Brooklyn’s Iranian diaspora feels the pain of war at home
As Nasim Alikhani got ready to board a plane to visit her family in Iran, she got a call from her husband telling her that it was announced Iran’s top military commander, Qassim Suleimani, was killed in a U.S. airstrike. He asked Alikhani if she would reconsider her trip but the 60-year-old owner of Sofreh, a Persian restaurant in Prospect Heights, refused to turn back.
“In my lifetime, I have been through a revolution, a change of a government … I’ve been through eight years of war,” Alikhani said. “But when I arrived, I didn’t expect the trip to become another whirlwind of continuous emotional shock.”
The U.S. assassination of Suleimani in Baghdad, Iraq on Jan. 3 sparked fear of World War III throughout social media and among political commentators. The issue of war with the United States is in the back of nearly every Iranian’s mind, Alikhani said. But for much of the Iranian diaspora in Brooklyn, the escalated tensions have many effects that do not necessarily involve war, but still rattle their collective psyche.
Throughout her trip — it had been two and a half years since she last traveled to Iran — Alikhani witnessed the result of economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration that have left people living in Iran with a barren job market, inflated food prices and a lack of medicine.
The streets were also filled with protests when after three days of denial, the Iranian government admitted to shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board, most of whom were Iranians.
When she was leaving Iran at 12:30 a.m. last week, Alikhani heard sounds of sirens and guns from security forces using live ammunition against demonstrators.
Iran’s government has denied shooting at protesters.
“My country is literally on the brink of total destruction right now and what I saw on the streets of Iran, it’s just a sense of total despair,” Alikhani said. “It was really hard to leave and just think, ‘I’m safe, everything’s well here, I have a business to run,’ but my family and friends and everyone I know is under such a pressure.”
Back in Brooklyn, when news came that the U.S. had killed Suleimani, Sepehr Makaremi, 26, began working with his fellow members of New York City Democratic Socialists of America’s Anti-War Working Group.
“I haven’t had the time to process it … we jumped into action, we’re organizing around it,” said Makaremi, who came to New York from Iran about eight years ago. “Our main concern right now, in our group at least, is to dismantle sanctions and to remove the threat of war.”
Makaremi and other anti-war activists helped organize a protest in Foley Square on Jan. 9 to denounce the prospect of a U.S. war with Iran and end sanctions that have left his mother struggling to get the proper dosage of her heart medicine.
“We’re going against this on a moral level,” Makaremi said. “War is bad, killing people and making them suffer for no reason is bad, sanctioning them and not allowing medicine to reach them is terrible and we can’t do that as human beings.”
At the Pratt Center for Community Development where Sadra Shahab works, he found himself periodically scrolling through news online after the escalation, anxiously reading any reports coming out of his home country.
Talk of conflict between the U.S. and Iran has steadily begun to dissipate in U.S. media, but Shahab, 34, fears any moments of heightened pressure between the two countries like this could directly affect the Iranian immigrant community in New York.
“Nobody within our community, nobody’s going to be surprised if this [U.S.] government comes up with more restrictions for us,” said Shahab, who became a U.S. citizen about a year and a half ago. “Sanctions are targeting us directly; that’s my ability to be economically connected to Iran or my family.”
Shahab’s concerns are exemplified in policies like the Trump administration’s travel ban, which stopped the United States from issuing immigrant and non-immigrant visas to applicants from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea and Venezuela. Iranians have been the most affected group with nearly half of all those impacted by the ban being Iranian nationals, according to a report compiled by the National Iranian American Council.
“By policy there are rights of me that are being nullified,” he said. “I’m a U.S. citizen, but my mom cannot visit me in my own country, that means I’m just not like any other citizen.”
On his way to the protest in Foley Square, Shahab commented, “I’m not sure there’s ever a good time to be an Iranian, but it’s a bad time to be an Iranian.”
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