What it's like for Iran's expats to watch protests unfold

Alaleh Kamran is having flashbacks. Since protests broke out in her home country of Iran last week, the Los Angeles r...

Posted: Jan. 3, 2018 6:40 AM
Updated: Jan. 3, 2018 2:13 PM

Alaleh Kamran is having flashbacks. Since protests broke out in her home country of Iran last week, the Los Angeles resident has been glued to the news, social media and Telegram, the app used by many Iranians to communicate.

"When I see or hear the people of Iran, chanting in the streets, I feel the same angst, panic, anxiety, the same rush of blood to my armpits, and ears, and the coldness and dampness to my fingers and toes [as I did with the Revolution]," said Kamran, an attorney. "I choke up and tears roll down and I have no power to stop the feeling of helplessness and loss. Loss of land and freedom. Loss of identity, loss of permanence, loss of belonging."

For Kamran, and many other Iranian expats in the United States, watching the turmoil in Iran is bringing back memories of the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979, when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini proclaimed Iran an Islamic Republic.

Kamran, now 52, was just 13 when she, along with thousands of other Iranians, fled the country to settle in the United States. Now she looks from across the world as unrest grips Iran once again.

According to state media, at least 21 people have died in the recent Iran protests, which were sparked by concerns about rising living costs and a stagnant economy but have developed into a broader outcry against the regime. The protests have become a significant challenge to the Iranian government's authority.

On Facebook earlier this week, Kamran shared an image of guards' cars turned over and set on fire taken during recent protests. It reminded her of being a young girl.

"The streets were filled with tanks and the soldiers were sitting with guns pointing in the air, never at the people," she said. "The mood at the time was tense because of all the ongoing and constant protests, but it never felt like we were in any real or actual danger. Suddenly, my brother and I came upon a group of protesters marching towards the tanks who were stationary. And then, I have no idea what happened, but the tanks started rolling towards the protesters who then went into panic mode and started dispersing all over, screaming and shouting ... I don't remember seeing or hearing any gun shots. But I remember the screams."

Others, especially in the Iranian-American community in Los Angeles -- nicknamed "Tehrangeles" -- have felt much the same as they watch, from afar, another generation battle the Iranian regime.

"Seeing the images bring back memories of those days that are still vivid in my mind ... but this time, it is different," said Bita Milanian, an Iranian-American community organizer. "People are more aware, have access to 'real' information and can't be brainwashed with false promises, as they were last time when they were promised everything that wasn't provided to them."

Milanian, who works in marketing, was 6 when the revolution happened. She lived in Tehran for eight years before becoming a refugee in Germany and later immigrating to the US.

Many agree that these recent protests also differ from those in Iran known as the "Green Movement" in 2009, which broke out in response to a disputed election win by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Following the election, "more than one million people protested in the streets of Tehran," National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi wrote in a CNN op-ed. "Though quite ferocious, the current protests have rarely numbered more than a few thousand in any specific locality. The protests in 2009 also had very specific goals -- at least initially. They were prompted by accusations of fraud in the presidential election, and the protestors were demanding the votes be recounted. The protests also had strong leadership from then-presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who gave the movement much-needed organization. The current protests appear much more sporadic, with no clear leadership and with objectives that have shifted over the course of the past four days."

Some feel optimistic the recent protests will ignite positive change. But while they support protest efforts, they also feel removed from them.

"Those of us living outside of Iran can only be supportive of the decisions of the people of Iran and their wishes," Milanian said. "I personally don't feel that I have the right to choose for them, as someone who has lived outside of the country for over 30 years ... all I can do is be supportive from afar, share the news to raise awareness and do my part from the outside, based on their wishes ... I don't believe that I have the right to choose their next leader of choice."

Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, also agrees these protests -- while reminiscent of the revolution -- have a different tone.

"I remember that demonstrators were angry in 1979 and chanting many negative slogans," he said. "I now see demonstrators being full of positive energy and positive and constructive slogans."

Tuesday marked the sixth day of protests in Iran and it leaves Iranians in the US wondering if change is finally ready to come.

"Is it a revolution? Not yet," Maziar Bahari, a former political prisoner and the editor of iranwire.com, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. "Iran's government is its own worst enemy and the Iranian people know it. Economic woes leading to infighting can bring down this corrupt and brutal system. Different factions within the government will, most probably, and just the same as always, choose to dismiss the genuine economic grievances of the Iranian people and blame the protests on foreign agents and an international imperialist-Zionist conspiracy. The Iranian people have learned, after living almost 40 years under the Islamic Republic, to gradually and intelligently raise their voices in peaceful protests that will provoke the government to tear itself apart."

Still, Iranians across the globe -- including famous actors, film directors and comedians have rallied behind protesters -- have expressed their support for protesters online.

"May this blue revolution bring lasting change for the Iranian people," Nazanin Boniadi, actress and activist, tweeted last week. "The growing numbers of brave Iranians taking to the streets fills me with hope that this can lead to a referendum and ultimately the system of governance they choose. #FreeIran."

The "Homeland" star went on to share her family's experiences in Iran.

"I have relatives in #Iran near bankruptcy & who can't access the medication/chemotherapy they need to survive," she wrote in another tweet. "Mass protests show just how societally debilitating these economic hardships have become, galvanizing people in opposition to the deeper malaise of an oppressive state."

Yara Shahidi, who stars in "Blackish," also tweeted.

"Hoping all protesters, Iranians, and my fellow Mashhadies stay safe," she wrote.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump called the Iranian government "brutal and corrupt" in a tweet; and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed Iran's "enemies" for stirring up unrest in the country.

For many Iranian expats in the US, the turmoil in Iran is bringing back memories of the Iranian Revolution

Many agree that these recent protests differ from those in Iran known as the "Green Movement" in 2009

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