Less than 48 hours after Iran hit two U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation for the death of their military leader, Qassem Soleimani, hundreds of high school students converged in San Antonio for a Model United Nations conference.
Students in charge of organizing the conference told Texas Public Radio’s Camille Phillips that the situation with Iran feels personal for them and their friends.
Elias Hansen, 18, is the secretary general of the conference this year. As students filed out of the opening ceremony, the high school senior said his first reaction to the news of Soleimani’s death was shock and fear.
“Especially with this happening not even in Iran, it shocked me. I was looking for justification,” Hansen said. “While some people felt that there was already some, I remember thinking that this is something that puts so many, not just American lives in danger, but innocent lives overseas in danger. And I just — I was shocked and very scared, honestly. Very scared.”
Outside the lunch hall later in the day, Elizabeth Polhamus, also 18, said her first reaction was anger.
“We’re angry, but at the root of that we’re scared,” Polhamus said. “And I just worry about the mental impacts of war on everyone because it’s not these politicians that are going to war. Donald Trump is not going to go to war.”
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Like Hansen, Polhamus is a senior at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio and one of the conference leaders. They said the news of the past week or so has felt different than any news they’ve had before — even after President Trump went on national television to de-escalate tensions.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had something that we talked about that felt so real and so close to home,” Polhamus said. “This just feels so personal. And I hate to say that because that sounds a little bit ignorant; like now we care that it’s affecting us. Obviously we’ve cared before, but now it’s like — my brother could go to war. My friends could go to war.”
Polhamus and her classmates are too young to remember the terrorist attacks on 9/11. She said this feels like the scariest geopolitical event of their lifetime so far.
Back at the opening ceremony, Hansen said everyone his age has talked and worried about the draft all week.
“I know that a draft isn’t going to happen but… a few months ago I got my selective service letter and even that — it brings it back down to earth,” Hansen said. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh. These are real people that are going to have to face these consequences.’”
He knows that if the United States begins a major conflict with Iran it will have a major impact on his generation.
“There’s a classmate of mine — he enlisted in the Air Force a few months ago and at that time it seemed like a pretty safe decision, you know, he was going to get free education,” Hansen said. “He had his life pretty much set ahead of him. And now he’s thrown into a spot of complete uncertainty and almost regret.”
Hansen said he’s relieved the immediate threat of war with Iran seems to have died down, but he and his friends know too much about global affairs to breathe a sigh of relief just yet.
“Looking back at history — that’s how wars start. A small spark like that. And, I mean, that even wasn’t something small. That was an extremely large action,” Hansen said. “I think it’s a general consensus among people my age that even though this was an enemy of the United States this action is really putting a lot of lives in danger.”