A Summer in Tehran: One Society's Work on Behalf of Children

by Mozhdeh Oskouian

Iran is a hard country for women and children, as the granting of the Noble Peace Prize to Ms. Shirin Ebadi, a fighter for the rights of women and children, suggests. I worked for her organization this summer. Though I barely ever got to meet her or to talk to her, I have worked for and with the people who have given their heart, and many, many precious hours of their time, to bring forth the vision that they share with Ms. Ebadi.

I went to work for the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child through a grant I received from the Public Interest Law Foundation at SU Law. The fact that I received the grant was a fantastic surprise. It sent me to Iran with an expectation of receiving an experience of a lifetime. I received more.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I should talk about the organization first. The Society was created in 1994 after Iran became a signatory to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The society was created to ensure that the government would comply with the terms of the Convention. The founders of the society envisioned a new mode of struggle. Instead of adhering to the revolutionary fervor that rocks countries that have been ruled by a constant stream of repressive regimes, the founders of SPRC believe in creating a grass-roots organization that will bring about democratic principles by its very existence, as well as its structure; creating a long-term, wholly new mode of struggle in Iran.

The Society is made up of a governing board that breaks into different committees: legal; children’s rights education; news letter committee; public relations committee; the committee of the main office; the research committee; the friends' voice committee (phone lines for children and families to come forward with their problem and seek a solution); the social work committee; and, working and street children committee (Nasser Khosro and Darvazeh Ghar centers), plus the new village children committee of the Khorasan province. The three centers are the only organ of the organization that do hands-on work. They work with at-risk youth and their families to try and provide them with their most basic needs in order to build the necessary building blocks for education, the organization’s long-term goal.

I mainly worked for the Nasser Khosro and Darvazeh Ghar Centers. My plan was to realize the legal and social problems the Afghani refugee population was having and then, through the legal and administrative channels of the Iranian government, to try to offer the Afghani refugees tools to address the problems they were facing. The reason for my interest was that I knew that the Iranian government was treating the refugees very differently after the Afghan civil war that led to the overthrow of the Taliban regime. I also knew that UNHCR’s high commissioner for Afghani refugees was shutting down its office in Iran because of the perceived notion that since there was a civil government in Afghanistan, their refugees could theoretically return. Hence they could not hold on to their status as refugees. So, my first question was: did the Afghani refugees want to go back to Afghanistan when they had lived in Iran for over two decades? Second, if they did want to return, could they actually do it, and if they didn’t want to what were their options.

I began going to the centers and meeting the children, in order for the children to get to know me and I them. I simply wanted to know about their legal situation and whether or not I could provide them with any assistance.

It wasn’t that simple, though. I could not understand their legal status unless I also knew something about the reality of their lives. After all, it was their lack of status–the fact that they were neither refugees, nor immigrants, or even simply alien workers–that has resulted in Afghanis being completely shut out of all social and health benefits or even decent job opportunities that pay a living wage. Therefore, the reality of their lives is working 10-12 hours a day as street peddlers. The reality of their lives is having parents who work as many hours as street peddlers. This reality also includes many broken homes due to drug addiction.

This reality is not exclusive to the Afghani refugee population. However, the difference between a refugee’s life and that of an Iranian is one of access. Access to medical, educational, and financial resources of the government is of outmost importance. This importance becomes especially acute in view of the fact that the Iranian economy and social and health structure are either quite poor or non-existent; therefore, if aid is needed it will generally be provided through religious foundations that are the main organs running the economy and providing social assistance. The refugee population that is left out of this system has no recourse but the worst menial jobs, drug peddling, and sometimes, though rarely, recourse to violent crimes. This constant unmet need has bred resentment toward the refugees who have been accused of taking jobs, being violent, and using scarce resources. Rampant drug use and lack of employment is not limited to the Afghani population, so many Iranian children share a similar fate to that of the refugees. For example, there are Iranian children who attend school, without a birth certificate because their parents have either sold it or left it with the drug dealers as collateral. Birth certificates are very precious in Iran; they are bought and sold for large sums of money since they are the key to government resources. Iranians sell them to buy drugs, Afghanis buy them to access resources. The effect has been children who come to school either drunk or drugged, easy prey for sexual abuse and predictable drug-peddlers, to their own detriment.

The houses operate in this environment, trying to bring humanity and pride to children who have had so little of it.

Darvazeh Ghar house began operating first. The house is situated in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Tehran. Taking a walk down the street to the houses of the children whose families I was interviewing brought on nausea and discomfort because of the extreme pollution hovering above the neighborhood. The neighborhood is also famous for its drug trade. Darvazeh Ghar house opened in this neighborhood on a purely voluntary basis. Though originally the intent was to provide education, the volunteers soon learned that education couldn’t be provided in a vacuum. The children and their families had many needs. Many of them could not attend classes because they needed the time to work and earn money for families that desperately needed the income. Many others were sick. Malnutrition was and is rampant.

Mehdi, a longtime volunteer at the house, learned of the predicament of the five brothers who sang and played instruments in front of one of many theaters of Tehran. Their father had been in an accident and was hospitalized. However, the hospital would not release him until he paid his bill. Mehdi and Bahram went to one of many sub-agencies of the foundation for the oppressed and asked for help to get the father out of the hospital. They were successful.

