One Refugee’s Journey - Yousef’s Story
One Refugee’s Journey
Yousef Mazreah is a human rights activist. He always has been.
Yousef is from Iran. He is an ethnic Ahwazi Arab. For years his people and culture have been persecuted by the Iranian authorities.
Yousef grew up hearing stories of his Ahwazi culture from his parents. A culture that he was not allowed to celebrate. A language he was not allowed to speak. Typical of so many oppressed people, Yousef took action. He formed a ‘civil association’, a group of young people dedicated to preserving their Arabic culture through peaceful activism; dressing in traditional clothing, celebrating traditional dates - all illegal in the eyes of the Iranian authorities.
Their group was watched, scrutinised, followed, threatened. Fearing for their safety the group broke up and ‘ran away’. Yousef found himself hiding out at a friend’s house in the capital, Tehran. But he was never safe. He told me ‘they were always watching’. In fact, he told me that his group had been infiltrated by a spy for the security forces.
Seven and a half years in Karoon Prison
Yousef was arrested in Tehran in 1987, aged just 21. He was charged with committing crimes against the country and ‘waging war against god’. At his trial there was no jury and no lawyer to defend him. For his peaceful activism he was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
For 29 months Yousef was held in solitary confinement. Held in a cell measuring just 2mx2m. His family had no idea where he was, whether he was dead or alive. Sometimes he would be moved into a cell measuring just 1mx50cm to try and force him to sign a paper saying he wouldn’t participate in human rights or political activity. For over two years Yousef didn’t see the sky, and didn’t see anyone. He was beaten and threatened with death. He heard the torture of others but says he ‘was lucky’ that he only received beatings.
‘Once I was moved from solitary confinement, I was blindfolded every time I left my cell or whenever anyone came to speak with me. Once a month I could go outside for 15 minutes.
There was no bathroom, no way to wash. We could go out to the toilet twice in a day. We could shower just once a fortnight.
“Once my family knew where I was they would try to visit me, but they wouldn’t always be allowed in. The prison guard would tell me my family didn’t come and that I should sign the paper then my family would come and see me.’
Released but not free
Finally, suffering from ill health and depression, Yousef signed the paper. He agreed that he would not participate in human rights or political activity. In 1995 he was released from prison.
For the next 15 years Yousef had no passport. He was trapped in a country where he could no longer be himself. He says ‘during that 15 years I never slept a peaceful night’. Security services kept an eye on him, he had nightmares. He was free from prison but he was not free.
“I was hopeless and thought I would lose my humanity.”
Eventually, in 2010 Yousef was granted a passport. He made the decision to leave Iran. He took his family and fled to Indonesia.
We can live with different ideas. Peacefully. Together.
Today Yousef and his family live in New Zealand. He came here in 2012 under the family reunification stream, his brother was already living here. His four children are growing up here, one was born here in New Zealand. He is studying tourism and works at Changemakers Refugee Forum - an organisation that works with refugee communities. And he dreams of one day bringing his parents here.
Yousef feels safe here, safe to talk about his beliefs and to act on them. Safe to engage on human rights issues. Safe to raise his family. He says the nightmares have finally stopped. Here he can speak out and tell his story and the stories of others without fear. Today, he says he is ‘finding himself again’.