The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Iranian exiles, Mahsa Amini protests are a source of hope and pain

People hold pro-Kurdish signs and demonstrate during a protest and vigil in Los Angeles on Sept. 22 after the death of a young Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody in Iran. (Bing Guan/Reuters)

As protests spread across Iran last week, Salim Haqiqi could think of little else. He watched every video he could find on social media, looking on in horror as security forces confronted protesters with bullets and tear gas. And he worried constantly about his son.

Haqiqi, 46, is a Kurd from western Iran, just like Mahsa Amini, whose death on Sept. 16 in the custody of the “morality police” in Tehran has rocked the nation. Demonstrators, many of them women, have taken to the streets in dozens of cities, burning headscarves and calling for the downfall of the Iranian regime.

Haqiqi left Iran as a teenager more than 30 years ago and now lives in Norway as a political refugee. But his 21-year-old son, Milan, was raised in Iran by his grandparents. They would see each other several times a year, in neighboring countries such as Armenia and Turkey.

Milan joined the protests in Oshnavieh, one of the Kurdish cities in the west where demonstrations have been especially intense and the crackdown especially brutal.

Last Wednesday, Haqiqi got the sense that something was wrong. He called Iran for hours but could not reach his son or other members of his family. At 4 a.m. that Thursday, he finally got through, and received the news: Milan had been killed by security forces, along with two other protesters.

“He was killed in a barrage of Kalashnikov bullets,” Haqiqi said. “It’s very difficult. I’m not allowed to go back to Iran. I have no sleep, no life. I think about him 24 hours a day. He lost his life for freedom in his country.”

For the millions of Iranians living in exile, the latest protests have given them an opportunity to reconnect with their homeland and dream of a different future. But they have also reinforced the pain of separation and exposed again the brutality of a government willing to resort to deadly force to stay in power. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds injured in the protests, according to Amnesty International.

After Milan’s death, Haqiqi received tens of thousands of condolence messages on social media from fellow Kurds and, to his surprise, members of nearly all of Iran’s different ethnic groups living inside and outside the country.

“If you think of the diaspora as a spectrum of different immigrant waves and moments, this is a very unifying moment where people are seeing this woman’s death as a symbol of a lot of frustration and anger,” said Persis Karim, chair and director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s frustration and anger at the regime in Iran but it also sheds light on all these other moments that have occurred in the last 43 years.”

The waves of Iranians leaving the country have usually followed periods of great upheaval, such as the 1979 revolution, as well as previous mass protests in 2009 and 2019. Iran’s diaspora is believed to be among the largest in the world, with an estimated 1 million Iranians living in the United States and several million more scattered throughout Canada, Europe, Turkey, Australia and the Persian Gulf.

Over the weekend, thousands of Iranians in Los Angeles — home to the largest diaspora community of Iranians in the world — as well as in Toronto, Washington and several European capitals, protested in solidarity, chanting the same slogans that have rung out from the capital, Tehran, to the holy city of Qom: “We’ll fight, we’ll die, we’ll take Iran back!” “Woman, life, freedom!”

While most of the gatherings were peaceful, French police tear-gassed protesters Sunday as they attempted to march on the Iranian Embassy in Paris. “They wanted to go toward the embassy to express their rage, to protest so the workers at the embassy and the ambassador hear it,” said Ehsan Hosseinzadeh, a 35-year-old lawyer who obtained political asylum in France in 2018 and was at the protest.

On the same day in London, protests outside the Iranian Embassy there took a violent turn after protesters clashed with police, and with each other. One video posted on social media showed a man, who some protesters said was a supporter of the Iranian government, being beaten by members of the crowd as police pulled him away. London’s Metropolitan Police said at least five police were seriously injured and 12 people were arrested.

The clashes among Iranians living abroad are not surprising, observers say, given the number of factions with different agendas. Monarchists, who normally carry the distinctive pre-revolution “Shir va Khorshid” or “Lion and Sun” flag, were at protests last weekend, as were supporters of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a onetime militant group that was removed from the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012.

But most of those who protested did not see themselves as having any political affiliation other than opposing the Islamic republic and its harsh restrictions, attendees in London, Paris and California said.

“You see the different groups there because of what Mahsa Amini’s murder sparked,” said Azadeh Pourzand, a researcher on human rights in Iran at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, who attended a peaceful rally in London last weekend. “It’s a moment for everyone to come together, but you have to be prepared for things we haven’t experienced before.”

Tehran has sought to blame outside agitators for the protests inside the country — lashing out at Western countries and launching missile strikes on Kurdish groups across the border in Iraq — but it is young Iranians who are leading the demonstrations, and putting their lives on the line.

“If this is a movement that’s unfolding in Iran, then the people in the diaspora don’t have very much to say about where it’s going,” said Karim, of San Francisco State University. “All we can do is amplify the voices of people in the streets.”

Members of the diaspora say they will continue to lobby the United Nations and elected representatives around the world to highlight human rights issues in Iran. They will keep protesting, and sharing stories of the protesters who have lost their lives.

When Haqiqi’s mother went to recover Milan’s body at the hospital in Oshnavieh, she was initially refused entry and, after insisting, was beaten by security forces until she fainted. When the body was finally released to family members, the security forces gave clear directions: Bury him within an hour and do not hold a funeral.

But Haqiqi is determined to keep his son’s memory alive. And even in the depths of his pain, he knows he is not alone.

“The best way to support the people of the country is to take part in protests,” he said. “These protests against the government must take place every day in all the countries of the world.”

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