The gravity of this moment hit Sam Yebri as soon as he heard the news.
The Los Angeles lawyer says he and other Iranian Americans knew exactly what was at stake as soon as a US drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani. Now they’re watching closely to see what happens next.
“There was no having to Google who he was and why he was important,” says Yebri, who fled Iran with his family when he was just a year old. “The moment the news broke…it spread like wildfire, with reactions varying from praise to alarm to uncertainty.”
As Iran fires missiles at US forces, officials ratchet up their rhetoric and tensions grow between the two countries, CNN asked Iranian Americans how they’re feeling.
Some say they’re afraid for what’s to come, and what they already see happening. Others say they feel hopeful.
Here’s what they think will happen next:
She’s terrified by how quickly things could turn
Persis Karim says she feels shaken by what she’s seen.
“This could all go very badly, very quickly – not just over there, but here in this country,” she says.
Karim, who chairs the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University, says she’s also afraid that as hostilities mount, people will forget what Iranians have brought to America.
“Every time there are these kind of flare-ups – and this is by far the scariest flare-up that we’ve ever seen – everything goes out the window, every shred of human decency, dignity, resilience, contributions that Iranians have made to this country gets overlooked because all we see is the story of this conflict between our government and their government,” she says.
Karim, who’s working on a documentary about the history of Iranians in the San Francisco Bay Area, says she’ll keep pushing to tell the story of Iranians in the United States. But she’s devastated by the latest developments.
“Conflict in the Middle East continues to destroy lives and perpetuate a cycle of violence and misunderstanding that never allows us to see each other, reach other, and tell a different story,” she says. “I feel a deep sorrow for my country, the US, and for the country of my extended family.
“In Persian, when you are sad, you say, ‘I’ve eaten sorrow.’ I feel nothing but sorrow in my bones.”
He’s hopeful a breakthrough could be coming
Sam Yebri says it’s too early to know what will happen next. But the Los Angeles lawyer says he’s still hopeful.
“Iranian Americans — of all faiths — were relieved to see that no Americans were harmed by Iran’s missile strikes,” Yebri says. “So, I remain hopeful that the leaders of America and Iran will heed the call of their people who believe that war is neither necessary nor inevitable.”
Earlier this week, Yebri told CNN he feels a breakthrough could emerge out of the current crisis.
The president and co-founder of 30 Years After, a nonprofit organization promoting leadership among Iranian-American Jews, Yebri says he’s felt hopeful before, every time he’s watched from afar as Iranians rise up and fight for democracy.
But in some ways, he says, the way he feels after Suleimani’s death is different.
“It’s the first time in a long time someone has stood up to the Iranian regime,” he says. “And the Iranian regime now has to do the cost-benefit analysis of all the terrible things it does to its people and the world before it acts. I think that’s a good thing.”
Her 5-year-old told her to stop speaking Farsi
Negah Hekmati says what was supposed to be a simple return home from a skiing trip in Canada soured after Customs and Border Protection officials held her family for hours at a Washington border crossing over the weekend.
Hekmati, an interior designer who’s a US citizen, says her family was pulled aside for questioning after officials learned she and her husband were born in Iran.
“Our kids were so anxious. They didn’t go to sleep because they were afraid that if they sleep … they’re going to take us to the jail and they’ll wake up not seeing us,” Hekmati told reporters Monday.
At one point, her 5-year-old daughter told her mom to stop speaking Farsi.
“As an immigrant, I’m used to this stuff, unfortunately,” she said. “But I’m here today because of my kids. They shouldn’t experience such things. They are US citizens. This is not OK and it shouldn’t be OK for them.”
Advocacy groups say they received multiple reports of Iranian-Americans like Hekmati who were held for an extended period of time at a port of entry in Washington, sparking outrage among some advocates, lawyers and lawmakers concerned over possible targeting of Iranians entering the US.
US Customs and Border Protection has denied claims that Iranians were being detained and refused entry into the United States. The Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights office is investigating.
