By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
January 25, 2019
At dawn on December 30, 2018, a bakery worker was walking down an alleyway in the Saadi Gate neighborhood of Shiraz on his way to work when he came upon the frozen body of Golbas Alvandi, lying next to Hotel Parhami. He immediately called the emergency number, 115, to report what he had seen.
Golbas Alvandi’s death sparked a campaign on social media, with people using the hashtag “Shelter for Golbas” and protesting against the lack of warm shelters for the homeless and people begging on the street. But within a few days, local residents reported that another woman by the name of Fariba, thought to be about 50 years of age, had frozen to death in the same neighborhood.
There was no official news released about the death of the second woman, and IranWire’s information about Fariba comes from local residents and businesses. They say that Fariba died in the early morning of January 1, two days after Golbas Alvandi. She was a native of Kurdistan who had spent her days walking around the back alleys of Shiraz — one of the numerous homeless people in Iran referred to as “card-boarders” because they have no other place to sleep but sheltered by cardboard containers.
After her death, students from the University of Shiraz wrote an open letter to the mayor of the city, the director general of the Welfare Organization for the province of Shiraz, and the Drug Control Organization, warning them that they planned to sue any official who had failed in their jobs to protect these vulnerable people [Persian link].
How Can You Sleep at Night?
“Gentlemen!” read the letter. “You must doubt the legitimacy of your position when in your domain a woman dies because she had to sleep in a cardboard box and froze to death. You must also doubt that you are a Muslim if after hearing this news you can lie down next to your family and have a good night’s sleep. Know this: considering your propaganda that says you serve the deprived and the downtrodden, this issue is not going to go away and, as in the past, this is not going to be either the first or the last case of its kind.”
After the deaths of these two women, one women’s rights activist tried to learn more about them, walking through the alleys they had spent their time and talking to local residents, as well as officials responsible for the area. She told IranWire: “Even though the identity of at least one of these women is known and we have her name and other specifics about her, when we went to the medical examiner we found out that her name was not recorded in their system. They have probably recorded her as an ‘unknown person.’”
Noora N. has been trying to help card-boarders and street beggers for 10 years. On the same day that she heard about the death of Golbas Alvandi, she asked for a leave of absence from her government job — even though this made her boss angry — and set out to gather information.
“You walk as far as you can until, in the depth of back alleys, you reach a place that is really frightening,” Noora told me. “At the end of a very long and narrow alleyway, I came across a young man and a young woman. They were entirely out of it. I asked the girl a question and when she started speaking it was quite clear they were high on drugs. It seemed that the man had sexual designs on her. She said the area was a temporary home to at least 100 drug addicts who hide behind walls to take drugs and who spend the nights there. When I asked her where the alley led to she laughed, showing her yellowed teeth. ‘Utopia!’ she said.”
Nothing Out of the Ordinary
I asked Noora for the phone number of a local businessman who I heard had seen a white municipal van taking away the body of Golbas Alvandi. He had been named as Taghi Tavalli, the owner of a grocery store in the neighborhood. When I spoke to Tavalli, he said, “It is true. I saw with my own eyes; they took the frozen body of the woman away. It was early in the morning. In the mornings I open shop before other businesses because people and passers-by come to buy breakfast. The death of card-boarders around here is not odd. It is a familiar thing.”
He said that dozens of addicts frequent the area and almost all of them deal drugs as well. They stay alive, he says, by selling and buying drugs or by gathering and peddling recyclables.
“If you go behind the bakery at nights it is bedlam,” Tavalli told me. “They have really worn us out. They sleep in the alleyways and defecate behind cars, just a few steps away from where they sit. They sit next to each other to keep warm and burn stuff and broken tree branches. Some of them gather in the parking lot behind Bank Saderat. This really teaches children bad things. A few days ago my five-year-old grandson pointed to one of these ruined buildings and said, ‘the addicts smoke drugs in there.’ I was really shocked. How could a five-year-old know these words?”
How many are there, I asked this local businessman? “Between 50 and 100,” he said. “Sometimes, when a local resident calls the police, they come and take these poor guys by force, beating them [while they take them]. But the next day they are back — because nothing is done to find a place for them and or to really help them.”
Tavalli has lived in the neighborhood since 1988. He has witnessed the frozen bodies of card-boarders being removed many times throughout the winters, or his neighbors have told him about it. “You think they are asleep but when you touch them you find out they are dead,” he said. “The municipality comes and removes their bodies.”
He says that although the addicts are Iranians, they are not native to the area and come from nearby villages and towns. “They are miserable,” he says. “For years, perhaps, they do not take a bath or eat hot food. They don’t even have a torn blanket. And nobody takes responsibility for them. Wherever we call, they tell us to call somewhere else. When we call the emergency number they tell us to call the municipality and the municipality tells us to call the Red Crescent and the Red Crescent tells us to call the police.”
In their letter to the director general of the provincial Welfare Organization, the students from Shiraz University point out a center for treating and sheltering homeless addicts that has a budget of eight billion tomans (close to $2 million) but is taking care of only 240 addicts. “Likewise, a center has been set up in Shiraz for keeping female addicts, but your organization has refused to shelter them,” the letter says. “If this is true, then you are guilty for the death of this woman and you will be held accountable both in this world and the next one.”