Tracing the world from Toronto – The Varsity – Varsity
Content warning: This article discusses deaths from the recent crowd crush in Seoul, South Korea, as well as gender-based violence and murder in Iran.
When I snuggled in my bed on the night of October 29, my last thought was the Halloween costume that would be delivered to me the next morning. Minutes after shutting my eyes, however, my phone buzzed with a Facebook notification. I gave into the gateway of doom scrolling through social media and realized something was off.
Different Korean accounts were uploading footage of bodies on the ground with other people performing CPR on them. Thousands of commenters were tagging people they knew who were near the neighbourhood of Itaewon, Seoul. Captions read that six people fell unconscious in Itaewon amidst a Halloween party. I remember the two assumptions that crossed my mind when consuming the news: the event was either a tasteless Halloween prank or a minor accident.
The next morning, the world became aware that 149 people had died in a crowd crush in a downhill alley; the death toll eventually rose to 158 over the following weeks. On that silent Sunday morning, my family and I sat in front of the television, seeing no concrete report on any of the events by President Yoon Suk-yeol’s conservative government and the police force. The first concession by authorities that there were no protocols for dealing with such a massive crowd came on the following Monday. It was succeeded by a belated statement from South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo that acknowledged the “lack of deep institutional knowledge and consideration for crowd management.”
South Koreans were infuriated. Most who had lost their lives in the Itaewon disaster were younger than 30. Eleven emergency calls were made from the area where the accident occurred but the police dispatched officers on only four cases. This event was harrowingly similar to the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, which took 304 lives — mainly of high school teenagers — while the later-impeached former President Park Geun-hye of the conservative government was absent for seven hours. I was 12 years old and reticent when the Sewol ferry sank; I am now eight years older and capable of fury, mourning, and indignation over another avoidable tragedy that has occurred before even a decade passed.
I happened to be living in South Korea on a gap semester when the tragedy occurred in Itaewon; however, the 120,000 Koreans living in Toronto digested these events from great geographical distance. This made me question how people soak in tragedies that occur back home when they are far from home. At a diverse school like U of T, how are young students from a myriad of different countries dealing with the pain and suffering from the countries their identities are rooted in? People with ties to other countries often feel isolated and have their trauma exacerbated when Canadians and Canadian media do not hold a nuanced view of other countries.
Through speaking with other U of T students from South Korea, Iran, and Brazil, I was able to take in each country’s tragedies, protests, and political polarization with an entirely new personal and human perspective that I am privileged to share.
Taking in Itaewon from Toronto
Gloria Song, a second-year student at Trinity College, was with her family when she first saw the news of the Itaewon crush. As the daughter of first-generation South Koreans who settled in Canada, seeing televised news reporting the initial number of deaths made Song immediately call family and friends back in South Korea, despite their drastic 14 hour time difference.
Even after confirmation that everyone her family knew was safe and well, however, Song was still unable to erase the footage from her mind.
In 2022, a tragedy like that of Itaewon is especially difficult to fathom when living outside of the country. Throughout her years living in Canada, Song has witnessed many of her Korean-Canadian peers grow to accept and embrace their home country through its cultural boom that spread without barriers. Colloquially referred to as being part of hallyu, or the ‘Korean Wave,’ South Korean cinema, music, Netflix shows, makeup brands, and food have been rapidly taking the globe in an unparalleled way.
Beneath all of the glamour, Song sees the hard work of everyday South Koreans that built the country into what it is now. However, this is what makes the Itaewon tragedy so poignant. Song remarked, “No matter how hard Korean people… [try to] show who we are… I don’t see it being at its full potential if the government is so unstable.” Song explained that South Koreans studying abroad are left with the trauma of potentially losing people they knew or could have known as a consequence for seeking a better life elsewhere.
It’s hard to talk about trauma back home when people here don’t see the whole picture — the tapestry of nuance that makes your home what it is. Beneath the catchy lyrics and dance moves of 2012’s Gangnam style, Canadian listeners missed the song’s deeper meaning about inequality in post-globalization Korea. Meanwhile, the concerts of groups like Blackpink hide K-Pop’s widespread abusive work conditions and the economic struggles that pressure desperate young people to audition in the first place.
On September 16, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old Kurdish-Iranian woman, decided to go on a family trip to the country’s capital, Tehran. Amini’s plan was abruptly cut short when the country’s “morality police” arrested her for violating Iran’s dress code. Amini died in police custody three days later, after sustaining blows to the head and falling into a coma.
Amini’s death came weeks after the the Iranian government decided to implement more stringent laws for wearing the hijab by utilizing facial recognition technology on public transport. Concerns were heightened when Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi signed this law, especially since the Iranian regime started phasing in biometric identity cards in 2015 — allowing for a majority of the Iranian population to be easily identified for violating dress code.
Iranian women have been fighting for autonomy over their bodies for decades. The current Iranian regime imposes mandatory veiling on women. Throughout recent years, younger women started to take part in nonviolent protests by removing their headscarves, as Vida Movahed, a mother in her 30s, popularized in 2017.
It is for this reason that Tara Hejazi, a fourth-year UTSC student, wholeheartedly agreed with her father when he told her she should be proud to be an Iranian woman. She called what the world is seeing in Iran right now as a “woman-led revolution” and she could not be more proud of it. For Hejazi, to see so many women forcefully lead the decades of resistance into a nationwide protest is empowering.
But, although Hejazi spoke of the Iranian women with great admiration and pride, she often stopped mid sentence to hold back tears or take a breath during our interview. The brief pauses she took encapsulated her understanding of the suffering felt from the Iranian government’s ruthless murder and detainment of women, men, and children.
