Genesta (left) and Dr. Payam Zarehbin Irani co-run Fruitvale Optometry, a local practice that serves Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods. Credit: Florence Middleton

Fruitvale Optometry was one of the first small businesses to open in the Fruitvale Transit Village 18 years ago but the shop is still going strong all these years later serving locals in East Oakland. Most of their clients are Latinos who have come to rely on the bilingual staff.

“I definitely feel like I’m a part of the community, and I feel a connection to the people I serve“, said Dr. Payam Zarehbin Irani, the practice’s founder and lead optometrist.

Payam graduated from the UC Berkeley School of Optometry in 2002 and always wanted his own practice. His wife, Genesta Zarehbin Irani, Fruitvale Optometry’s practice manager, looked for various spaces in Oakland where Payam could do business and happened to come across transit village when it opened in 2004. Fruitvale’s transit village was an ambitious project at the time, including housing, ground-floor shops, and a public plaza next to the Fruitvale BART station. 

“Unity Council was trying to build a community here,” Genesta said. 

Security was one concern they had; they asked other doctors about the area and were told that theft was a problem. But the transit village had extra security officers. 

The ability to recruit staff for their practice was also an issue, as it was for other healthcare professionals in the area, but the Iranis chose to open in Fruitvale because there was a deficit of doctors in the area. One of the only other Fruitvale and East Oakland optometry providers is La Clinica, a community-based health service. They overcame this by hiring from the neighborhood, and today the majority of their staff are locals, many of whom haven’t previously worked in optometry.

Outside Fruitvale Optometry AKA Doctor De Los Ojos. Credit: Florence Middleton

Payam and Genesta are fluent Spanish speakers who wanted to serve a Latino community. He learned Spanish at 15 when he and his family fled their native country of Iran in the late 1970s during the Iranian Revolution. They ended up in South America.

“My family had a little grocery store in Argentina and I went to high school there,” Payam said.

Payam’s family are practitioners of the Bahai faith which the Islamic Republic of Iran currently outlaws. Bahaism is a Middle Eastern religion that primarily developed in Iran. Bahais are categorized as the largest non-Muslim minority in the country.

“We got accepted in Argentina as refugees which were really rare because only nine Iranian families including us got accepted at that time,” Payam said. “I did a couple of years of college, and then my relatives in the U.S got a green card for me, so that’s how I came to the United States.” 

Genesta, who is from Arizona and the Bay Area, learned Spanish while studying abroad in Ecuador and Cuba as a student. She spent a semester in Ecuador and converted to the Bahai faith after meeting members of that community there. 

“Neither one of us are Latinos but we have this shared interest and affinity for Latino culture, and we also met through the faith,” she said. 

Dr. Payam Zarehbin Irani examines a young patient’s eyes. Credit: Florence Middleton

The Fruitvale Optometry is open seven days a week to accommodate residents who work Monday through Friday. Their practice accepts clients who are undocumented and might not have insurance. 

“It’s really important that our staff can relate to our clients,” Genesta said, “So we try to be a conscientious employer and give opportunities to community members and not just bring people from the outside and have that experience already.” 

Still, public safety continues to be a significant issue for the village’s small businesses, including the Irani’s optometry practice.

Genesta and Payam have witnessed the ebbs and flows of crime that occur in this commercial corridor. Genesta said inadequacies in policing and political leadership aren’t helping either. But businesses in the Fruitvale continue serving the community.

 “I think Oakland suffers from a lack of leadership,” said Genesta, “but a lot of that is compensated by the strength and the resilience of community members themselves.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.