People attend a vigil in Toronto on Thursday for those killed in the Ukrainian plane crash. Photo by EPA/Warren Toda/CP
Iranian Canadians are reeling following this week’s devastating Ukrainian plane crash in Iran that killed 176 people, 138 of whom were flying to Canada. The tragedy highlights the struggles diasporic communities often face when watching political unrest unfold back home, and the dangers associated with speaking out when living abroad.When watching news from Iran “you feel helpless,” said Payman Parseyan, a former president of the Iranian Heritage Society in Edmonton, Alberta. “The people of Iran are at the mercy of an authoritarian regime and, unfortunately, the people include your loved ones.”
Because Parseyan chooses to voice dissent against the Iranian government, he says he can’t visit Iran for the foreseeable future. He believes Iranian authorities would arrest him at the border if he tried.
“There’s only a limited amount of action we can take, because if you speak out too much—like what I’m doing right now—you can’t travel to Iran again,” he said.Parseyan said anxiety started rocking Iranians living abroad about two months ago when protests first broke out in Iran. Difficult news has continued to surface since, including a state-backed internet shutdown in November, the U.S.-sanctioned killing of Iran’s top commander Qassem Soleimani, the subsequent rising U.S.-Iran tensions, and now, the plane crash.That anxiety has turned into action: Diasporas around the world are connecting and informing others about political unrest taking place in their home countries.“This is a responsibility that immigration comes with that many don’t talk about,” Parseyan said. “And that responsibility is to inform your neighbours.”Plus, diasporas often have more access to free internet and international news than people back home, Parseyan said. That means they can share wide-ranging perspectives with relatives and friends who live in regimes marred with censorship and state surveillance, like Iran.“The people [in Iran] don’t get to see what’s happening in the world through a lens of watching CBC, CNN, RT, and all of those broadcasters offering various angles,” Parseyan said. “If I love people in Iran—my aunts, my uncles—I should do something about it.”
Originally from Iran, Pegah Salari, 36, now lives in Edmonton. She works hard to spread awareness about events happening on the ground in Iran, and like Parseyan, she doesn’t think she can visit Iran safely.“I said goodbye to going back to Iran as soon as I went on TV for the first time,” Salari said. “They’re watching us all the time. Comments, social media posts, whatever.”Salari referred to news coming out of Iran as “exhausting,” but that doesn’t stop her from following current events closely and speaking out.
On social media, people following the news in Iran also pointed to the racism many diasporic communities, particularly racialized ones, face while trying to simultaneously make sense of their grief and anxiety.Canadian writer Sarah Hagi tweeted, “I've been trying to find the words to tweet about this but I am not in the mood for death threats,” highlighting the hateful responses non-white immigrants and their kids often receive in times of strife.
University of Toronto sociology professor Luisa Schwartzman says governments, corporations, and universities need to do more to support immigrant communities. Otherwise, the responsibility to spread awareness falls on people most affected by crises—people like Parseyan and Salari.“At least that way the individual is connected to something else and not just doing it by themselves or with their friends,” said Schwartzman.Diasporas often witness very different crises unfold in their home countries. But immigrants around the world often express a similar sense of responsibility to their roots.
According to a 2018 study, about one in every 30 people globally live outside of their country of origin. In Canada, more than 20 percent of the population is made up of immigrants, and one in seven Americans identified as foreign-born in 2017. Neither of these figures includes first- or second-generation immigrants.
Priya Ramesh moved to Canada from India when she was 8. Now, as a dual-citizen in her 20s, she feels a pull to follow Indian politics closely.“Diaspora people who have been to India and get to enjoy the things we have here in a secular, democratic country, being able to say whatever we want—those are luxuries,” Ramesh said. “It’s really whack if we don’t turn out and show others what’s going on.”
Since India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected in 2014, Ramesh has been paying attention to the rise in far-right, Islamophobic rhetoric. “It’s a crazy thing for me to see as someone who grew up [in Canada],” said Ramesh. “I didn’t think this would happen, but here we are.”Ramesh makes up one-half of Cartel Madras, a hip-hop duo that started out in Calgary, Alberta. The group started voicing dissent against Modi on social media last month. Ramesh said she feels responsible to people back home, especially since Modi introduced a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims.Ramesh says people in diasporas who enjoy fewer privileges than she does shouldn’t feel pressure to stay politically active; as Salari and Parseyan pointed out, it can be dangerous. Even Ramesh wonders what will happen next time she visits India.“We have plans to go in 2020 to tour there,” Ramesh said. “So, I’m trying to think of interesting ways to get to India without being detained.”Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.