In the week since a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s top military leader, Shahin Alireza Khojastehzad has been thinking constantly of the crisis that has put his homeland and the country he now calls home on the brink of war.

Khojastehzad, who was born in Tehran and raised in Portland, said he would like to see Iran’s regime replaced, but also worries that the increased tension will incite violence and further destabilize the region.

“As an American I want to see change in Iran and I don’t want to see Americans attacked. But I also don’t want to see Iranians attacked,” said Khojastehzad, 35. “I’m the first person who wants Iran to change and that government to fall, but I want it to be by the Iranian people.”

While some members of Maine’s small Iranian community are nervous to talk about the situation because they still have family in Iran, three of them told the Portland Press Herald they are not upset that Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whom they describe as an evil killer, died. But they do have conflicting emotions about what will happen now.

The National Iranian American Council estimates just over 200 Iranian-Americans live in Maine. The state’s Kurdish population is even smaller, with about 25 adults and children living mostly in southern Maine. The Census estimates there are about 1 million Iranian-Americans living in the United States.

Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state, ranging across a wide swath of the Middle East, from eastern Turkey, through northern Syria and Iraq, and northwestern Iran.

Hawreh Haddadi, a 25-year-old Kurdish Iranian who was born in Iraq and raised in Windham, welcomed Soleimani’s killing in Iraq as “a clear statement by the Trump administration that it will not tolerate any more of Iran’s threats and will not let the Islamic Republic of Iran continue with its extremist agenda.”

“It’s about time the U.S. government made a clear statement directed at the Iranian officials: Change course or you will get more pressure placed on you,” Haddadi said by email from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where he has been a lecturer at Soran University for the past five months.

Haddadi said many Kurds are happy with the killing of Soleimani, whom he called a “ruthless killer that caused pain and suffering to many.” He believes Iranians, in general, welcomed the military strike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani, despite the massive marches and protests after the attack. He believes millions of Iranians were forced by the government to attend the funeral under threat of government penalties.

Haddadi, who wrote a book, “Finding Kurdistan: A Kurdish Iranian American’s Journey Home,” after visiting Iran with his family in 2010, said he would like to see a clear policy from the Trump administration, rather than the “constant back and forth” he’s seen so far. He believes more sanctions will be placed against the Iranian government, but he doesn’t think it will radically shift the ideology of Iranian officials.

“In the last 40 years, there has been little or no interest in respecting democratic values, human rights or listening to the desires of their own people,” he said. “This is why I find it very unlikely for there to be substantial and concrete change in the Islamic Republic.”

Ghomri Rostampour is a Kurd who fled Iran as a political refugee in 1998 and became a U.S. citizen in 2004. A resident of South Portland, she worked in public schools for years and now owns an international student exchange firm. She has been experiencing flashbacks to the violence she witnessed before she left her home country, and she had a nightmare about her brother, who now also lives in the United States.

“In the morning, I wasn’t even able to have my breakfast,” said Rostampour, 53. “I called my brother right away and said, ‘Again, all the soldiers came to us, and they were looking for you.’ He said, ‘No, no, I am OK.'”

She called Soleimani “an evil person” and agreed that many Iranians did not support him and are glad he is dead. But she wants to see humanitarian work in the region instead of military action, and she said the citizens of Iran would not want war with the United States.

Ghomri Rostampour, a member of Maine’s small Kurdish community, said many Iranians didn’t support Gen. Qassem Soleimani and are glad he is dead. Even so, the South Portland resident – seen at her home in October – worries about the ratcheting up of tensions in the region in the wake of his killing by the U.S. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“The (Iranian) government doesn’t have any support from the people,” she said.

Rostampour worries about relatives who still live in the region, and she is constantly checking her phone for news updates. When President Trump announced Friday that he would impose additional economic sanctions against Iran, she worried those measures would only make life harder for regular people without impacting government officials.

“It makes life more difficult for ordinary people,” Rostampour said. “It’s not for the people that are in power.”

Khojastehzad, who is co-owner of Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland, came to Maine as a toddler after his parents left Tehran in 1987 when his father was being investigated by military police for helping westerners leave the country. They fled Iran with $10,000, a tea kettle and a thermos, Khojastehzad said.

Khojastehzad also is glad to see Soleimani gone, but he doesn’t want to see unilateral escalations of war.

“The U.S. needs to show our strength against evil, not be the perpetrators of it,” he said.

Khojastehzad believes that most Iranians do not despise the United States or American citizens.

“They want to be part of the international community. At the same time, they would like sovereignty to not be controlled by American politics. They’d like to rule their own country,” he said.

Khojastehzad said while he wants Iran to be free, he feels Americans need to stand against “another endless war” because it will be U.S. service members and Iranian civilians who will suffer.

“This is not the way, this only strips them of their country and turns our dream of an independent Iran into a foddered ruin,” Khojastehzad said. “The Iranian people can be the only ones to change their government.”

In the last week, Khojastehzad said he has had similar feelings to the ones he had after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he was called racist names and questioned about his background. Before he traveled recently for business and on his honeymoon, he contacted members of Maine’s Congressional delegation because he was concerned he’d have trouble getting back into the United States because he was born in Iran.

Khojastehzad has dreamed nearly his entire life of returning to Tehran, but he feels that opportunity is now slipping away. President Trump’s threat to destroy cultural sites brought tears to Khojastehzad’s eyes.

“I can only imagine the beauty of Shiraz, Tehran, the Caspian and Persepolis in my mind, but the hope of actually seeing it intact is becoming an increasingly hopeless image,” he said.

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