Hekmati said she felt it was important to speak out.
“I’m afraid it’s a slippery slope, and I’m afraid…if there’s any war or anything like that, my kids are going to get teased for being Iranian or speaking Farsi even. And this is not OK. My kids should be proud of their ancestors and their heritage.”
When police tweeted, ‘if you see something, say something,’ she saw a thinly veiled threat
Nazanin Nour bristled when a series of tweets from the Los Angeles Police Department popped into her Twitter feed.
“While there is no credible threat to Los Angeles, the LAPD is monitoring the events developing in Iran. … This Department is committed to ensuring the safety of our vibrant and diverse community, and we ask every Angeleno to say something if you see something,” the police tweets said.
To Nour, an actor and writer based in LA who’s also a judge on the forthcoming “Persia’s Got Talent,” it sounded like police were telling Iranian Americans, “We’re watching you.”
So she made light of it with a tweet of her own.
“Finding the humor in what’s going on in the world is how I deal with things. I feel like that’s one of the best ways to open up people’s eyes,” she says.
But the situation, she says, is serious.
“That tweet made it feel like we are not American enough, we are not considered American enough. Just because we’re proud of our background and our heritage and our culture, that doesn’t make us any less American. It makes it feel like we’re being singled out.”
Police later posted tweets stating they were committed to protecting all the city’s communities, and to taking immediate action against hate crimes.
Nour says that response was “too little, too late.” And she’s concerned the same kind of anti-Iranian sentiments her parents faced in the 1970s could surge again in the United States.
“People even had to go so far as telling people they weren’t Iranian, just so they would be left alone. I fear that could happen again, in our generation, because of this,” she says. “And it’s pretty scary.”
He’s still pushing for his brother to be released from an Iranian prison
It’s been more than four years since Babak Namazi’s brother and father were imprisoned in Iran. Namazi says the experience has been horrific for his family.
“It’s a wound that is constantly bleeding,” he says, “and…with the situation, and the relations between Iran and the United States, and the escalations, you are on a constant roller coaster of not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Still, Namazi says he’s hoping the two countries can find common ground with a deal that would lead to his family’s freedom.
His brother is being held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. His father was released on medical furlough, but still faces many restrictions and is forbidden from leaving the country, Namazi says.
Namazi told CNN over the weekend that he believes a prisoner exchange between the two countries – like the swap last month that led to another American prisoner’s release – would be the perfect way to calm tensions and build goodwill.
“I strongly believe that this type of humanitarian gesture will go a long way in de-escalation of the current environment we’re in right now, which is obviously horrific for all sides,” he says.
She’s afraid that innocent lives will be lost – and for the resting place of her favorite poet
Hearing US President Donald Trump threaten Iranian cultural sites devastated Niaz Kasravi.
But the 46-year-old Los Angeles-based advocate, who came to the United States from Iran when she was 9 years old, says she took comfort in a hashtag that swiftly popped up on Twitter, #IranianCulturalSites.
“It was a really beautiful reaction to a very ugly statement and threat,” she says.
Kasravi shared a photo of one of her favorite places, the 14th century tomb of Iranian poet Hafez.
“His resting place is a beautiful shrine, set in a beautiful garden, and it’s quite peaceful. They serve the best Persian ice cream there. It’s magnificent,” Kasravi says.
It’s not simply symbolic to threaten such places, she says.
“Just the mere fact of threatening to destroy historical and cultural sites of people is terrorizing in itself,” she says. “That is terrorism, when you threaten to destroy places that families and visitors and children, that everyone goes to. That has nothing to do with the political tug of war happening in this moment between these two nations. … I think that’s terrorizing for our community.”
After Iran’s missile launch Tuesday night, Kasravi says her fears have only deepened.
“As a community our worst fears, something we’ve been dreading for more than three decades, have now been realized,” she says. “There is anger and fear, and lots of prayers going to the people of Iran and all the innocent lives that will be lost on both sides in this conflict.”
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and Christi Paul contributed to this report.