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Why did you leave Iran? How did you leave the country? Why do you need a passport?
A Manchester woman returns to the country she fled from
By Tom Guy
Ten years after leaving, Zhino returned to Iran. It was her first trip back to her home country since she’d fled to Manchester as a refugee in 2012. She was excited: family she had not seen for a decade were waiting for her. But little did she know that bit by bit, the trip would sour.
Her family first came to the UK when she was just 16 — when I ask her why they left Iran, she looks frightened. “I cannot talk about that. It would not be safe. It was extremely traumatic.” Later she’ll tell me that life in Tehran had become impossible, dangerous.
When they arrived, they were sent to London and then Cardiff, where they were housed in dirty and cold temporary accommodation while their application was processed. After weeks of uncertainty elapsed — her mother trapped in Iran waiting for news — they were granted asylum. Immediately, they set off for Manchester, where an aunt had already been for 10 years; a “proud Brit”. It was a difficult start: the four of them lived in her aunt’s living room in Rusholme for months whilst they sought work and a place to live.
But their hard work paid off. After working a variety of short-term, insecure jobs for two and a half years, her father opened a grocery shop in north Manchester with a fellow British-Iranian he met in Manchester. It’s a source of great pride for the family.
Which isn’t to say that they don’t miss what they’ve left behind — like all the relatives they have in Iran. They hadn’t stayed away for a full decade for lack of affection. While the regime of the Islamic Republic remains in power, it’s too dangerous for her father to return. He fears imprisonment or worse at the hands of the government. Then there’s her younger brother, who longs to see his grandmother, but who knows that even with his British passport, entering Iran would expose him to the risk of being conscripted into the Iranian army.
As such, it was just Zhino and her mother who set off in June this year for Mahabad, the city in which she spent the first eleven years of her life before moving to Tehran. Her grandmother, aunts, uncles and a gaggle of cousins who had either doubled in size or age were waiting for them. Mahabad is a beautiful city set amongst mountains and lakes in a far northwestern province of Iran called West Azerbaijan. The Kurdish identity of this city is something that would come to define her life. Her parents are proud Kurds.
“They remember it [Mahabad] being bombed by the Islamic Republic. My dad’s friend was killed. My aunt still has asthma from the mustard gas.”
After seizing power in the late 1970s after the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic crushed rebels and dissidents with bombs and bullets. The authoritarian state has ruled with the same ruthlessness ever since: responding to cries for improved human rights and freedom with arrests and executions. People either conform to their extreme, strict Muslim code, or live in fear. A lucky minority manage to leave, but it is too expensive and dangerous for most citizens. It is especially bad for women and girls. When Zhino was nine, she tells me she had to attend a mandatory ceremony to celebrate her womanhood and readiness for marriage.
Seeing her family was just as special as Zhino expected. She tells me that they were all crying, because they were so happy. “My cousin, who was one the last time I saw her, became my best friend straight away,” she explains. “The food, the houses, it was all beautiful.”
Beneath the joy, though, was a steady pulse of worry. Since Zhino and her mother have refugee status, the paperwork required to leave Iran is extensive. They had a return flight booked for the end of August, so set off for Urmia, the region’s capital, the day after arriving in mid-June, to renew their Iranian passports. Which is where their problems began.
Zhino was sent to the female security line. Her phone was taken and she was patted down. The women staff inspected her, looking for faults in her manto (a long garment that covers the arms and legs) and headscarf. Zhino, whose great passion in life is fashion, felt suffocated, humiliated.
Eventually, they were sent to a government official seated behind a post office style desk. He inspected their papers, not looking at the women.
“You are refugees? That’s going to make things complicated. You’re going to have to go to Tehran.”
“When?” Zhino asked.
The man blew his cheeks out, drummed his fingers on the desk, bored.
“Come back another day. I will tell you then.”
“How long is this going to take? We have tickets booked to go back to the UK.”
