“Into the Fire”: What it’s like to be an international student in a country on the brink of war

January 4, 2020 1:52 p.m.

When Donald Trump orders the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, I am at my parents’ home in the Toronto outskirts for the holidays, watching CNN.

The benefit (or drawback) of my undergraduate studies in International Relations is that enables me to view the event with a degree of clarity. Soleimani was Iran’s top military general and the second-most powerful man in the country, reporting only to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khameniei. Soleimani was beloved across Iran, his assassination elevating him to martyr status. Based on what I have studied, I know that his killing is akin to an act of war. I also know that it constitutes what is known as “pre-emptive war.” The whole thing immediately calls to mind the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary, which sparked WWI, the world’s first ‘total war.’

Iran pledges to respond with a “crushing retaliation” that will make Americans suffer for years to come. Russia, one of Iran’s key allies, joins in, condemning the killing.

I think of the plane ticket I have booked to New York City set to depart two days, and seriously consider letting the flight leave without me. The last thing you should do when a country is under threat is… go to that country.

The Iranians will respond in kind, I think. How could they not? The question is not if, but when, and in what capacity. Bombings? Cyberattacks? Plane-jackings? Iran possesses nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities, and they could strike anywhere in the world, wherever there is an American military presence. The U.S. is bracing for impact, mobilizing 2,800 troops to the Middle East. Major U.S. cities, including New York, are at risk.

I climb the stairs to my parents’ room. “The U.S. has waged war on Iran,” I say.

My mother is stretched out on the bed, watching game shows. “I don’t live there,” she says, by way of explanation.

“I do,” I say.

When I was applying to university in the States, friends wondered aloud how I could move there at a time where international student enrolment was down 7%, largely in response to the hostile political climate. For better or worse, I went anyway. Somehow, I have no regrets. I love New York City, despite the fact that it is so chaotic and dirty. Everything is interesting. Even the chaos interesting – it makes it so that there is always something to look it. Perhaps it is a privileged, somewhat naïve decision to go back to a place under threat simply because it is interesting.

My mind flicks back to the plane ticket. Should I wait for things to escalate? Wait for Iran to respond, and then fly back? Should I fly back at the last possible minute, at the end of January, just before classes begin? What if I take the flight, Iran retaliates, planes are grounded, and I can’t get home?

Why fly directly into the fire, when I am safe at home?

Meanwhile, Australia burns. 150 out-of-control wildfires rage across the country. CNN cycles endlessly between these two catastrophes – impending war with Iran, and Australia in flames, impending war with Iran…

An Australian friend of mine posts frantic Facebook posts calling for help, for mask donations. They are suffocating, she says. A firefighter quoted on CNN says they cannot control the fires; they can only direct them away from communities. It is the fury of global warming, burning so brightly it cannot be ignored. According to Reuters, the bushfires are so large that they have adopted their own hellish weather systems: dry lightning storms and fire tornadoes.  

The U.S., too, is on fire, but it has been burning steadily from 2016 on.

I message my friends in Canada, who were unaware of the Iran crisis, and friends in New York, asking about the atmosphere, specifically the increased police presence. They respond with photos of antiwar protests that have erupted in the streets of Manhattan. How will we be able to engage in quotidian tasks—studying and writing theses and having “fun”—under the shadow of potential war?

“You’ll go back,” my father says. “It’s all you can do.”

“Keep your passport, ID, and cash on you at all times,” my mother says.

I will go back to New York in two days as planned. By some cruel coincidence, this is the second country I have lived in with an imminent terror threat. The first was France. Two girls from my host university in the South of France were stabbed and killed on a Marseille train platform in a random terror attack. I was on that platform just 10 minutes before, with my friends. A vigil was held at the university a few days later.

(Maybe it is not a coincidence at all. Maybe I see the threats, but they are not enough to outweigh my own stubbornness.)

I may revert back to the frame of mind I had while in France—a state of internal emergency. Following the news closely and avoiding crowds.

In my International Relations classes, we often discussed the fact that we were living in an era of “peace.” We were the first generation that had not seen a total war. But we are not immune to tyrannical leaders. We are not immune to wars. And Americans are not immune to conscription—all boys aged 18-25 are required to register in case of a draft.

The worst thing we can do is underestimate this man and this moment.

Donald Trump claims that the assassination was an intelligence-based killing, so pressing that it did not require the go-ahead from Congress. Soleimani, Trump says, was planning an “imminent” strike against American. I doubt that this is true. Trump has undermined his own credibility to the point that we cannot, and probably should not, believe anything he says.

Strategically, the whole thing makes very little sense. I can’t think of a single case in which the American strategy of pre-emptive war has ever actually prevented a war. The rush to mobilize troops and evacuate American citizens from Iraq and Iran indicates a lack of planning. They must have known it was an act of war, they must have known Iran would retaliate…

Experts say that Soleimani is more dangerous dead than alive.

These events may only make sense 10 years, when all the documentation is available and the scholars have had a chance to pore over the history, establishing trends and terminology. What we crave, now, is this context, but we cannot have it.

It is as though we are looking closely at a complicated painting, nose pressed against the canvas. We see the ridges and valleys of the acrylic, but the full picture is out of our view. We’re not even sure what we’re looking at. We will, with time. When we’ve had a chance to step back and examine the scene, or what remains of it.


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I believe that: (1) language is the most powerful tool we have (2) that bravery is the most admirable quality in a person and (3) that the best is yet to come.

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