The unrest in Iran seen from across the ocean

Protests continue in Iran, and Iranians in Montreal struggle to be so far from their homeland

McGill University’s Islamic Studies Library is a quiet and inviting place. From the outside, it looks like any other McGill building, and a passerby may not realize the beauty it holds. It’s filled with rows of leather-bound books, large windows, spiral staircases, and students studying for their finals.

Above the library, the Islamic Studies lounge is not so quiet. People talk, laugh, and eat together. There, Sonia Nouri and Sheida Mousavi, second-year Iranian political science students at McGill University, are animatedly speaking Farsi with a friend. They bid him farewell before finding a quieter room to discuss their homeland and the turmoil it faces since the death of Mahsa Amini in September.

“Being Iranian is a lot more than the government, it’s a lot more than the hijab, it’s a lot more than being restricted every day,” said Mousavi. 

“A lot of it is that. But, when I talk to my [family], we talk about poetry, and Iranian food, and that’s also what it means to me,” she added. But right now, both students are having a hard time cherishing their Iranian identity.

Nouri and Mousavi both immigrated to Canada from Iran when they were young. They are co-founders of the Coalition for Iranian Human Rights McGill (CIHRM), a group they created to bring McGill’s Iranian community together and to hold a vigil for Mahsa Amini in October.

Last September, Amini died in custody after Iran’s “morality police,” the force tasked with enforcing Iran’s dress code, arrested her for wearing her hijab incorrectly. The Iranian government said that she died of a heart attack, but witnesses claimed that she was beaten by the officers.

Her death led to an uproar against the Islamic Republic of Iran, in which women filmed themselves removing and sometimes burning their hijabs in protest. According to Amnesty International, 15,000 protesters have been arrested, and 21 people are at risk of receiving the death penalty for the offenses of “enmity against God” or “corruption on earth.” The organization Iranian Human Rights states that security forces have killed at least 448 people since the beginning of the protests.

Protesters march in Montreal MARIEKE GLORIEUX-STRYCKAMN/ The Concordian

Nouri and Mousavi have watched these headlines from afar. “Being here has, in the most obvious way, been very difficult and upsetting,” explained Mousavi.

“The protests [in Iran] are only getting worse,” added Nouri, “and we don’t want the conversation to die down in McGill and in Montreal.”

Nouri was a year old when her family moved to Canada, and Mousavi was five. They grew up seeing their families in Iran facing oppression and developed an antagonistic view of the country’s regime. Despite all this, they also grew up with the Iranian culture, surrounded by its religions and traditions.

“Though I grew up here, I never felt really Canadian,” said Nouri. “I always identified more with being Iranian. I was raised grieving a country I never got to live in.”

Mousavi had a different experience. She tried to push away her Iranian heritage, and only in recent years has found a way to unite that heritage with her Canadian identity. “Being a migrant,” she said, “you do feel a constant loss about a lot of things, whether it’s a loss of culture or loss of language.”

In the last few weeks, they have struggled to stay proud of their Iranian identity.  “The ways people are describing this country that we consider our homeland, the language that’s being used around this, it’s very conflicting,” said Nouri. “Though we agree that the regime is horrible, it’s hard to see so much of it be generalized.”

These feelings are echoed by the Iranian Student Association of Concordia University (ISACU), and by the organization Woman-Life-Freedom Montreal (WLFM). Fora Fereydouni is a volunteer for ISACU and the co-founder of WLFM. She emigrated from Iran six years ago and is now studying psychology at Concordia University.

Fereydouni explained that the unrest in Iran has made her anxious and depressed. “My family is in the street. My friends are in the street,” she said. “We can just be their voice. We can’t do anything else. It is really exhausting.”

“It has given us a very strong survivor’s guilt,” added Darya Almasi, a volunteer for ISACU and WLFM. Almasi immigrated five years ago to pursue her PhD in sociology at Concordia. “I came here in search of freedom and liberty,” she said. “But the idea that I moved here, so I’m free, I’m on my own and living my life, it never came true. We were always tied to our roots back home. Now that our country is going through a revolution, with mass murder and unbelievable violations of human rights, we’re again finding ourselves in the middle of a war zone.”

Shayan Asgharian, president of ISACU and native Montrealer, experienced many of the same feelings as his colleagues. Asgharian studies political science and Iranian studies, and he grew up intertwined with Iranian culture and still has loved ones in Iran.

“I’ve been worried sick,” he said. “Thursday of last week, I stayed up all night. I called one of my friends 21 times, and he didn’t answer at all, because they didn’t have any connection to the internet.”

According to Asgharian, students are at the center of the crisis in Iran. “When universities are getting blown up, it directly affects us. When someone who is our age gets murdered, it directly affects us. For example, Zhina [Mahsa] Amini, she could’ve been a student. She could’ve been here, talking with us about a completely different subject.”

He is not the only Iranian student losing sleep these days. Pooya is an international student pursuing a master’s in computer science at Concordia, who withheld his last name for security reasons. He moved to Montreal in the winter of 2021. His friends and family are still in Iran, and many of them are in the streets, protesting.

“A couple of my best friends are going out there,” he said. “The first few days, the government were killing brutally, and every night, I was sleeping, and I was just hoping ‘God, just save them tomorrow.’”

Pooya misses his family, but if he goes back to Iran, he will have to do military service. His plan is to get permanent resident status in Canada before returning to his home country.

“It’s hard,” he said. “You cannot forget your hometown easily. But once your home is at war, you need to save yourself first.”

Nevertheless, he shared his hopes that the protests would be successful, and that the government would be replaced. “Only then we can say, now we survived. We can say, now we can provide opportunities for people to work, and live together, and thrive together. Only then we can decide.”

In the classroom above the Islamic studies library, Nouri called on people outside the Iranian community to keep up to date on the news and to offer solidarity for the Iranian community.

“Seeing increased frustration with our generation, seeing these women risk their lives, it’s really empowering,” added Mousavi. “I think that the times will change.”

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