Dr. Faranak Miraftab on her escape to Norway from Iran’s violent political climate

 

Faranak Miraftab as a young woman.

Photo provided.

Hi, I’m Annette Lee. Today is the first in a series of reports by students at Uni High called Immigration in the Spotlight that profiles residents of Champaign-Urbana originally from far away places, and the activists who support them.

Faranak Miraftab was an Iranian political refugee who fled to Norway in 1982 and then immigrated to the United States four years later.  In 1994, she became a naturalized US citizen and is now a professor of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois.

Faranak Miraftab
I had to leave Iran because of the political violence that the state, or the Islamic Republic was imposing on people. Especially on youth that had been activists. You see my sister Farshad Miraftab, we were together in political activities, she was arrested and was executed; killed in the prison without any trial, nothing, in a matter of three weeks after they arrested her. And I knew they were after me because from prison interrogators would call and ask for me and my parents would say, We don’t know where she is, and they didn’t know where I am because I was in hiding.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Iran’s political climate at this time was turbulent. The first demonstrations of the Iranian Revolution were in 1978, culminating in the toppling of the monarchy in 1979, and the establishment of an Islamic republic by Ruhollah Khomeini. During and after the Revolution, thousands died.  Miraftab was politically active, but as time went on, she saw her side of the movement falling apart.

Faranak Miraftab
I think the left at the time was very out of touch with majority of people we called the “masses,” so we were more of an educated elite group: university student, intellectuals. So when the collapse happened, then they attacked all of the groups and the left was decimated. It affected my political views in the sense that I developed a more critical perspective on what it was that we were wrong about in our understandings of our society. I think Khomeini, in a sense, was able to take leadership because he, whether this was by design or not, but he was able to speak the language of the uneducated masses, the people who identified with him because his grammar was also wrong. I think the whole, not only loss of my sister, but that whole turbulent period, the left falling apart under the attacks and pressure, helped me see more critically what was wrong.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Life was dangerous for Miraftab during this period. She recounts a time when she narrowly avoided being taken to prison.

Faranak Miraftab
There have been several times that I think I have just had a guardian angel, whatever you call it, on my shoulder. I was arrested shortly after my sister was arrested and killed. I was picked up on the street because back then—you cannot imagine the atmosphere. All the time in the streets there would be the guards. They would just look at you and think, oh, you look like a lefty, you look like an intellectual. They didn’t need to have any arrest warrant or anything, they could just put you in the car and take you. So I really thought at that moment that they will take me to prison and they would then find that I am the sister they were looking for. They put me in the car and as they are driving me to the station, they passed by my house, and I made a plea for them to stop and see that I am innocent, I am a normal girl, my parents are home. And they listened and they stopped, and my dad was home and he managed to tell them, “What nonsense! She is a regular—my daughter, who dares you to put her in your car…” So he put a very good defense and when they came back to the car, I don’t know how, but they just said, “Okay, you are released.”

Annette Lee, Narrator
When Miraftab escaped Iran, it was a complex process. But she says she was lucky that it wasn’t worse.

Faranak Miraftab
The people who would cross the border would be arrested. They would register them with you know these numbers that they put, mug shot, they call it, and take fingerprint. I believe shortly after, maybe like a week after they arrested us, and they took fingerprint and the mug shot and then we went into basically the process of being reviewed by international police to make sure that we are not sought after by international police. Then they let us make a phone call and I could make a connection. A week after that, there was a treaty between Turkey and Iran. Turkey committed to Iran that when they arrest people, they will return them to Iran. So, again, it was luck that, if I had crossed later, maybe I wouldn’t have been allowed to continue my path.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Miraftab crossed into Turkey through the mountains of Kurdistan after two failed attempts. She eventually contacted the Norwegian Human Rights Commission, and flew to Norway, where they granted her political asylum.  In Norway, Miraftab lived with many Vietnamese refugees.

