Attorney uses poetry to promote cultural understanding

By Amy Spooner

If Shermin Nahid Kruse‘s life were a poem, it would contain everything that makes the art form so compelling in her native Iran: Struggle. Passion. Heroes and villains. Love and triumph.

One could argue that Kruse’s life poem was more robust when she entered law school than many are in a lifetime.

Living in a war zone — Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War — meant dodging daily rocket attacks and terrifying encounters with the post-revolution morality police. Basic commodities were in short supply; hot water was nonexistent.

She then left relatives, friends, and the only life she’d ever known to flee with her family to Toronto at age 11.

None of them spoke English upon arrival, and the journey depleted their savings.Yet in spite of the challenges she faced, she would go on to graduate cum laude from Michigan Law.
Kruse insists we all have stories to tell.

Her mission is to help share them. Now living in Chicago, Kruse co-founded the nonprofit Pasfarda Arts and Culture Exchange in 2007 to promote cultural understanding between the United States and Iran through the arts.

Her motivation was largely personal: With her homeland a member of the so-called Axis of Evil, Kruse witnessed people physically back away from her when she’d say she was Iranian.

“If one is a proponent of advocacy, then you must reach out to groups that don’t agree with you. When you do, you realize that most everyone just wants to live a safe and free life with their family,” she said. “So how do you find that apolitical ground from which to begin a relationship? For my colleagues and me, it was the arts.”

The arts always have been important to Kruse.

Upholding the traditional Persian love of poetry, she began writing poems as a child, and also paints.

Her debut novel, “Butterfly Stitching” (Water Bird Press), which is based on true stories of relatives and friends in Iran, was published in 2014 to high acclaim.

Through Pasfarda she has given Americans a glimpse of ordinary Iranians — from promoting a film about Iran’s underground music scene to exhibiting the work of a Tehrani graffiti artist.

“It’s hard to discuss Iran without talking politics,” she acknowledged. “Even with our work, the conversation turns to why rap music is an underground movement, why the graffiti artist would be executed if his identity were known. But we’re trying to connect people in ways that are intriguing on an everyday, human level.”

Kruse also is passionate about international human rights law, grounded in her own experience as an immigrant.

She has volunteered extensively on behalf of the homeless and underserved communities in Chicago, has done volunteer work in India, and maintains a full pro bono docket that includes representation of asylum workers and indigent artists.

Last fall she spent a week on the Turkey-Syria border with the Karam Foundation, aiding refugees. Kruse helped evaluate workshops that taught entrepreneurial skills to Syrian teenagers who faced minimal educational or professional prospects.

Topics included how the teens can use their smartphones and computer access in the camps to learn Turkish and receive vocational training for a wide range of entrepreneurial endeavors.

“They only have two chips left,” Kruse said. “Our approach is to have them pick those chips up and see how they can be used. More than sympathy, refugees need empowerment.”

And, she argued, they need the world to understand that Syria is not just a Middle East problem.

It is a humanitarian crisis affecting millions who are a vulnerable population rife for terrorist recruitment, she said, so compassion now could reap stability later.

“We must put aside who we are and where we’re from and realize we all are citizens of the world. Syria is a global problem that affects global stability, and we all need to educate ourselves so that we can make a difference,” said Kruse, who wrote a six-part series on her experience for the Huffington Post.

Her childhood struggles and volunteer work help keep life in perspective, says Kruse, who is an equity partner at Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg LLP.

And although being one of the firm’s youngest minority partners while raising a young family might seem to be enough, Kruse disagrees.

“When faced with huge global dilemmas, we all feel powerless,” she said. “But the truth is, we are powerful; we can change the world. If I really believe that, then I have to live it.”