As a child, I left Iran to escape a bloody war and political oppression. Now in America, I'm raising my child in the age of hate crimes, mass shootings, and war on immigrants.

By Ari Honarvar
September 03, 2019
Photograph of Ari Honarvar, 7, taken in Jahrom, Iran in 1980, right after the Iran-Iraq war began. Courtesy of Ari Honarvar
Ari Honarvar

The Iran-Iraq war killed a million people. I lived eight years of my childhood in the midst of that war and the political oppression in Iran. I was lucky. My hometown was bombed only a handful of times but the ripples of terror had a way of reaching all of us, even those who didn't bear the brunt of the attacks. The unending stress turned teenagers' hair gray. It wasn't uncommon that someone would have a heart attack when a door slammed loudly. Besides the stresses of the war, the recent Iranian revolution had formed imaginary lines, running through families and friends, splitting the country in pieces. Parents were imprisoned when their children repeated dinner conversations at school that in any way challenged the Iranian government—discussions about how the country was heading in the wrong direction or how religion shouldn't be the law of the land. Children had to become the best secret keepers. Neighbors spied on neighbors and family members couldn't trust one another.

Several years after migrating to America, frozen fear slowly began to thaw inside me. My gaze stopped flitting about for spies that might be watching me. My ears lost their hypervigilance of listening for the sound of a bomb or the commotion of someone being taken in by authorities. I stopped holding my breath for the next disaster. My new home certainly wasn't free of problems, but I continually saw how people stood up for the oppressed and tried to make laws more just. It was hard not to fall in love with America.

But lately, the forgotten sensations have come back. I see the familiar edges of wartime anxiety emerging in my parent-friends and their children—those who have never experienced war or lived under an autocratic regime. A growing number of children in our country fear detention and deportation of their parents and loved ones. Many parents I know fear crowded places. Last month, a motorcycle backfired in Times Square, sending a wave of panic through the crowd who mistook it for gunshots. People are on edge, and our sensitive children pick up on this.

A Tense Time in America

I don't remember the exact moment when terror became our new normal. When my son was in preschool, the devastating Sandy Hook massacre struck terror inside my heart and the hearts of all the parents I knew. We hoped it would be an isolated incident. But seven years and numerous mass shootings later, I'm once again tasting the bitter flavor of creeping terror. I remember the look of worry in my father's eyes when he asked me if I knew what to do in the case of a bomb or missile attack. I remember my mother's insistence that I recite a protective prayer before I leave for school. I remember looking back at my childhood courtyard and my parents, trying to memorize all the details, just in case our lives irrevocably changed.

Given what I have experienced when people turn against one another, I have closely watched anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiments spread and hate crimes against minorities increase in the recent years. One day, right before the last presidential election, a parent at the pick-up area of my son's multicultural elementary school exclaimed, "When Trump becomes President, all you immigrants will be deported!" Something broke loose inside me. This was my home, and the only home my child has known, yet we were viewed as the "other." This, too, was far from an isolated incident. My son, who had just become comfortable in his biracial identity, learned about the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when a white nationalist drove his car into a sea of counter-protesters, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring several others. My son began worrying about his black friends. He asked whether his brown classmates would be deported.

My husband and I began the delicate dance of educating our son about the real-life consequences of bigotry and nativism while protecting our child's innocence and joy. We taught him how to be aware of his surroundings, without constantly glancing over his shoulders—how to discern when to act in a crisis like a school shooting, and when to remain still.

Ari Honarvar on her 8th birthday in Shiraz, Iran. Of the photo, she says: "It was such a big deal to have a cake because of sugar rations but our neighbor was a baker and had ways of obtaining sugar. It seems like an ordinary birthday photo but oppression and fear swirled all around us." Courtesy of Ari Honarvar
Ari Honarvar

The telltale signs that a nation is in danger of accepting a new normal is that its citizens believe the status quo has endured forever. It becomes difficult to remember what it was like before. But it's only been a little more than a year since the first caravan of migrants sought asylum in the U.S. Since then, a barrage of inhumane immigration policies have ripped children from their parents, resulted in death of migrant children in custody, kept asylum seekers in horrific and squalid detention centers, and unleashed ICE raids, which terrorize and devastate communities. Like those who were arrested in my childhood, the parents snatched by ICE don't get to prepare for their absence. Relatives or friends scramble to find childcare for the terrified kids whose parents have disappeared without warning. Imagine the helplessness of a parent who is kept away from their children, unable to comfort them or even send a message that it's going to be alright. The imprisoned parents' wages are withheld. Others have to step in to provide for their children. In custody and without a paycheck, the apprehended parents can't pay bills or rent. While children's lives are irreparably damaged, those depending on rent or services provided by their parents have to find other means.

There's Hope For a Better Future

In the past two years, this war on immigrants in America has been interspersed with increased mass shootings.

Earlier this summer, when I took my son and his two friends to Comic-Con, I sat the children down by the exit and gave them a lecture about what they should do if a shooting occurred. Essentially, I asked them to stop being kids, just like my parents had done with me during the days of war in Iran.

Although the current climate has a way of reminding me of my childhood—when children came home from school to find their parents gone, arrested without warning, and we attended daily funerals—there are still vast differences between post-revolution Iran and the U.S. In America, we can still speak our minds and assemble to protest an unjust system, we hope, without a threat of retribution. The First Amendment is also clear about the separation of church and state. I thank the universe every day that, as a woman, I can choose to wear the clothes I want.

In America, we don't have a guardian council handpicking our elected officials and decent candidates have a chance of winning. In Iran, civilians under attack didn't have the means to end the war. In the U.S., we can take real steps to decrease and eventually stop mass shootings. We also don't have to cut ties with minorities out of being accused of conspiring with enemies or foreign agents and can organize to help the most vulnerable people. We can sponsor asylum-seeking families, volunteer as immigration court observers, or donate and volunteer with organizations that help migrants. I'm continually delighted by the number of ordinary people and organizations that work tirelessly to bring about social justice and meaningful change.

The war days taught me the importance of cultivating joy and camaraderie in building resilience during difficult times. Now, I do my part in bringing joy and resilience to asylum seekers and continue to tell their stories to my son. This is a difficult time to be a child in our corner of the world. But rather than succumbing to despair, we can become good role models of keeping our sense of humor and perspective. We can educate our kids about the state of the world and help them become involved in worthy causes.

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