Jan. 8, 2020, 1:30 a.m.

Unable to sleep, I lie on my stomach in bed, chin resting on folded arms, and look through a sliver of window. (I never close the blinds fully. I like to wake with the sun.) I try to memorize my slice of the Manhattan skyline—and I do feel a sense of ownership. It is mine, at least temporarily. I scan the overlapping silhouettes of the buildings, and their many windows, glowing purple and yellow and orange, stars against a city sky that never darkens. If I stand at an extreme angle in my room, I can see, through the window, a brightly lit parking garage to the far left, the south wing of my residence building to the far right, and little else. These are the bounds of my horizon.


"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.


Leo’s Sin

There are three types of people in the world: (1) knowers (2) not-knowers and (3) knowers who can’t stand the not-knowing. Lucy was the third type. In fact, her discomfort was such that any sort of not-knowing tended to prevail over all else, preventing her from achieving any measure of satisfaction. Ever since she was a little girl, she was blessed (or cursed; she was never quite sure) with the knowing. Everyone she’d ever met bore an inscription in careful black lettering—presumably from a cosmic pen of some sort—indicating precisely the role they would play in her life. Confidant, Friend, Defender, Enemy, etc. The mailman’s label read Acquaintance, and the elderly man across the street bore a label that read Stranger. This was the way it had always been. Read more in Joyland magazine.

Daily News: CITYarts Unveils Third and Final Mural in ‘Footsteps of Alexander Hamilton’ Series

This is a daily news piece written for my Reporting class at the Columbia School of Journalism. Image credit: CITYarts 


NEW YORK—This Monday, non-profit CITYarts unveiled a new mural in the Alexander Hamilton playground. It is part of a three-part series entitled “Following in the Footsteps of Alexander Hamilton,” which pays homage to the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton, American Founding Father and former resident of Harlem Heights, where the playground is located.

Based in New York City, CITYarts brings together youth and professional artists to plan and install colorful mosaics and murals. To date, CITYarts’ projects have engaged over 200,000 youth and 500,000 volunteers, who collaborate to beautify neglected community spaces in the city.

CITYarts is part of the growing trend of beautification within New York City. The completion of the mural comes just weeks after introduction of the 2019 Daffodil project, the largest beautification project in the history of the city. Residents of New York City will be provided with over 500,000 daffodil bulbs to be planted in memory of 9/11, and to contribute to continued city-wide beautification efforts.

Continue reading Daily News: CITYarts Unveils Third and Final Mural in ‘Footsteps of Alexander Hamilton’ Series

Profile: Erin Spencer

This profile was written for my Art of the Profile Class at the Columbia Journalism School. The task was to write about someone – anyone – we thought was interesting. I chose Erin. 

Image Credits:

When Erin Spencer hunts lionfish in the Florida Keys, her weapon of choice is a fiberglass spear with a three-pronged steel tip. She has a dive knife tethered to her thigh, and a GoPro strapped to her forehead. Her wetsuit offers protection from the deepwater cold and the stinging barbs of her prey. Breathing steadily through her respirator, she takes aim.

Later, on deck, Spencer poses with her catch, holding one lionfish in each hand by its jaws. She beams, her face absent of apology. Lionfish are venomous, carnivorous, and invasive. She wants to correct the imbalance of the ocean, one fish at a time.


Spencer and I are speaking via Skype. She’s in Fort Lauderdale. White-hot sunlight streams through the windows of her apartment. I can see a television behind her, its screensaver an aquarium.

Spencer is new to Florida, having moved there only three months ago from Chapel Hill, North Carolina for her doctorate in shark physiology at Florida International University. She grew up in a small town north of Baltimore but inched closer and closer to the sea until, at 27, she had finally arrived at the southernmost tip of the U.S.

“Fieldwork is incredible and infuriating and complicated,” she says. “Being able to be close to your field site is just a huge advantage.”

Her blond hair is in a loose ponytail, her round face reddened from her time in the sun. She has just returned from the Bahamas, where she spent the week attaching accelerometers to hammerhead sharks. The devices are bright red and resemble sticks of dynamite. A clamp attaches to the dorsal fin. Comprised of water-soluble components, the float with the accelerometer will eventually pop off after 24 hours, and the clamp pops off after a week. Spencer then tracks down the shark and retrieves the device.

Continue reading Profile: Erin Spencer

Personal Essay: The Things my Children Will Not Know

This part one of a four-part personal essay series on immigration and identity. This instalment was published by Prairie Fire literary magazine, and was recently submitted for a National Magazine Award.



Dad paused the movie. “Can you believe that some people spend their whole lives trying to get to the sea?”

My mother and I looked at him. I raised my eyebrows. We were at my favourite part, where the main character finally fulfills his lifelong dream of visiting the ocean. I couldn’t understand why my father had chosen to such a critical moment to bring everything to a standstill.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Some people spend their whole lives trying to go on vacation,” Dad said. “They make it a mission to go to the sea. The sea, of all places.” My father shook his head and un-paused the movie.

My parents had grown up in Jamaica, mere steps away from the one thing that many Canadians yearn for. I opened my mouth, then closed it, because I didn’t know what to say. I felt jealousy bubble in my gut. For my parents, the sea was an old, familiar friend. For me, it was a mere acquaintance.

It is possible that my future children will spend their lives chasing the sea. One day, I may pause the television only to have them stare back at me blankly, able to conjure images of the sea only from movies, not from memory.

Continue reading Personal Essay: The Things my Children Will Not Know

Confessions of a Master’s Student

Journalism school hit me—hit all of us—hard. I was reading on my laptop when I tipped gently to the side and fell asleep. I had been studying all day. I woke up and wondered where I was. Inexplicably I continued reading on my laptop, which was still open on the bed beside me, pausing only to get up and stare out the window of my Manhattan apartment, hugging myself as though bracing for impact. My printer shrieked behind me, spitting out printed notes like a living thing.