neck, according to the U.S. Census.

As the Persian population increases, so does its influence in the community's institutions.

One area resident recently became North Hempstead's first Persian-American candidate for the Town Board.


Integrated into community

"This is just another example of the maturing of another immigrant community," said Raymond Iryami, 39, an attorney and Great Neck resident whose family left Tehran for the United States when he was 10. "You do not measure progress by years. You measure it by generations. Now you're beginning to see the fruits of that integration."

Many members of the Great Neck area's mostly refugee Persian population fled Iran after that country's 1979 revolution, which ended the monarchy and replaced it with an Islamic republic under the revolution's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The newcomers settled along the Long Island's North Shore because of the good schools, quality housing and proximity to New York City, said David Harounian, the first Persian elected to the Kings Point Village board of trustees four years ago.

"We are here to stay," he said.

Although some older Persian immigrants speak only Farsi and socialize mainly among themselves, younger residents have become part of the larger community.

That is manifested in the growing number of Persian firefighters and emergency medical technicians, a trend that began about 10 years ago, MacDonald said.

"When the kids started getting Americanized, they jumped on board and brought in friends and it spread," he said.

It's a change long in the making.

"The younger members of these generations are the ones who branch out and are taking full advantage of America, and that's what you're seeing today," said Iryami, who is co-founder of the Persian Culture Committee, a planning board member in Great Neck and a director of the California-based Iranian American Jewish Federation.


Bridging generational gap

The cultural transition at the firehouse was easy, some of the Persian volunteers said, but the transition at home was less so.

Aharon Benelyahoo, 22, a firefighter for five years, said his family was at first reluctant to accept his volunteer role with the fire department.

In the Persian tradition, "it's not something normal to go out and become a firefighter or EMT unless it's a paid position," said Benelyahoo, a Vigilant firefighter and EMT who also is a student at St. John's University.

Justin Sachmechi's mother didn't know he was a firefighter until a blaze at his grandparents' Great Neck Village house, where she saw him wearing his gear and carrying out their wedding portrait.

"It was like a movie; there was hugging, crying," said Sachmechi, 21.

After that, his parents no longer question why he puts himself at risk for strangers, he said.

And Sachmechi's colleagues said providing assistance, especially the ability to communicate with Farsi-speaking residents, has muted the concerns.

"Over time, they became more accepting as they realized what it did for the community, for the Persians," Benelyahoo said.

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