Taking Back Tehran’s Sky
2023, Senior, Creative Writing
Climate Hero: Sophia Kianni, Climate Cardinals
Black. Pitch black is what met Sophia Kianni when she looked up at the sky. For all the city lights that decorated Tehran, not a single star had fought to shine through the smog.
She narrowed her eyes at the heavy blanket of pollution that had settled into busy streets, taken a seat in the lungs of residents, and although unwelcomed, made its home in the atmosphere – like a fat, obstinate, old man in an armchair who refused to move.
Sophia took another look at the sky. This time, with more concern than curiosity. And although she stood at a crossroad, the whir of city life faded away as she sank into deeper thought. There was something more in Tehran’s pollution than the workings of a busy metropolis. Her surroundings – congested cars coughing toxic fumes, crammed buildings huffing carbon dioxide, and the stars painted over with smog – were only the tip of the iceberg; the inky night held a deeper abyss of consequences.
Then she felt a surge of concern. Concern, blinking red like a stoplight, rushed her feet across the street to her grandmother’s apartment and into her room, leaving startled relatives at her wake.
Plopping herself down at her desk, Sophia’s fingers danced over the computer keyboard as she shoved keywords into Google. She accumulated tabs upon tabs of articles, and when she scanned the screen of her computer, her eyes met a jumbled mess of sentences. “Climate change in the Middle East…” “…severe climate change in Iran…” “…pollution and climate change…” Sophia hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights at all, but the glow of the singular lamp on her desk, the blue luminance of her computer, and the tight walls of the room made such a focused atmosphere that every cell in her body desired to reach only one goal: to get to the bottom of the iceberg.
Sophia dove deeper, her fingers flying over the keyboard, her eyes scanning articles on rising temperatures, unusual weather patterns, and carbon emissions in the Middle East. Each statistic, each prediction, felt like a weight added to her shoulders.
“Temperatures in the Middle East are rising twice the global average…”
* * *
They sat criss-cross applesauce in a semicircle on the floor of the apartment, the silence half-awkward, half expectant. Her aunts and uncles looked at each other, wondering what had caused their 12-year-old niece to assemble the entire family. You think she’s got a boyfriend? One uncle whispered to another. They chuckled.
Sophia stood before them. Not with complacency, shyness, or giddy excitement. No, only with the adrenaline from her research and a stern readiness to tell them of what she had found at the bottom of the iceberg. She had called them because she thought they deserved to know; she was only a guest with a home back in the United States, but her relatives lived here in Tehran, Iran. They would bear the brunt of the consequences.
“I want to have a conversation with you all about climate change,” Sophia said in a clear tone, “and how it’s been getting worse, especially in the Middle East.” She told herself to explain it to them slowly, in steps – yet she felt like a pinata on the verge of bursting. Not with candy, of course. But with statistics and articles and quotes from scientists.
Sophia continued, “Are you familiar with climate change in Iran? We could start with what you know.”
The mood had completely changed within the five minutes she stood before them. The faces that looked back at her were now etched with confusion and seriousness, and the uncle who had said something about a boyfriend drew small circles on the carpet, his head lowered.
Her favorite aunt broke the silence, “Like global warming…?” She asked with uncertainty.
“Yes,” Sophia answered her. “That’s an important part of it.”
“I mean, I’ve heard of it before …I just don’t know the details …”
Her other relatives gave small and thoughtful nods in agreement.
* * *
Sophia stared at them, her eyes wide, her mouth slightly agape. She blinked slowly, once, twice, the information sinking in. The room was filled with adults, yet they knew less than her. They barely knew how the greenhouse gas effect worked. And they were adults. Adults were supposed to know important things and talk about important things – especially things like climate change that were life-and-death-of-the-earth level of important.
How could they have no knowledge of what she, who lived less than a third of their lives, knew?
Again, she was at her computer. Scroll. Type. Click. Her mother opened the door. Creak. “I’m going to bed soon, Mom. I promise.”
Time passed in a push of the space bar. With tired eyes, Sophia stared at the screen, the study, and the number she had found.
“Only 5% of Iranian students are able to explain the greenhouse gas effect…”
As she slept under the pitch-black sky that night, Sophia held two things close to her heart, like stuffed toys that assisted her in her slumber.
One, the knowledge she possessed. Knowledge, as she now knew, which had been granted to her by the privileges of her circumstances.
Two, a determination to teach her relatives what was happening in their native country. She would let them know, no matter what. And if it was like she had read in her research – if the lack of resources was a wall that stood between them and that precious knowledge, Sophia would break it down herself.
* * *
A ray of sunshine knocked on the apartment window and shone brightly into Sophia’s eyes. It was morning, but rest had not diluted her ardor. She took motivated steps to the living room.
“Mom?” She asked her mother, who had wished her good morning, “Could you help me with something?”
“Could you help me translate something into Farsi?”
Her mother looked puzzled, “Of course. What is it that you need translated?”
“An official United Nations document on temperature changes in Iran,” Sophia answered nonchalantly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
* * *
A few days had passed after the sleepless night Sophia had spent with her mother at the kitchen table, translating the United Nations document. A few days had passed too, after Sophia told her relatives what she really wanted to say – about the bottom of the iceberg.
A few days had passed, and these few days had been the only days in her short, little-over-a-decade life where she had felt an overwhelming feeling of fruitfulness, like she had taken a microscopic step to change the world.
“I’m going out!” Her favorite aunt yelled as she neared the front door. Her car keys jingled in her hand.
“Where are you going?”
It was Sophia’s grandmother, who looked rather sharply down at the keys.
Surprised by this question, her aunt took a step back in the foyer, “That nearby grocery store, where else?”
“Have you forgotten already?” her grandmother asked retorted, “It’s a short walk, or you could take your bike. Remember what Sophia told us about carbon footprints?”
With a slight jump of realization, her aunt’s voice became laced with embarrassment, “I’m going out…” she yelled again. She sheepishly placed her car keys back in the small ceramic bowl. “…on my bike.”
Sophia sat in her room, smiling. In her ears, the conversation that had passed wasn’t an exchange of words. It was a lovely melody that gave her hope – hope that Tehran’s sky would one day reclaim its stars.
The preliminary details I came across about Sophia Kianni highlighted her significant achievements at a young age: her distinction as the youngest member of the United Nations Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change; her esteemed speaking roles at globally recognized universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and Cambridge; and most notably, the inception and leadership of Climate Cardinals. This nonprofit organization rallies over 9,000 volunteers across more than 40 countries to translate climate-related documents from the United Nations into over 100 languages, Farsi being one of them. Nevertheless, it was not solely these grand accomplishments that inspired me to delve into her story, but the subtle yet profound changes she inspired within her immediate community, which in turn spurred her larger-scale successes. Sophia’s journey, mirrored in the concealed stars of Tehran, shines a light on her steadfast commitment to addressing climate change and the global shortfall in climate change education. My upbringing, like Sophia’s, occurred in the United States, where a wealth of accurate data on climate change was readily available for school projects and personal inquiries. Within my educational sphere, it was common to see posters reminding students to “Be aware of food waste in the cafeteria!” or asserting that “One paper towel is all you need to dry your hands!” In my ignorance, I took this bounty of climate change information and the general awareness of my surroundings for granted. However, exploring Sophia’s journey brought into sharp focus the privilege I enjoy and broadened my perspective on the importance of climate education and its overarching impact. Sophia’s example underscored an important truth: taking personal action on climate change isn’t confined to just recycling or being mindful of one's carbon footprint. It also involves sharing knowledge about climate change with those who lack access to this critical information.