International students in Oklahoma respond to protests in Iran
As deadly protests continue in Iran, members of the Iranian community at OU are responding to the conflict a world away.
Economics PhD student Sara Asgari traveled home to Iran over the summer. While she was there, she noticed the increased presence of the country’s morality police following the 2021 election of President Ebrahim Raisi.
“When I was in Tehran, I realized that it is getting more severe every day,” Asgari said.
A little over a month after she returned to the U.S., the situation in her home country intensified after the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police. Eyewitnesses said she was beaten to death for not following the country’s mandatory hijab law.
In the weeks of protests that have followed, hundreds are confirmed dead and tens of thousands have been arrested in Iran.
Across the world - and here in Oklahoma - supporters of the protestors and their cries of “woman, life, freedom” in Persian, have gathered in places like Scissortail Park in Oklahoma City to raise awareness.
Neuroscience PhD candidate Mehrnoush Nourbakhsh, along with Asgari and other Iranian students at OU have been participating in and leading panels, rallies, and demonstrations on campus and in Oklahoma City.
“We owe it to them to rise up, to be their voice. We cannot let this spirit of hope die out or die down,” Nourbakhsh said at a rally in Scissortail Park.
Even though she left Iran in 2010, Nourbakhsh still feels a deep connection to the social and political unrest in her home country.
“Every single thing that’s happened in the 12 years I’m out of Iran, I totally, like, feel it in my heart. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time,” she said.
Roksana Alavi, a professor of continuing and graduate studies, women and gender studies, and philosophy at OU, came to Oklahoma from Iran in 1988. She said the younger generation at the forefront of this movement are a force to be reckoned with.
“Gen Z is unstoppable in Iran right now. I’m so incredibly proud of them. I think they’re quite a strong-minded, capable generation. They’re going to get what they want,” Alavi said.
The current movement in Iran has been led by young people - university, high school and even some primary school students. While Asgari and Nourbakhsh are echoing their efforts here in Oklahoma, splitting their attention between activism and their studies has taken a mental toll.
“At one side, actually we are feeling guilty that oh, for example, I'm not touching my research, I'm not doing that. I'm like, behind the schedule and everything,” Nourbakhsh said.
“And the other side, I can say that we feel bad that all the people are killing in the street. Like, you should just pretend. Or trying to do your normal life like nothing happened. So, you know, the pressure we have on our mental health is really high.”
Sheena Mehta, a staff psychologist with the OU Counseling Center, said international Iranian students may be experiencing anxiety and fear as a result of watching the protests unfold.
“It's already stressful being in a new place, a new environment and new culture, having to adjust to that. And then having to also navigate the political turmoil back home and kind of witnessing what's happening. That can further exacerbate a lot of these mental health symptoms,” she said.
Mehta said the support group she hosts called International Students Listening Space may be helpful for Iranian students during this crisis. It’s on the first Friday of every month via Zoom.
“I know that all the Iranians are on the same page,” Asgari said. “We start to get together more, we are trying to support each other through this process.”
Asgari is not sure if she will be able to travel home again any time soon. Because of government-imposed internet shutdowns in Iran, it has been difficult for her to contact her family. She'll have to rely on the Iranian community at OU for now.
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