Mona, a very lively volunteer, is well-loved because of her teaching as well as her love for the children. Here is a short letter written by one of the children:

I feel really good about Aunt Mona and Mr. Niyuzi. When Khuledeh, and my father and I went to the hospital I saw that Khuledeh was feeling much better. As if she wasn’t sick at all. Aunt Mona, Mr. Niyuzi, and Mrs. Gholipoor are very kind. When we got to the hospital Aunt Mona, Khuledeh and I picked jasmines. When my father tried to pay the cab fare Mr. Niyuzi wouldn’t allow it. My father said: a person’s brother is not as good to him as your teachers are to me. When my father wanted to carry Khuledeh, Aunt Mona wouldn’t let him carry the sleepy child. She carried her all the way. We had to stay in the hospital 'till late at night but Aunt Mona and Mr. Niyuzi stayed with us, running all the errands. When the results of the test came, the doctor said: it’s nothing, she was just badly scared. We all got very happy. We got home at 10:30 at night. Aunt Mona gave Khuledeh to my father. When we got home my mom wasn’t there, since she was looking for us. When she got home Khuledeh told her that she really likes Aunt Mona. Khuledeh says I really like all my teachers. I will invite Ms. Mona, Mrs. Gholipoor, Ms. Ya’aghoobi, Ms. Kuzemi, and Mr. Niyuzi to my sister’s wedding.

Fatemeh Yoonesi–third grade–Darvazeh Ghar Children’s house.

Nasser Khosro’s children and volunteers are just as beautiful in spirit. Ms. Panahi, the voluntary founder and director of the Nasser Khosro center, has taken children to her house while waiting for the state to take action or the family of the child to resolve their problem. She has a full-time job, a family, but the amount of time she–so lovingly–dedicates to the center is admirable. She never failed to amaze me. If the child could not come to school because parents wouldn’t allow it, Ms. Panahi would personally go to the family’s house and talk to them. If the child was sick, she would take them to the hospital. Ms. Panahi, as well as Ms. Gholipoor–the director of Darvazeh Ghar house–extended their missions by starting to teach the parents of the children life skills, literacy, sewing and handicraft for sale; they offered to provide them with space to sell their craft, helping the family economy and empowering women.

None of this interaction is limited to a specific group. The houses are populated with Iranian children from north, south, east, and west; Afghani children; Iraqi children; and gypsies. They all get the same love from the volunteers. Actually, in both houses, plans have been implemented to reduce the hostility between Afghanis and Iranian children, which is perpetuated in societal discrimination. So, in this environment I got to know and befriend all the children though I only interviewed the Afghani children and their families.

With the Afghani children, not only did they have to worry about animosities inside and outside of the Society’s houses, they also had the added pressure of their legal status or lack there of.

The Iranian government used to allow them to attend the public school. However, after the Afghan war and the overthrow of the Taliban, neither the Iranian government nor UNHCR perceives them as refugees. The push has begun to send the refugees who have been living in Iran for over twenty years back home. Since Afghanis are not willing accomplices in this forced repatriation–due to the civil war that is still raging in their country–the Iranian government has taken to eliminating all their social and health benefits, and excluding families from all sections of economic activity except the lowest strata. The idea is, and this was clearly articulated for me by an Iranian government official, that Afghanis must return to Afghanistan. They cannot, under any circumstances, remain in the country. Therefore, public education is not available to the Afghani refugees.

To balance this outrageous governmental conduct, the Society contacted the high commissioner for Afghani refugees and told the office that the Society will take on providing them with an education, if the high commissioner provides it with an official year-end report of the children's progress, so if and when they do return to Afghanistan, they can just continue their education without having fallen behind.

My work was an extension of the Society’s attempt to reach out. I took on the interviews for a few reasons. Having personally witnessed the unsuccessful governmental drive to repatriate the Afghani refugees, and witnessing the Afghani families’ realization of the effects of a fast growing un-educated or under-educated Afghani generation, I wanted to know how I could help the families and the society to counter this challenge. Most importantly, I wanted to know if any of the families I interviewed had any questions regarding their status, and if they had the proper legal documents. If not, I would go to the Iranian version of the INS and seek answers generally not forthcoming. I would also ask if they had any medical emergencies that the Society could take care of.

My interviews were at best depressing. I met the families in very small shacks they called homes. I would ask about their legal status, and they would generally show me a very small rectangular shaped white paper. This piece of paper was all that the Iranian government had given them in exchange for their passport, entry and exit visa, birth certificate. This paper is only provided so the Iranian government can find the Afghani refugees the moment they want to for purposes of forceful repatriation. After each interview I would return to the Office for Immigration Policy and ask whether in this particular situation there was any help available, in instances when temporary measure were available I would return to the families, inform them of the availability of help, and where they needed to go to apply for it.

It was while serving as a conduit in this manner that I told one refugee that the government was providing yet another renewal of their identity card. Sakineh, who lives in a house with her parents, four sisters, three aunts and all her cousins, was my guide in the Nasser Khosro community. She had been attending the regular school for years until the government forbade her to attend. She then began attending the Nasser Khosro house instead. A very good student, Sakineh and her family were happy to hear that the children could go back to school, though the permission was temporary at best.

Also, it was while serving in that same role that I found out about Hassan and Hossain, two beautiful brothers who attended the Darvazeh Ghar house elementary school, and who had been arrested by Iranian immigration enforcement agents for panhandling, had a pregnant mother in need of immediate medication. Relaying the story to the social work committee of Darvazeh Ghar house was all I could do. They contacted the proper offices, or more likely their personal contacts within those offices and requested help in addressing the need.

There are thousands of stories such as this. Sad stories with happy twists due to the sheer force of life the Afghani children and their parents exude. The Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child, has made a tremendous difference in bringing life, love, and hope to lives that have experienced so little of it for such long time. It is an honor to have worked for the Society. I am thankful that the Noble Peace Committee has recognized the great work that the society, and many other Iranian NGOs and human right activists are doing by awarding Ms. Ebadi with this year’s Noble Peace Prize, and I am proud to have been able to work with activists who work with so much passion and conviction.