Faranak Miraftab
Back then, Vietnamese used to put their younger children, as a way of hoping for a better future, on the boats and send them towards the Norwegian fishing vessels. And then Norwegian fishing vessels would see these boats and would bring them onboard. And of course what do you do with people that you have picked up from the ocean? They would bring them home and then in Norway they would be given asylum. So there was a very large flow of Vietnamese so-called boat people. And that was the the main stream of refugees that were arriving to Norway. So when I arrived I was the only non-Vietnamese that was arriving to Trondheim. I think there were about another 80 people, none of whom spoke English. And I did not speak Vietnamese, nor did I speak Norwegian. And they were very young, I remember, very young. Some of them were 10, 11. I felt bad for them because I felt, you know, Iwas 23, and they were just little, little kids who were without their parents or siblings.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Miraftab had to adjust to living in a new country with people from another culture. At first, the cultural barriers made it very difficult.

Faranak Miraftab
The food that was served was by a Vietnamese chef that used to prepare Vietnamese food for them. I had never had any food outside Iranian food, maybe a hamburger or pizza but that is not Vietnamese food. So I stopped eating by the second day or something, I didn’t go down. One of those days, the third day or something that I hadn’t gone down for the food, somebody knocked at my door and I opened, you know, I said come in or whatever. So the chef, the Vietnamese chef reached out with, I remember, a very, very, very red apple. And he was dressed as a chef, so he took the apple to me, and couldn’t speak my language, I couldn’t. But just the fact that he had noticed that I was there and I was not eating. And that is the language that overcomes all the differences. Because at the very human, humane level he was saying, I have noticed that you are not eating here, and he was acknowledging that I don’t like his food. And so he comes with a red apple. And for that reason I just went down and I forced myself to eat, and then I started liking the food. And now my favorite food is Vietnamese food. But those are, you know, experiences where you adapt, sometimes by force, sometimes by serendipity, and you discover all these wonderful things that if you were closed you would not.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Soon after, Miraftab came to the United States, where her family had moved. She got a green card to come to California and finished her doctorate at UC Berkeley.2,  Once again, she had to adapt to a new environment.

Faranak Miraftab
You see, I grew up in Tehran, which is a bustling city, very dynamic. So I remember my biggest struggle was especially getting adjusted to this country. South Bay, Silicon Valley is where I arrived to. And I remember I kept asking for where is downtown. And my parents said, “Downtown, what do you mean where is downtown?” I said, “Where is the center of the city?” And they kept taking me to the grocery where the strip mall, where the grocery and a Safeway and CVS and all of that was. And I was like, “No, I’m looking for downtown.” And they kept saying, “No, that is it, that is”—and I thought, oh, they are old and they haven’t yet gone to downtown, they don’t know where it is. So spatially it was really strange to live in this kind of endless suburban landscape, where there’s houses and houses and roads and cars but there is no center in the sense of a social center.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Miraftab left California behind to teach at the University of Illinois in 1999, where she is now a professor of Urban Planning. She’s married and has twin sons who went to University Laboratory High School. Although she is concerned about the current state of immigration in the United States, she is also inspired by the younger generation.

Faranak Miraftab
I’m very inspired by what youth are doing and we have a lot of hope that you guys, the high schoolers, would save the day. You have the message of hope and the vision of, a different world is possible, and a different world is what you want. And I’m very proud and moved by the movement that high schoolers have started.

Nathalie Stein, Narrator
If you want to listen to the full documentary, learn more about immigration in Champaign-Urbana, and see all the people who made this project possible, go to will.illinois.edu/illinoisyouthmedia.

This has been Immigration in the Spotlight. Thanks for listening.

Starting as a young activist in Iran, Professor Faranak Miraftab has overcome many trials and tribulations in her life, finding asylum in Norway at age 23 and eventually coming to Champaign-Urbana. This is the first in a four-part podcast series students at Uni High called Immigration in the Spotlight that profiles residents of Champaign-Urbana originally from far away places, and the activists who support them. To listen to the full documentary, learn more about immigration in Champaign-Urbana, and see all the people who made this project possible, go to here.

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