Thirteen years ago this week, on July 8, 1999, fanatics who worked for the Islamic Republic of Iran attacked the dorms of Tehran University. In what would be remembered as 18 Tir, the date of the attacks according to the Persian calendar, the government agents beat and terrorized students, ransacked our living quarters, and sent hundreds of students to the hospital. Ezzat Ibrahim Nejad was shot during the raid, a brutal example intended to warn the rest of us of what would happen should we question the Islamic rule of our government. I was there during the attack, and I was one of the leaders of a student organization that began staging demonstrations right away. We struggled to get the word out about what had happened. The government wasn’t keen on letting the rest of Iran know what it was doing to their children.
Before long, the demonstrations spread, not just to the streets of Tehran, but to cities all over Iran. My fellow student leaders and I had regular interviews with media outside of Iran, and our angry, terrified voices could be heard around the world. By the fifth day of demonstrations there were some 50,000 people on the streets of Tehran alone, protesting the attacks on the dormitories of Tehran University.
As the government began its crackdown on protesters, many of us who were on the run for several days, were caught and imprisoned. We faced unspeakable torture at the hands of the Islamic Republic. I spent 137 days in a secret jail where I was interrogated daily. I was later transferred to Evin Prison, and after several months, released.
I escaped my country and landed in the United States the year after 18 Tir happened. I came to this country seeking political asylum. I am an immigrant, and I came here just like every other immigrant, with a lifetime of history behind me, and with very few Americans really knowing much about my cultural background. This isn’t a judgment of American culture, but rather an observation of how it was when I arrived.
Over the last thirteen years I have written articles about what happened to us. I wrote a book, and have participated in discussions on Iran’s Green Movement via many types of media. I have spoken at Amnesty International events and given lectures at universities from Cal Poly to UC Berkeley. In my mind, it is important for the world to know what happened during 18 Tir, not because I was part of it, but because it was foundational to the 2009 response to elections in Iran, the birth of the Green Movement, and in many ways the Arab Spring of 2011.
This past May I was invited to speak at an event sponsored by Southern Oregon University and the local Amnesty International office of Ashland, Oregon. At that event I spoke with many Americans. I told them about 18 Tir, its political significance for the region, and why, from a human rights perspective, we have to pay attention to what happens in places like Burma, Syria, Darfur, and anyplace where humanity is crying out for basic freedoms that we enjoy in this country.
The response was enthusiastic. What I have witnessed about the culture in the United States is that in general, Americans are kind people. When given the facts, the background, the rationale for why something matters, they are often quick to respond with an attitude of “How can we help?” That is one of many wonderful things about this country.
My response to their question was simple: Remember 18 Tir.
Today, just like every July 8th since 1999, I remember the faces of the youth, how they stood up to the tyrants who control our country. I remember Ezzat Ibrahim Nejad. I remember my best friend and fellow student activist Akbar Mohammadi who was arrested following the protests and ended up dying seven years later, in 2006, at the hands of his torturers. I remember the courage it took for the youth to stand up, and I remember that, as Nelson Mandela said, “I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
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