Iranian UI professor, ex-refugee feels travel ban's pain deeply

Iranian UI professor, ex-refugee feels travel ban's pain deeply

CHAMPAIGN — A black-and-white photo of a striking young woman sits on a table in Faranak Miraftab's living room.

The portrait of her sister moves Miraftab to tears and brings back unsettling memories — of their time together as activists in Iran, her sister's execution and a harrowing midnight escape through the mountains of Kurdistan.

Miraftab, a University of Illinois professor of urban planning, is a former refugee.

And recent U.S. actions banning Syrian refugees and temporarily blocking all refugees from the United States — the country where she built a new life after fleeing an oppressive regime in Iran — have reopened old wounds.

"This is so upsetting," Miraftab said. "I cannot imagine if at that moment on my way to refuge ... Donald Trump issued a verdict to send me back or reject me. My heart bleeds for them. I feel their pain and the injustice."

Miraftab was born in Iran and was a college student at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Universities advocating for more openness were later shut down, and Miraftab and her sister, Farshad Miraftab, became activists in a grass-roots student movement "for justice and equality and all those ideals that today we are continuing to strive for," she said.

The government started arresting people who challenged the dominant political party, she said, "with organizational charts of all the activists."

Her sister was arrested and later executed with 50 other women. She was 27.

"They were looking for me, so I had to escape the country," Miraftab said.

In 1982, after two failed attempts, she was able to cross the mountains of Kurdistan along Iran's northern border and make her way to Turkey.

"I crossed the river in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was," said Miraftab, who was then 23.

The group included five adults and three children. On their first attempt, the smugglers on the other side of the border didn't show up, so they had to go back. At that point, a war between the central government and Kurds in the north had broken out, and "we were stranded," she said.

"Finally, we crossed. We had no rides anymore," as the smugglers were now fighting in the war, she said. "We had to cross the border on our own devices. We carried the children above our heads and crossed the river" bordering Iran and Turkey.

When they made it to the other side, soaking wet, they were promptly arrested by border police and taken to a military base. Soon after that, Turkey and Iran signed a treaty agreeing to return people who tried to cross the border, she said.

"We were basically the last people who were not sent back," she said.

They were held under arrest with no access to a phone for a month. Miraftab was eventually able to make contact with the Norwegian Human Rights Commission, which flew her to Oslo, and Norway granted her political asylum.

She stayed there for four years, then obtained a green card to come to the United States through relatives who had settled in California. She completed her doctorate at the University of California-Berkeley, and was hired at the UI in 1999.

Miraftab is adamant that her own story not overshadow those of today's refugees, who are fleeing civil war, famine and terrorism.

"People who are coming now out of Syria, out of Iraq, they have these kinds of stories," she said. "We should be mindful of what we are turning our back to.

"If after all that trauma, thinking you are getting to a safe place, you are sent back ... I imagine when I was finally able to cross the border and think that I am closer to safety, if at that point I was sent back, if the Norwegian humanity wasn't there, how devastating, and what a betrayal to humanity," she said.

Women's rights 'under assault'

A federal judge has put the executive order on hold temporarily, though the administration is challenging that ruling.

Billed as a way to deter terrorists, the order halted all refugees for four months while the screening process is reviewed, and cut the number who could eventually be admitted in half. While the screening already takes up to two years, Trump has argued it could be exploited by terrorists. He also said he would prioritize refugees from a "minority" religion in majority-Muslim countries, presumably giving preference to Christians. The order also banned all citizens from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days.

Miraftab is troubled by that action and others, saying it's similar to what happened under the Iranian dictatorship in the early '80s.

"This is just the beginning of an assault on rights," she said. "This is how it happened. Women's rights are under assault. That is how one person sitting on top and abusing his power can succeed unless we fight back.

"Those terrible things that happened in Iran had popular support from uneducated, fundamentalist, closed-minded people, who were seeing freedom for women as bad for society," she said. "Here it is white supremacists, a toxic group that is now gaining power."

"What we are seeing is the danger of fascism," she added. "These are the ways in which fascism could win, delegitimizing opponents, demoralizing them."

She is heartened by the protests against the immigration order, which many critics said unfairly targets Muslims.

"People are not letting this go; they are fighting back," she said.

'Why be filled with hate?'

Her husband, Ken Salo, is an immigrant from South Africa, where he grew up under apartheid. They both came to the United States thinking "it would be different," Miraftab said. "We both are having deja vu."

They are participating in rallies and other events, and take comfort in the support of friends in their adopted country. They're part of a close-knit neighborhood in central Champaign that gets together for block parties, Fourth of July celebrations and other holidays.

Miraftab and Salo host an annual Christmas party and invite friends over each year for "Chaharshanbe Suri," a celebration of the Iranian New Year in mid-March. It's marked by fireworks and the tradition of jumping over a fire, to release the past year's problems and replace them with warmth and energy for the new year.

"Every refugee needs good neighbors," Miraftab said, enjoying tea last week with several neighbors in her century-old home.

All of them spoke against the immigration ban. Neighbor Ed Bridges said Miraftab and other immigrants help Americans overcome the stereotypes they hear about in the Middle East.

"People are people. They want to raise their kids. They want to have a good life," he said, gesturing to the friends around the dining room table. "This is the way you're supposed to live your lives with people. Don't be afraid to take people different from you into your heart. Why be filled with hate for no reason?"

"Faranak's story is clearly what we're supposed to be about and how we're supposed to treat people in this country," he added. "What's happening now is an abomination."

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JRFoucault wrote on February 07, 2017 at 11:02 am

Please advise how women's rights are actually, legitimately, under assault in this country. I'm not seeing any tangible proof of that, simply irrational fears and fake news asserting the claim. Don't bother citing abortion--that is a constitutional right that all women in this country have. The current argument is whether you should be able to force others--taxpayers--to pay for it.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 07, 2017 at 12:02 pm

You said "Please advise".  I would suggest that you go to your local Planned Parenthood clinic, and ask questions.  You could, also, enter a major hair salon in the area, and ask the women there.  You really need to talk to women about women's rights.  Have a discussion with those involved.

JRFoucault wrote on February 07, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Silly me--of course, consideration and analysis of the narratives and reporting in national and local media, and conversations with the women in my life would be wholly insufficient to reveal the oppression and assault upon the rights of women. If only I had canvassed my local PP clinic and hair salons.

SaintClarence27 wrote on February 07, 2017 at 2:02 pm

VAWA is likely to be repealed. Birth control? Abortion Restrictions? Targeted regulation of Abortion providers? Defunding planned parenthood (not the abortion part - that's not funded by the government anyway). Pregnancy coverage in health care (pregnancy is a preexisting condition, after all). Equal pay? 

CallSaul wrote on February 07, 2017 at 7:02 pm

Your ridiculous assertion only seems persuasive to your fellow right wingers already drinking the Trump juice.

And you don't get to disallow discussion of the assault on abortion rights by fiat. The threat to that right is real, just as real as the attacks on contraception.

We all know what's going on and the majority who already disapprove of Trump will only grow over the coming weeks, months and years.

Whether he'll see the end of his term still in office is an open question already and this is just the beginning...