Rallying in Support of Protesters in Iran 

Iranian-Americans and others gathered at Union Square Park on January 7. (By Micah Danney for Voices of NY)

Mohammed Tootkaboni was among 30 or so people at Union Square Park on Sunday to show solidarity with Iranians who recently began protesting against their government in Teheran and other cities. Post-traumatic stress disorder and a back injury serve as intimate reminders, he said, of how that government treats dissenters.

“They were trying to break me down,” said Tootkaboni, 33, of Brooklyn. He was attending the University of Tehran in 2009 and was active in political organizing when he was arrested for his activity. He spent the next three years in jail, he said, subjected to regular beatings during interrogations and left in solitary confinement for long periods of time.

Tootkaboni escaped to Turkey after his release and was granted asylum in the U.S., where he arrived in 2013.  The grievances that drove his activism are the same ones driving Iranian citizens to knowingly risk violent suppression from authorities, he said. It’s estimated that 20 people have been killed in the recent protests, which were sparked by unrest over sudden closing of unregulated financial institutions, while hundreds, many of them students, are said to have been arrested.

“One of the main slogans being repeated there and here is, ‘Bread, jobs and freedom,’” Tootkaboni said. Iranians have grown increasingly frustrated in the last decade as the government has failed to deliver on promised reforms, he said, and many families are struggling to feed themselves.

“We are talking about a very repressive regime that doesn’t tolerate any kind of opposition, so in this circumstance, people came to the streets and they set the banks or police stations on fire,” he said. “It means that they are very angry. They know what they have to expect after that.”

While demonstrations of solidarity were also held in Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities over the weekend, Tootkaboni said the support should not be construed as a call for foreign intervention. The challenges are complex and change may need to happen over generations, he said, but it has to come from within Iranian society.

Manijeh Samimi, 54, and Mersedeh Rofeim, 52, traveled to the city from Great Neck, Nassau County, to express their solidarity.

“People are hungry,” said Samimi, who immigrated in 1984. “They are people who are very educated. They don’t have jobs. The fathers are crying – we see the videos, it’s heartbreaking. They don’t have money even to put food on the table and they’re crying that their kids go to bed hungry.”

A country with natural resources like oil and gold, she said, that received $1.7 billion from the U.S. in the Iran deal has no excuses for having children sleeping in its streets, as her friends there have reported. “They’re using the money to fund terrorism in other countries,” Samimi said. “Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria – that money should be going to the people of Iran, not Gaza or anywhere else.”

Rofeim said that Iran’s leaders want to milk the country, and use the feared Basij militia, a volunteer paramilitary group, to intimidate and brutalize ordinary Iranians who are protesting for basic rights. “God help them,” she said of the protesters.

At one point during the rally, a young woman arrived with a sign that said “Trump shut up, Iran rise up.” Rofeim objected to it, saying it was disrespectful. A rift developed as demonstrators shifted into two groups and faced each other. The primarily younger faction chanted the sign’s anti-Trump slogan and several members of the other group shouted support for Trump or chanted slogans supporting Iranian protesters. Other participants called for unity.

“This is about the Iranian people!” one man yelled.

Daniel Winter, 53, of Nassau County, is of Polish heritage but is friends with some of the demonstrators and wanted to support their movement. “But the leadership is coming from within the Persian community, and the voices aren’t 100 percent unanimous on what Trump is doing,” he said, though he stressed that all the demonstrators were there to support the Iranian protesters.

Another rally at Union Square Park is planned for this Saturday.

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