“You shouldn’t have booked tickets.”
It was clear to Zhino that the official was looking for a bribe, but she didn’t know how it worked and was not sure she would even give him what he wanted if she did know. He had in his gift the power to deny them exit, to indefinitely detain them in a country they no longer called home.
“They want to make you desperate so you will pay,” she told me.
It is common knowledge amongst Iranians that for the government to function for individuals, it has to be bought. Those who can afford to pay can operate with fewer barriers than those who can’t. She told me of the frustration in Iran that exciting minds and talented people struggle to succeed there, their paths blocked by corruption.
When she returned to her family in Mahabad, the fizz of the reconciliation was gone. The threat of having their passport renewal denied cast a shadow over them.
When they returned to the government office in Urmia a couple of days later, they were told they needed to be in Tehran the next day to obtain a form. Tehran is 400 miles from Mahabad. Iranian trains and planes are unsafe, she told me. The only option was a ten-hour bus ride. They needed to leave almost immediately.
Zhino and her mother arrived in Tehran early the next morning with a suitcase each. They had no idea how long they’d be in the city for and had nowhere to stay. The government office in Tehran was chaotic. There were people everywhere trying to get to one of the twenty desks in a huge waiting room. On the walls were pictures of military dictators and infamous terrorists. The temperature outside was 40 degrees. Inside, it was even hotter. Zhino, already stressed, found it difficult to breathe properly. The damp manto clung to her skin.
Again, her phone was taken and she was patted down.
“You cannot enter with that outfit,” one of the women said to her.
Zhino was made to put another layer on: a longer manto which came down to her ankles. The heat was unbearable.
“Your hair is showing,” the woman said. Zhino patted the back of her head. Around a centimetre of her ponytail was showing. She tucked it back into her scarf.
“They were trying to provoke me so they could not let me in. They are females, but they aren’t women. They hate their own gender.”
Eventually, Zhino and her mother managed to reach a counter. The man behind the desk looked at their forms, told them to go to another section of the building. There was nobody in the other section of the building. After fifteen minutes of waiting, a man appeared. He directed them somewhere else. At this next desk, another man inspected the forms. He sneered at them.
“You need to come back in early September to explain why you are refugees,” the man said.
Zhino pleaded with the man. They couldn’t afford to miss their flight. It had taken them years to save up for this trip. He told them to come back in two weeks and to be “grateful” for it. This was typical of the way Iranian bureaucracy works: people who have sought refuge elsewhere, or do not conform to the government’s strict Islamic code are treated with contempt. They want you to submit to their authority, to accept that your lack of freedom and autonomy is normal — natural, even.
Back in Mahabad, relations with her family began to grow strained. Her anxiety about her passport was met with instructions to “calm down.” Her relatives began to tell her that she should be achieving more in the UK. That she should be married, and to somebody from her own culture. She longed for the freedoms of her life at home: for the vintage stores on Oldham Street, the charity shops and cafes in Didsbury, for her boyfriend, Fin.
Two weeks later, in July, they arrived back at the government office in Tehran after another gruelling journey to be told that they were late, that they’d missed their appointment. They hadn’t been given an appointment, but they were going to have to come back another day.
The frustration and anger that had been building in Zhino poured out.
“Are you kidding? How are you so disorganised? What sort of system is this?” she cried, tears streaming down her face.
“It is what it is. Get out of the way. You can’t wait here,” the official replied.
Zhino’s mother pleaded with the official to give them another appointment. He said that he wouldn’t give Zhino an appointment until she apologised to him. Zhino’s throat dried up. She began to feel dizzy. Her breath was shallow, she could feel a panic attack rising.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to say.
They were handed some forms to fill out, with questions like Why did you leave Iran? How did you leave the country? Why do you need a passport? A man in uniform approached them, took the forms and began to question them on their answers, right there in the busy waiting room. For Zhino and her mother, everything was riding on satisfying this man. Their lives were waiting for them in Manchester.
