Wary of war, Iranian Americans sink into a familiar anxiety

The U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani has many on edge in Minnesota

A man smiling
Shahin Khazrajafari
Courtesy of Shahin Khazrajafari

The story has been told to Shahin Khazrajafari countless times. In the late 1980s, he was just a toddler playing at a park when his father saw the missiles coming.

“He picked me up, and he didn't know whether he should run towards the building, towards our home, or if he should go elsewhere, because he didn't know where those missiles were going to hit,” said Khazrajafari, now 32, of Minneapolis. “It really brings that experience to life as you think about what that generation went through."

Although Khazrajafari was born in Tehran well after the 1979 Revolution and doesn’t remember the Iraq-Iran war, he is one of many Iranian Americans in Minnesota who are sinking into a familiar anxiety.

The community has for many years been grappling with political and economic instability back home. The U.S. killing last week of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, however, has many worried about another war as Iran threatens to retaliate and the United States threatens to fight back.

Khazrajafari and other Iranian-Americans living in Minnesota say they worry about how tension could affect not only their native land and families, but their lives in the United States.

Khazrajafari said he was troubled by reports of Iranian-American citizens who were detained last week at the Canadian border in Washington state.

"Ever since the Muslim ban that occurred in 2017, it has been a question of, ‘Where do I belong?’” he said. “Whether this is the place that we want to call home for the future or if we have to be looking yet for a third place to consider as home elsewhere.”

It's also been hard for St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali to process the assassination of Soleimani. She was traveling back to Minneapolis when she heard the news last week. Jalali sat on the plane checking her phone to find multiple news reports of an air strike.

"I opened my phone to all hell breaking loose and then I was asked to turn it off, and I had to sit on a plane for two and a half hours in the air, not knowing if when I landed we'd have another war on our hands,” she recalled.

Jalali's parents are from Iran and South Korea. She grew up in Minnesota and in 2018, she became the first Iranian-American to serve on the St. Paul City Council. The state is home to about 3,000 people with Iranian roots.

In an op-ed for the Guardian, Jalali detailed what it means to be Iranian-American — for a generation that doesn't know a life without war — and growing up in a post-9/11 United States as someone with Middle Eastern ancestry.

And she worries now about how the younger generation perceives the killing of Soleimani. The circumstances remind her of the start of the Iraq War back in 2003.

"You start to see the justification come out, like, 'We did this to prevent future violence, this was a really bad guy,'” she said. “You just hear all of the 2003 rhetoric and then all of the people who engineered that conflict are back to peddle the same rationale."

Jalali's op-ed has resonated with many Iranian-Americans. It was retweeted thousands of times after Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren shared it.

Some Democrats and Republicans in Congress point out that Soleimani was behind attacks on U.S. military personnel. But some disagree with President Trump's decision to assassinate him.

Iranians in Minnesota also feel that the killing could lead to more escalation in the region.

Farzan Navab grew up in Iran and for 40 years has lived in Minnesota, where he owns Navab Brothers Rug Company. He says this latest event shattered hopes of future stability in Iran.

“I think it will further intensify the cycle of violence,” he said. “I don’t know if the assassination of a leader is going to help a kind of madness that is at work in terms of political situations anywhere in the world. When people are so entrenched in their own belief system, I don’t think that these kinds of events can lead into peace and quietness in any way.”

Beyond that, Jalali, the St. Paul City Council member, said the killing has unified different factions in Iran against the United States. And here, she believes it has breathed life into the anti-war movement. Jalali said she hopes the movement will include more Iranian Americans in Minnesota — a community that she said has been invisible.

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