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'There Is A Lot Of Distress': Local Iranian Americans Discuss Tense International Moment

From left, Dr. Bahar Bastani and attorney Javad Khazaeli joined Tuesday's talk show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

The year 2020 is still in its infancy, yet it’s already been marked by a slew of troubling events near and far — from gun violence in St. Louis, to devastating wildfires in Australia, to dramatically escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Many Americans may feel far removed from violence and loss in another part of the world, despite direct U.S. involvement, and everyday life goes on. But for those with loved ones based in volatile, vulnerable places, or who have deep cultural ties to a country such as Iran, the latest round of disturbing headlines can carry a lot more weight.

St. Louisan Jaleh Fazelian, who lived in Iran as a small child, felt a wave of worry after America’s assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s ensuing attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq — and the accounts from Iranian Americans who said they were detained for hours last week along the U.S.-Canada border. She wondered what’s next, both in terms of potential war and when it comes to questioning people’s citizenship.

“It’s a little scary to think about,” said Fazelian, who is an associate dean of libraries at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a former president of the nationwide Middle East Librarians Association. “These are people who are actually citizens, and it’s not easy to go through the process of becoming an American citizen. They’ve gone through years and years of vetting. So for them to be stopped and questioned at the border based on their nationality is troubling, to say the least.”

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with two other local Iranian Americans, Dr. Bahar Bastani and Javad Khazaeli, to get their perspectives.

Bastani is a St. Louis University professor of medicine and board member with a number of local cultural organizations, including the Chesterfield-based Iranian American Cultural Society of the Midwest.

Khazaeli is an immigration and civil rights attorney and former national security prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Each guest discussed memories of Iran-American relations decades ago, when they first came to the U.S., and also offered their takes on the latest developments and concerns.

“My mom has a sewing shop in Edwardsville, Illinois … she’s had this shop for 30 years,” Khazaeli said. “And last year, after [President] Trump was elected, for the first time ever, she had somebody enter her shop and demand to know her religion. So we’re in different cycles, and right now, even before the most recent stuff [involving Iran], we’ve got a president who is other-izing all of us and is saying that you are just a bad person for being from where you are.”

Bastani said that a lot of the anxieties that he has observed among the local Iranian-American community, which he emphasized is not monolithic, are coming from university students he interacts with.

“We have at least probably 40 postdocs and very high-level Ph.D. students at Wash U, probably 20 [or] 25 at SLU and probably 40 at SIUE [Southern Illinois University Edwardsville],” he said, “and many of them with the visas, they are afraid [about going] back to Iran" and being unable to come back.

“[There are] people who are married, and they cannot bring their wife or their husband, or they cannot bring their parents, so there is a lot of distress,” Bastani added. “And with the new events happening, there are theories that there will be even more restrictions [on] travel for people from Iran, which is a highly educated population there.

“And many of them want to come for higher degrees, Ph.D.s and postdocs, and they are going to be definitely prevented from coming, which is a loss for the U.S. as well as for those people who are applying to come.”

Listen to the conversation:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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