“Write your last letter to your mom”: How an Iranian dissident broke free from Khamenei’s regime
Mr. Hampay, your upbringing in Iran has been difficult. Can you tell us your story and how did you end up in Germany?
When I was 12 years old, the regime forces killed my father. Then they executed my older brother. Shortly thereafter, I started my activism against the regime – activism for the rights of children, women, workers and refugees in Iran.
In the years while I was active against the regime, I got arrested seven times and I spent months in an isolation room (solitary confinement). The last time they imprisoned me was for three years. For six months, I was in solitary confinement, then for 2.5 years I was in a political prison.
They tortured me physically and psychologically. When they arrested me, they didn’t allow me to have contact with my mother or let my family know where I was. Some of my teeth are not real, they broke eleven of them. Also, they would show up with a “court decision” that I would be executed the next day at 4 am if I didn’t collaborate/work with them. They would threaten me with my mom as well, saying they would kill her if I don’t work for the regime as a spy or something else.
And so, at 4 am in the morning, they would tie my hands and feet and then bring me downstairs where a mullah was reading from the Quran. They know how much I love my mother, so they would say, “Write your last letter to your mom”. And then they would stage a mock execution. It happened three times.
What actually did they want from you?
They wanted me to sign a piece of paper saying that a certain organisation, group or a person had done a very bad thing. But I didn’t know any of them at all. The regime wanted me to provide them with false confessions so they can arrest and torture more people.
Was that the Revolutionary Guard? Did you find out afterwards who the people inside the regime were? Who did this to you?
It was the intelligence agency.
In which prison were they keeping you?
I was in Evin prison in Ward 350, but there was also a special place for political prisoners.
When were you released? When did you decide that enough is enough and that you needed to leave the country?
They released me in 2015 and I was free just for four months. But in this period, I was also active in connection with political prisoner families. Because when a father goes to prison, there is nobody to support him, to support his family, to support his daughter or his wife. The Islamic regime boycotts the activists’ families, so they don’t have an income.
At one stage, I got a call from the intelligence agency saying that I should appear in a political court the day after at 8 am and that it was time for me to go 19 years in prison.
I called my mom explaining the situation. She started crying, it was a very emotional moment. My mom then said “Go out of Iran, I don’t want to see your dead body. I want to know that you are alive and that you have a good life. Go to Europe and be safe.” I fled to Turkey the same day.
And then you went to Greece and into the European Union?
For the first eight months, I stayed in Turkey because I didn’t want to go so far from my mother and she was everything that I had in my life.
In Turkey, I was also active against the regime, and I assisted Syrian refugees who lived in Ankara because in Ankara, there were many poor areas where refugees lived. There, you even had working children at the ages of 7, 8 or 9 years old. So, I created a group together with other Iranian political activists and then we tried to help the refugees with food and clothing so that they didn’t have to force their children to go to work.
Then, I became a problem for the Turkish government, for two reasons. First, they said that if I wanted to help the refugees, I couldn’t set up a group, I had to pay all the money and donations we had to the government and the government would help them. Second, when you come to Turkey you have to sign that you don’t have a right to engage in political activism as a refugee. If I continued, they said, they will deport me back to Iran. So, I left Turkey after eight months and I went to Greece, where I ended up in the Moria camp on Lesbos.
How much time did you spend in the Moria refugee camp? What were the conditions there?
For two years, I was in Moria, and then for another two years in Athens. When I was in Lesbos, I was also active for the other refugees. We did some protests and hunger strikes.
The last time we did a hunger strike it was for 42 days because they wanted to deport Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, including my younger brother who was there as well. Our hunger strike was successful, and the deportations were avoided.
From this moment, I became famous on social media as an Iranian refugee activist. So, the authorities decided to expel me from Moria. My brother stayed there, but I was sent to Athens.
While Lesbos was a big prison for the refugees, Athens wasn’t really much different. There were many homeless refugees all over the city. I saw pregnant women, babies, children, old men and sick people sleeping on the street without any support. So, I started to be active again and founded an organization ‘Our House’. All our volunteers were refugees. So, refugees were helping other refugees, but with the donations of Europeans.
Did you feel let down by the Greek government or the European Union at that time?
For sure, we had a horrible situation in Greece. But after the right-wing parties came into power, our situation significantly deteriorated. One of the promises before the election was that all refugees would be deported, and that Greece would not accept any more refugees.
There was an abandoned building where refugees went to sleep. It was without any electricity and water. Then the authorities evicted them all and didn’t provide them with a place to stay. So that’s why we rented a shelter to give them food and medicine.
When and how did you come to Germany?
Two years and half years ago. My partner is from Hamburg, and she was expecting our baby. That’s the reason why I left Greece and came to Germany.
Here, everything is fine because as a refugee, Germany is like paradise. The standard in Germany is so much higher than in countries like Greece. But when I arrived in Hamburg, I didn’t have permission to work, and I didn’t have any social assistance. I had asylum from Greece, but I came to Germany because my baby was born here. The German system didn’t recognize me as a human or as a father or anything for one year half.
And just imagine – you are the father to a newborn baby and you don’t have any money for more than one year to buy even a single toy, or nappies or anything else for your son. This was the most torturing thing that Europe could do to me. Everything changed after I got the right to work or receive social help.
When I arrived in Hamburg I started “Our House Soup”. We shared our homemade soup with homeless people. I’d bring some Iranian soup and write about it on Facebook and Instagram. Soon I started receiving hundreds of messages that said we also want to help you. I made a Facebook group where hundreds of people joined. So, we made a calendar where each day a different person cooks soup and we bring it to the homeless people. Also, I started in Germany the “Refugees for Future” organization.
