It’s been a whirlwind of emotions for Arya Barkesseh since it was announced Friday that President Donald Trump had ordered a U.S. strike that killed a top Iranian general.
The 18-year-old Iranian American from Salt Lake City scrolled through social media and found memes joking about how Qassem Soleimani’s death will lead to World War III. Others posted photos of Iranian models with objectifying captions.
It seemed as if people here were desensitized to the gravity of the situation, he said at an anti-war protest that drew about 170 people who chanted and waved signs in downtown Salt Lake City on Saturday.
But as people posted flippant remarks online, Barkesseh was calling his family members who are in Iran. He says he worries not just for them, but for his own future.
Barkesseh was born and raised in Utah, but has dual citizenship. He worries that if Trump’s decision leads to war, he could be forced to go to Iran and fight for that country.
The 18-year-old West High School student just finished applying to colleges two days ago. That’s the future he wants for himself — not fighting a war in Iran.
“I don’t want to return to my homeland,” he told protesters, “for a war I don’t want to fight.”
Iran has promised to seek revenge for the airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed Soleimani, according to the Associated Press, and the U.S. announced Friday it was sending more troops to the region as tensions continued to increase as a result of the killing.
Those who attended Saturday’s protest worried that this was just the beginning that would lead to a war with Iran — a conflict they didn’t support.
Their chants of “Hands off Iran!” and “1, 2, 3, 4, we won’t fight a rich man’s war!” echoed off the Wallace F. Bennett federal building during the chilly afternoon protest. They held signs as they stood on the street corner that read “Peace on Earth,” “No war with Iran” and “War is not the answer.”
One young boy’s sign was scrawled with the words, “Arms are for hugging.”
Those who showed up Saturday said they hoped their government leaders saw the protest and recognized that there are people in the community who oppose going to war with Iran.
Many of those were young people like Barkesseh, either still in high school or new graduates.
Grace Lang, 16, said she has friends who have immigrated from Iran who still have family there. She’s worried for them. “I just don’t want them harmed,” she said. “I don’t want America to meddle in it.”
Her friend, 18-year-old Kristen Jensen, said she wanted to protest to show that they cared. It meant more to her, she said, to show up in person than to merely post a message of support on social media.
“I just wanted to show that solidarity,” she said, “that even though we aren’t going to be affected in any way that we are standing with those people.”
But there were some that worried a potential war could have a trickle-down effect and harm Utahns. Alborz Ghandehari, a 31-year-old Iranian American from Salt Lake City, said he’s concerned that Trump’s actions could lead to more discrimination and racial hostility toward Iranian Americans.
Ghandehari said he hopes that leaders look at people like those who gathered Saturday and recognize a community who doesn’t want war. They are worried about things like health care and jobs and being able to pay their rent. They want taxpayer dollars to go to those issues — not fund a military budget for a war with Iran.
Like Barkesseh and so many others, Ghandehari also has aunts and uncles and family in Iran.
He said that he’s been able to speak on the phone with his family, and he said they are feeling scared.
“People are feeling like they don’t know what is happening,” he said. “All of sudden, since the events of Thursday night, we’ve been thrown into chaos and our lives have just sort of been put on hold. People are very afraid.”