Sara Shariati stares intently at her phone screen, willing it to connect to her grandfather in Iran. The University of Toronto student hasn’t been able to get ahold of the 95-year-old for two weeks. When the call doesn’t go through, she tries a text message and shakes her head.
“The message doesn’t even deliver. Their internet is shut,” Shariati said, her voice catching.
Shariati is one of the nearly 90,000 Iranians who have settled in the Greater Toronto Area, according to Statistics Canada. Only Los Angeles has a larger Iranian population outside of Iran.
For many in the wider Iranian diaspora, the last three months have been rife with worry, anger and frustration as they watch the ongoing cycle of protests and violent crackdowns in Iran sparked by the in-custody death of Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16.
The 22-year-old died while she was in the custody of Iran’s morality police after she had been detained for reportedly wearing her headscarf incorrectly, violating the strict public dress codes imposed on Iranian women. Her death has sparked outrage in and outside of Iran.
“So many years that we had to be worried about whether the colour of our shirt is too bright, whether our toes are showing because we are wearing open-toed shoes or whether our hair is showing too much,” Shariati said. “And now this generation is saying enough is enough.”
Shariati is proud of the stand many in the country are taking, but she also worries about the safety of her friends and family in Iran and feels guilty about her own relative safety in Canada.
“Some of my friends have been arrested. We have no news of them. Some of them have been injured. There has been so much tear gas into university dormitories,” she said.
“I keep thinking when I’m walking on campus [here] that, ‘Oh my God, how safe I am and how normal life is here.’ And they have to worry if they can even be alive tomorrow,” she said.
Shariati is doing what she can to bring attention to the protests in Canada and pressuring the Canadian government to do more, including helping organize three protests.
She also knows her work to amplify the voices of revolt in Iran has put a target on her back.
“When I go to Iran, I will probably be arrested at the airport. And I know that. And my family knows that. But I keep thinking in my head, what have I done to deserve this?” she said.
‘Impossible’ to stay in touch with friends, family
Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group monitoring the ongoing protests, estimates at least 388 people have been killed and more than 16,000 have been arrested since they began nearly two months ago.
There are few Iranians in Canada who understand the price of standing up to the Iranian regime as well as Azam Jangravi. In 2018, the young mother climbed on top of an electric transformer box in Tehran, removed her headscarf and was promptly arrested.
Jangravi escaped with her daughter to Turkey and now lives in Canada. Watching the events unfold in Iran has filled her with worry and hope.
“You know, I broke my silence. This is the key. Now every Iranian broke their silence,” she said. “I think they are so brave. They know they might be killed, but every day, they come back to the street.”
It has been hard to get a good sense of what’s really happening on the streets of the country. Like so many, Jangravi depends on social media posts and WhatsApp messages from friends to get a sense of what’s happening, as information trickles out between government-imposed communications blackouts.
It’s also made it near impossible to stay in touch with friends and family on a regular basis.
“When I called and I don’t know what happened to my family or to my friends, I am really frustrated. I am worried. I cry,” she said.
Even when people successfully manage to get in contact with loved ones in Iran, it’s not always safe to talk.
Protests ‘on everybody’s minds’
In his usually bustling Persian grocery store Khorak Supermarket, Sam Fayaz describes how cautious his in-laws in Iran are when they speak with his wife because of fears their phone might be monitored by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“It becomes a one-way conversation where when you ask the other side ‘hey, what’s going on over there,’ a lot of them, my brother-in-law, won’t talk, right? So he’ll avoid the questions,” he said.
The months-long unrest and violence has put a damper on the wider Iranian community, Fayaz said.
“Everybody’s upset. Everybody’s down,” Fayaz said, gesturing around the store. “Things quiet down, right? I mean, it’s Monday. My store’s supposed to be a little bit busier than it is right now, but, you know, we’re not.”
“It’s on everybody’s minds. Nobody wants to go out and party. Nobody wants to go to, you know, go to a concert. A lot of events have been cancelled because people are just… it’s on their minds,” Fayaz said.
A poster hangs in the door of the store reading “Women, Life, Freedom” and “Be the voice of the Iranian people.” Fayaz isn’t shy about his own support for the protesters whose voices he says he tries to amplify as much as possible.
“The more this gets shared, the more likely the, you know, external governments such as the Canadian government, the U.S. government, hopefully, you know, different parts of the world will impose stricter sanctions on this regime and bring change,” Fayaz said.
As snow falls from a grey Toronto sky, