Community-made memorial in North York, Toronto, commemorating the plane crash victims aboard the Ukrainian International Airlines flight. Credit: Can Pac Swire (flickr.com)

by Olivia Hnatyshyn

T

he conflict between the United States and Iran is anything but new. However, following the assassination of Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, tensions between the two countries have been rising. Behind the newspaper headlines rest many worried thoughts, and for an entire community in Canada, this issue hits closer to home. Farnaz Farhang is just one of many Iranian-Canadians worried about the ongoing, and newly escalated Iranian-American conflict.

Born in Tehran, Farhang came to Canada with her family in 2001 at the age of six. Now 25 years old, she is doing her master’s degree in criminology at the University of Ottawa. Farhang goes back to her birthplace frequently to visit all of her family still living in Iran.

“This is a conflict between two governments – it’s not the people, but the people are the ones who suffer.”

“All of us have people in Iran and we care about what’s going to happen to them,” says Farhang, speaking on behalf of the Iranian diaspora. 

Farhang says that the newly escalated conflict has brought additional practical issues for the Iranian-Canadian community. Stories about Iranian-Canadians and Americans being held at the U.S. border are becoming more frequent in the news. According to CTV News, Negah Hekmati, an Iranian-born Canadian, was detained at the U.S. border with her family for over five hours. Additional stories are beginning to surface, with families being detained for up to 12 hours. 

“You should have the same rights as any other Canadian citizen,” explains Farhang. “It’s disturbing to know that there still is that difference. It is almost like a second-class citizen.”

After the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani made international headlines, many Iranian-Canadians took to the streets to celebrate the news. Farhang explains that to her knowledge, most people in the Iranian-Canadian community were celebrating the loss of an oppressive leader, rather than the death of a person.  

Having family at both ends of the world, Farhang has a unique perspective, making her sympathetic for the people on both sides of this conflict. Although this conflict may feel far from home for other Canadians, Farhang explains that Iranians’ suffering “is also connected to people here too. I wish people would care more because we are all part of the same community, even if you’re not an Iranian-Canadian.” 

She explains that it is sometimes frightening to show sympathy towards either side, in fear of inaccurate or stereotypical assumptions being made in response. Even as someone who regards the conflict in an apolitical manner, Farhang has still experienced hostility on Twitter because of her ability to empathize with both sides. 

“Some were saying ‘You’re a terrorist sympathizer,’ which I am absolutely not! On the other end someone said ‘You’re a CIA robot.’ I am absolutely neither one of those things, but sometimes people are so quick to have dichotomous categories,” she explains, frustrated by the misconceptions. “The only stance I actually have on [the conflict] is that I want peace for everyone.”

Vigils were held all over the country in January to commemorate the 176 lives lost after a Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down by the Iranian government. People gathered to mourn the innocent victims, many of whom were en route to Canada.  

Farhang appreciated the response of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during this tragedy, recognizing his perspective as empathetic. She says, “His stance makes me as an Iranian — I can’t speak for everybody — but it makes me feel validated and have a better sense of belonging.” 

Trudeau not only expressed “the tremendous grief and loss that Canadians are feeling,” but also spoke plainly about the causes of the tragedy, noting that “if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families” – comments which had a variety of right-wing pundits jumping down his throat for implicitly criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump.

“This is something that happens when you have conflict and war,” Trudeau added. “Innocents bear the brunt of it and it is a reminder why all of us need to work so hard on de-escalation, moving forward to reduce tensions and find a pathway that doesn’t involve further conflict and killing.”

A set of vigils were held in Toronto on Jan. 16. Toronto is home to the largest community of Iranian-Canadians, with thousands of people joining the commemoration. Conflict arose when the community split, some using the vigil to protest against the Iranian regime, while others wished to keep politics out of the ceremony. Farhang comments on this situation, calling it unsettling.  

“In a time of conflict, people should be getting together. There should be more of a social cohesion and solidarity,” she explains, saying that this type of international conflict, even when far away, carries over.  

“This is a conflict between two governments – it’s not the people, but the people are the ones who suffer.”

Farhang hopes that through sharing opinions and stories, that people can develop an empathetic stance in the face of conflict. She says that this is an important piece in understanding the communities most directly impacted.

“It’s through stories, even just one opinion, that people can break stigmas that they may have attached to certain people, and have a better understanding. At the end of the day we are all human beings.”

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