Do you feel safe in Germany? There have recently been reports which said that the Iranian intelligence services are carrying out operations, especially against opposition people who have left the country.
I am a target every day on social media. I had the experience for example in Greece and also in Germany. When we were at a protest in front of the Iranian embassy some people would approach me and say: “Be careful, we are everywhere, don’t continue your activism against your own country”. It was not against my country. It was directed against the Islamic regime that wants to destroy my country. They know that Europe doesn’t care about us, the political exiles from Iran.
They remind me that you have a two-year-old child, you have to be careful of your child. As an Iranian exile, I accept that because I’m in Europe that European country protects me, and I need protection against the terrorist regime because we know that they have carried out more than 600 terrorist attacks in America, Europe and elsewhere. But unfortunately, we see that the Europeans don’t protect us because they make deals with the Islamic regime. This sends a message to the terror regime that says: yes, you can continue your terrorism, you can make the nuclear bomb, you can kill the people and, in the end, we will give you back your terrorist..
Recently, Iran and Belgium negotiated a prisoner exchange. How do you evaluate that?
With this kind of action, you as a European just send the message to this terrorist regime: Don’t worry, you can do whatever you want to, but in the end, we can exchange some prisoners with you. You can just arrest some of our citizens for no reason and then we have to exchange again your citizen with our citizen, which does nothing and is just a tourist in your country, but you arrest him and you made up the label just because you want to exchange with your terrorist. This is a clear message for the terrorist regime that they can continue their hostage-taking. They will continue.
What about those who are now in prison in Iran? If you were to advise a politician in Europe, what to do, how to get these people out, what would you tell them?
The experience shows that when there is more negotiation with the terrorist regime, they go forward with doing whatever they want to do. But when, for example, European countries or the US boycott them, or take some radical action against the regime, the regime is afraid and takes a step back. Iranians demand from Europe and the US: Don’t negotiate with the terrorist regime! Don’t release any money for the terrorist regime since they use that money to kill more people! Don’t trust this regime! Don’t recognize the regime as representing the Iranian state! They are our enemies.
European and other governments should start supporting Iranian activists inside Iran and also outside of Iran. The Islamic regime is not just dangerous for the Iranian people, it’s also dangerous for European people. Around 600 terror attacks were conducted by the regime outside of Iran. If you support them, there is more danger for your own citizens as well. I ask Europe to recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran as the enemy of democracy, the enemy of humanity and the enemy of peace in the world.
But would you not agree that change can only come from inside Iran? And if that is the case, can the Europeans and the others really support that protest movement in a meaningful way?
The protests in Iran continue – in Zahedan, Bandar Abbass, Tehran, etc. However, it’s not that easy. For example, there is a lack of internet access. Plus, the people who have been protesting for months are regular people: They have family, work, bills to pay, etc. So, they need big donations and real support.
Let’s assume money is collected abroad. How can it be delivered to the right people in Iran and not to the regime?
This is a very big challenge. The opposition leaders, the European Parliament, and others have to come together and think about it. I believe that the diaspora has links with workers’ groups and others inside Iran, so they can find a way.
We have to make sure to channel money to the right people and also think about their safety because if the regime finds out that someone received money from the opposition, it will arrest them straight away.
Unfortunately, because of the regime’s cyber activities which have created thousands of fake accounts on Twitter, the atmosphere between people in the opposition has deteriorated in recent months. The opposition was united in the beginning but now, we are a bit separated. This is also one of the reasons why now we don’t see the same atmosphere inside Iran as last year.
For example, some of the diaspora fights because of the future of Iran – should it be a kingdom, a republic, a democracy? And also, we have some ‘fake opposition’ – I don’t want to say their names here but they are so famous and people think they are the real opposition. But in the end, what they are asking is just a reform of the existing Islamic regime. That’s not nearly good enough. We are against this. You cannot reform this horrible regime.
What can be done to stop the regime from threatening opposition figures who are outside of the country from abducting people from killing people and from interfering in European countries with their agency?
Don’t release any money for the regime! Send back home all the family members of the Islamic regime that are in Canada, America and Europe. Because they are the most powerful lobby of the regime abroad.
If money is to be released, send it to protestors, and give it to the Iranian people. After all, it’s the money of the Iranian people. Show your solidarity as governments and voice your support as the people of Europe. The revolution has just started but is not finished yet.
Will it succeed in the end?
I am 100 percent sure that it will be successful. This will be one of the most beautiful and biggest successful revolutions. Maybe it takes one year more, maybe two years, but it will be successful.
The Iranian people are not the same people they were nine months ago or one year ago. Today, no one wants this regime anymore, and that is for many reasons. One of the things with which we have a problem is that the regime diverts attention to the hijab issue. But this is not just about the hijab. It is just one of the hundreds of reasons of why we want regime change. We are against this ideological regime, this Islamic regime, against the hijab and many other things.
If you had a message to the EU leaders, a short message, what would that be? What should they do tomorrow morning?
Listen to the voice of the Iranian people, hear what they are asking of you. Put the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the terror list. Don’t support and don’t have any kind of negotiations with this regime in Iran. Support Iranian politicians inside and outside of Iran, but especially inside. Find a way how you can support the strikers and protestors. Find a way how we can support free internet for Iranian people.
The interview was conducted by Michael Thaidigsmann.
Arash Hampay is an Iranian dissident and activist who is currently based in Hamburg, Germany.