Hejazi knows that there are many more killings and detainees that are not being acknowledged by the Iranian regime and, in many cases, being dismissed with lies. In October, Iran’s Forensic Organisation officially published that Amini’s death was “not caused by blows to the head and vital organs and limbs of the body” and the police still deny that the 22 year old underwent any physical harm.
In Toronto, even at a distance from Iran, Hejazi is fighting for her people through weekly protests. She knows that Iranians are connected wherever in the world they are, and that this challenging period will be overcome. She also appreciates the U of T professors who have understood that her mind is preoccupied with trauma and provided leniency with schoolwork.
Nevertheless, she still finds discussing a subject matter with such great weight difficult in her personal life with friends, a sentiment that I understand. When matters do not directly affect your friends, you become dubious on whether what is happening in your home country is even relevant.
Regardless, Hejazi is persistent. People should not stop talking about Iran and she is confident that the regime will fall because of the Iranian people.
A country divided
When thinking of her loved ones living in Brazil, second-year UTM student Ana Porto feels guilty about where she currently lives. Porto flew to Canada in 2018 in search of a better education and employment opportunities; though content with her current life, she understands that, by moving, she was emotionally distancing herself from Brazil.
The 7,000 kilometres between Brazil and U of T seemed especially far during Brazil’s presidential election on October 2. The election was dubbed the most important one in the country’s democratic history; Brazil achieved democracy in 1985 after transitioning from a military regime that had been in place for 21 years. One of the strong supporters of Brazil’s former military regime was the far-right candidate and incumbent president of the nation: Jair Bolsonaro.
Representing the conservative Liberal Party, Bolsonaro has been referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics.” After his inauguration in 2019, the country’s level of poverty was exacerbated due to the COVID-19 virus, which he perceived as the “little flu.” This dismissal proved to be lethal; almost three years after the declaration of the pandemic, Brazil has the second highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world, with over 680,000 lives lost.
Although the pandemic affected the entire world, the situation in Canada was much less dire than in Brazil, with 46,710 COVID-19 deaths. From afar, in a relatively safer country, Porto has been able to monitor the situation in her home. A helpful source of insight stemmed directly from her father, who works in public education in Brazil.
After emphasizing how Brazilian students inevitably need to pay for education in private schools due to the lack of resources allocated for public schools, she recalls that she and her father discussed how difficult the pandemic was for children in public schools. To her dismay, her father informed her that, “When COVID-19 ended and classes resumed, most kids didn’t come back because they had to make money.” Children withdrew from schools and started working hard labour jobs to financially sustain their families — “almost half of the kids didn’t come back,” Porto’s father told her.
It was this knowledge that led Porto to abstain from voting for Bolsonaro. The election result accordingly represented that half of Brazilians also found his politics unbefitting to their values. However, his popular competitor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won only by a 1.78 per cent margin, exemplifying how the nation is undergoing deep political polarization.
Da Silva will be inaugurated for the third time on January 1, 2023. He referred to this as a “resurrection” because he had been incarcerated for an alleged role in the biggest corruption scandal of Brazil: ‘Lava Jato’ or ‘Operation Car Wash.’ After being imprisoned for 580 days, da Silva was released when it was divulged that Judge Sergio Moro, who spearheaded the corruption investigation, did not follow due legal process, and instead privately communicated with prosecutors to scheme charges against da Silva.
The investigation was a pivotal turning point in Brazil’s political state. The bribery scandal was what ultimately prevented da Silva from running against Bolsonaro in 2018, notwithstanding polls indicating the former’s higher popularity. The omnipresent support of da Silva, his shocking corruption scandal, and Bolsonaro’s subsequent win over a significantly less popular candidate from da Silva’s Workers’ Party all amalgamated to build extreme political chaos.
While Brazil celebrated da Silva’s reclaimed presidency, Porto had more pressing concerns. Throughout the race, she did not see her values reflected in either candidate and the sense of impending doom from the bifurcation of her home country precedes any relief from the election result.
Above all, living in Canada heightened Porto’s apprehension of most people in Brazil who cannot easily access the internet and must accept televised news at face value. She said that “it’s hard for [most Brazilians] to be educated about politics in Brazil.” Porto’s father had told her that education of the younger people is key to saving their country; when thinking of the students who were forced to leave school to work, her fear for Brazil became tangible.
While her home country was politically divided in half, Porto stayed in Toronto, with one question lingering in her mind: with whom could she talk about the political stress from Brazil? The same sentiment seemed to linger for Song and Hejazi: who can they turn to in Canada?
The home that keeps us quiet
This is where we start and end: Toronto. It is home to students such as Song and I, who lost 158 people of our age from our home country. It has students like Hejazi who are furious over protestors being killed while fighting for a fundamental right. It has students like Porto who see the vicious cycle of polarized politics leading to the loss of a younger generation in education and politics. The stories are plentiful; students from anywhere can be mourning or hurting for the place they call home.
Our impression of the bustling city is twofold: to us, Toronto is a second home, but we do not feel close to its heart. Neither Song nor I have felt that the death of young Koreans was thoroughly discussed by Canadian media. Hejazi does not think Canadian media is giving the necessary amount of coverage to the Iranian protests. Porto confesses she has talked about Brazil to two people at maximum because Canadians are unaware of Brazil’s political state. How can these tragedies, pain, and trauma go by silently?
As Hejazi told me, Canada is a politically and economically stable country. In Canada, we are automatically granted the privilege to look away from global events, but we are handed the platform to amplify the voices of those who do not have the same privilege as us.
Every U of T student has the responsibility to stay curious about global events. We are members of a home that is built on the strength of heterogeneity; we need to care about having nuanced conversations to understand the layer of trauma that many conceal, because a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
- Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
- Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
- Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
- U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030