By Saleem Vaillancourt
December 10, 2020
Iran is not just a place. Iran exists wherever Iranians talk and care about Iran. Naturally the Iranian diaspora around the world is an energetic amalgam of cultures, religions and political dispositions. But they are all Iranian, definitely and eternally, however many years they have been away from their homeland.
Three Iranian human rights figures, the lawyer Payam Akhavan, a Baha’i who lives in Montreal and London; Siavosh Derakhti, a Muslim social activist who lives in Malmö, Sweden; and Sharon Nazarian, the Anti-Defamation League’s Vice President of International Affairs, who is Jewish and lives in Los Angeles, embody this spirit. Akhavan’s and Nazarian’s parents left Iran in the 1970s – Akhavan’s to Canada, and Nazarian’s to the US – to escape the persecution foreshadowed by the Islamic Revolution. Derakhti’s family left Iran after it was exhausted by war with Iraq. And yet each of them is distinctly Iranian in their concern and love for Iran.
Each of these activists has also come to broaden what it means to be Iranian. Akhavan, Derakhti and Nazarian found their way onto paths that led them to Bosnia and Rwanda, to Auschwitz, to Rohingya refugee camps and to the offices of the far-right Hungarian government. These journeys gave the activists, who are among the foremost in their respective fields, a glimpse of what Iran itself needs in order to find a future beyond repression and human rights abuses.
Siavosh Derakhti is an Iranian-Swedish social activist based in Malmö, Sweden, who founded Young People Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia, a civil society organization, when he was just 18 years old. For 10 years the organization has trained young people from immigrant backgrounds in diversity, pluralism and social activism, in part through teaching them about the realities of the Holocaust and other genocides.
Derakhti was born in Sweden, and not Iran, because of the Iran-Iraq war. Derakhti’s father had been a doctor in Iran. He was attending a medical conference in Sweden in 1987 when, as the war was still raging, he decided to stay there. His wife and first child joined him a year later. Derakhti himself was born in Sweden in 1991, and when he was three his family moved to the southern city of Malmö. “And that’s where I grew up,” Derakhti says.
“If you google Malmö, you’re going to get three things. One is our very, very good soccer player, Zlatan Ibrahimović [a Swede of Bosnian descent]; he actually played for Manchester United. We also have the best falafel. And then, we have a big issue with antisemitism that we struggle with every single day. And that’s Malmö. But I love Malmö.”
News reports on Malmö – a city of approximately 344,000 people, according to Swedish government statistics, about half of whom are either foreign-born or have one or two foreign-born parents – indicate the city is indeed facing an ongoing antisemitism crisis. The Times of Israel reported in June 2019, for instance, that the Jewish population in Malmö had declined from roughly 1,200 people in the past to around 800 because of increased threats and attacks. Malmö’s Jewish community has even said it may need to formally dissolve itself, a step that another community in northern Sweden has already taken, because of antisemitic threats and the persistent sense that officials have failed to intervene on their behalf.
“We have a large Middle Eastern community in Malmö,” says Derakhti, who is from a Muslim background. Aged just 28, he now directs an organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism among the city’s young population. When it comes to Israel and the Palestinian conflict, he says, the sentiment is visible on the streets and on social media: a live seam of antisemitism in city life. In such an environment, hate speech is normalized, and becomes a warning that more violent acts may occur.
The Swedish government, according to Derakhti, failed to communicate to new migrant communities that “you have your rights, but you also need to respect each other” when arriving in a new and diverse country. One of the results of this failure of oversight, he says, was that a small number of migrants and refugees – mostly from Muslim backgrounds in the Middle East – brought their old prejudices to their new home and behaved with hostility toward the Jewish community now in their midst. “It’s about education,” Derakhti says. “Some of them have [never met] a Jew; they have antisemitic thoughts and ideas, and homophobic thoughts and ideas. And we need to give them the right tools.”
Derakhti had the good fortune to grow up with a best friend, David, who was Jewish and had his roots in Israel. “He always stood up for me as a Muslim, as a human being,” Derakhti says, “and I always stood up for him as a Jew. We also had a [Roma] Turkish friend, and we were the three musketeers.”
The three defined themselves by the fact that they were from “different countries, different backgrounds”, and were, as Derakhti says, “outside [mainstream] society”. But they also wanted to do something positive. Derakhti’s discovery in his teenage years that Jewish families were beginning to leave Malmö because of antisemitism, and the fact that even his friend David felt afraid to share his Jewish identity with his peers, angered him.