A form was stamped, another given to them.
“Go back to Urmia,” they were told. No further explanation was offered.
The weeks slipped by. Their requests for information were denied. There were endless processes and forms, none of them making much sense. August disappeared. The day of their flight came and went. They were forced to reschedule, using what little money they had left. If they missed the second flight, there was no telling when they would be able to leave.
The trip, which had been spoiled by the maze of Iranian bureaucracy they had been forced to navigate, finally came to an end on 16th September. Zhino’s father sent written permission for the women to travel from the embassy in London — this was something required of him by Iranian law for the women to leave the country. Her family came with them to the airport to wave them off. It was sad, yes, but they would be back.
“Pull your scarf up. The morality police have just killed a girl in Tehran,” Zhino’s uncle told her.
“It is sad that I say this, but I wasn’t shocked,” she told me. “It wasn’t the first time this had happened. I didn’t really think about it and then I got on the plane. I was glad to be going home.”
The girl who was killed was Mahsa Zhina Amini. It would change Iran and Zhino’s life forever; not because of what happened — Iranian women had suffered treatment like this at the hands of the Islamic Republic for years — but because the country decided they’d had enough. And the world began to listen.
“When I got home, I opened Instagram and saw that it was being posted about more and more. And in English too. I shared everything to my story. Then, the Instagram page Feminist posted about it. Finally, I felt like we were being seen and that people were hearing our voices and knowing that we (the Iranian people) were not the Islamic Republic.”
Zhino’s shock that the world was noticing was matched with a feeling of hope and pride. During the forty years of the Islamic Republic’s rule, the people of Iran have endured cruelty, corruption, humiliation and death. The task of challenging the totalitarian state had long seemed an impossible one, but something had shifted. Zhino could feel that something was different. Her trip to Iran had been a grim reminder of the malignant power that held the beautiful country in its cruel grasp, but the death of Masha Zhina Amini snapped the people’s ability to endure. Their anger suddenly outweighed their fear: they were going to get rid of the rotten state, no matter the personal cost. The internet exploded with images and stories from protests in Iran.
The Iranian government quickly shut the internet down and Zhino lost the ability to contact her friends and family in Iran. News from Iran began to take over her life. She swung between anger, grief, hope and despair as brave Iranians gave their life in protests. One feeling that stayed with her constantly was guilt. She could go on living a free life in the UK, whilst Iranians fought (and continue to fight) for women’s rights and the end of the rule of the Islamic Republic.
“I just feel so much guilt that not everybody has my opportunity.”
However, Zhino, along with thousands of other Iranians in Manchester has used her freedom to attend protests in the city centre. They, along with Iranians worldwide, sensed that by amplifying the voice of the people of Iran, change was a tangible possibility. Within the protests, there is disagreement on what the future of Iran should look like, but they are all united behind two key principles: women’s rights need to be fought for and the Islamic Republic needs to be ousted from their country. Zhino, who suffers from anxiety, used the fire that had been ignited within her in Iran to overcome her almost crippling fear to join the protests and contribute to the demand for change.
The protests, in St Peter’s Square and Piccadilly Gardens, have been peaceful, powerful and effective, Zhino tells me. The support from Mancunians has been uplifting. People not involved in the protest regularly approach to find out more, to offer their solidarity. Young Iranians stand on the steps of the Central Library and deliver blazing monologues, telling stories of their peers being shot and murdered by the authorities, demanding the end of this dictatorship.
Pressure is building on the Iranian government. Zhino is desperate for people not to turn their attention away, to keep exerting pressure. With some sources suggesting that the death toll of Iranian protestors at the hands of the authorities in Iran has topped 300, there has never been a timelier reminder of the importance of protecting people’s fundamental right to protest. So let’s keep going. Keep marching, keep talking about this. As protesters are imprisoned or murdered for the freedoms we take for granted, can we really stay silent?