L.A. Iranian Americans driven to protect young celebrators

When 25-year-old Daniel Levian was killed in a 2008 drunk driving accident, news of the sudden loss jolted the city's tight-knit Iranian American community. Word spread at popular Westside eateries and synagogues, and through Persian-language radio.

But a local nonprofit, started by family and friends after Levian's death, is taking a novel approach to turning the tragedy into something positive during the holiday season.

The Lev Foundation, launched in August 2008, is distributing free $10 taxi vouchers online through the month of December -- a time when holiday festivities can lead to increased drunk driving. Organizers say the promotion is their way of honoring Levian's memory and steering other youths from suffering a similar fate.

"If the taxi vouchers can prevent someone from experiencing what my family went through, then we've done our job," said Michelle Shirin Alfi, 26, Levian's cousin and a founding member of the nonprofit. "It just takes one bad decision."

The voucher program is part of the organization's effort to promote safe celebrations. About 200 vouchers -- funded by private donors -- have already been distributed, and organizers expect the number to rise sharply as word of the program spreads. The organization has sold subsidized transportation before, but the holiday promotion marks the first time it's passing out free vouchers for taxi rides.

"A lot of young people in the community aren't aware of the dangers associated with excess," said founding member Robert Kashfian, who grew up with Levian. "There's no kind of awareness or proactive steps to protect themselves when they go out and party."

Organizers say their hope is to create a dialogue between generations in the Iranian American community. Despite an intense focus on family, with many young people living at home until marriage, communication between parents and children can be constrained. Subjects like alcohol, drug use and sex can be taboo.

"Parents and kids are constantly in contact," Kashfian said. "It's counterintuitive because they should have more of a dialogue, but the effect is the opposite."

The day of the accident, Kashfian, a Culver City-based attorney, was with Levian at a daytime party celebrating another friend's birthday. Levian left with his brother and an acquaintance who was allegedly driving drunk.

Kashfian was back at home studying for the bar exam when he got a call to rush to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Upon arriving, he got word that the other two in the car would survive but that Levian, who had just graduated from UCLA and started his own real estate company, would not.

"It was pretty much disbelief, a lot of despair," Kashfian said. "Nothing like this had affected our community or our close group of friends."

The organization started as a coping mechanism for close friends and relatives, but membership has ballooned to more than 200. The group sponsors transportation at parties, holds forums to promote intergenerational dialogue and has formed student groups at high schools and colleges to spread the message of safe partying.

"It's as if he never went," Alfi said. "Because we're instilling all the things he was remembered for."

Requests for the taxi vouchers can be made on the organization's website: TheLevFoundation.org.


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