The loyalty between the three friends sometimes saw them get into fights when other young Swedes attacked one or other of them over their backgrounds. But teenage friendships and righteous fistfights were just part of Derakhti’s education.
“My parents were highly educated,” Derakhti says, “and in our home, my father taught me what is wrong, what is right.” His father would also talk about how he and Derakhti’s mother had fled war and dictatorship to come to Sweden, and wanted “to teach their children to grow up with freedom”.
Freedom for Derakhti’s family meant speaking, thinking and acting as they wished, but it also included a deeper lesson. One day, a young Derakhti mentioned to his father that his class was studying the Holocaust at school. In response, his father, who also remembered experiencing prejudice as part of Iran’s Azeri minority, said: “When I grew up, we had friends who told me that the Holocaust never happened, or that the Holocaust was only propaganda.”
He then asked his son: “If I take you to one of the concentration camps, are you ready to see it with your own eyes? You have to be ready.”
Derakhti’s father took him to Munich, Germany to visit the Dachau concentration camp when he was thirteen years old. Two years later they went to Poland to see the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. More than 1.1 million people, the vast majority of them Jewish, were murdered there by the Nazis during World War II.
“When I saw Auschwitz,” Derakhti says, “it was something else.” The experience, he adds, was like hearing a bell ringing out, warning him that “we need to do something and educate our youngsters”. The realization inspired him to later repeat the camp visits with his own classmates.
“Most of my classmates were Muslims,” Derakhti says. “So for me, it was very important to struggle with these issues and to show them that the Holocaust happened.”
The experience led Derakhti to start his own organization in 2009, making educational visits to Auschwitz a regular service for young people in Malmö. The organization, Young People Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia, offers a year-long training program designed to empower participants, “young ambassadors” as Derakhti calls them, to convey its message of defending diversity in Sweden to their own communities and to wider society.
Derakhti and his colleagues recruit participants through every available means: in schools, on social media, by taking applications and even by looking for participants in the streets. The diversity of participants, he says, is key. The groups comprise 15 to 20 participants each year, who meet once a week for 12 months.
“What we have seen when they come in for the first time,” Derakhti says, “is that they often don’t have the knowledge, they don’t get the knowledge in schools. They don’t understand what is right, what is wrong. We educate them on how to speak in front of a group. When they have the right tools, when they have the right education, they feel they’re ready to go out into the world to struggle with these issues.”
The participants who make these journeys to Auschwitz, Derakhti says, all break down in tears. “Every single person, every single person I take to Auschwitz and back,” he says, “when they come to Sweden and when they speak up, [they say] this is the most important truth they have learned. What’s happening is their attitude is changing inside, and they are growing as a leader.”
Bosnia was added to the visits, Derakhti says, so that participants could see what had happened just 25 years ago in Europe – despite the collective vow made by governments after World War II that genocide would never be repeated. Showing participants not only the truth of the Holocaust, but also the fact that such horrors later occurred again, helps to consolidate the message that every citizen in a society has a role to play in resisting hatred.
The young ambassadors’ families can be among the most antagonistic to Derakhti’s program. “We have parents, or big brothers or sisters, but especially brothers and fathers, who don’t let participants attend the groups,” Derakhti says. “They have conspiracy theories and crazy opinions about us, about me.” These reactionary attitudes have been especially pronounced at times when the Israel-Palestine conflict has dominated the news.
Derakhti even received death threats and needed bodyguards for a time. “But every year,” he says, “with small tools, with small muscles, we make a change.”
One young ambassador’s father called Derakhti to tell him what this change looked like in his own family. “He said, ‘I just want to tell you and your team that you’re all supporting us. Our boy never came home before. He was using drugs and smoking. He had a very bad reputation. Through your program, you actually saw him and supported him, and you created a role model.’ And that’s what we want to do: we want to create role models.”
Derakhti believes that this work, supporting minorities by educating them about diversity and cooperation with other communities, is also needed in Iran. His parents may have left Iran because of war, but it is still a part of Derakhti’s family and his own life. He hopes to be able to return in the future.
“Iran is a very multicultural country,” Derakhti says. “It has large minorities: Kurdish, Azeris, Assyrian, Armenian, Gilakis. But they are all under one roof, Iran as a country, Iranians as a people. I hope all Iranians can support each other and help each other and make changes together. And that Iran one day will be free.”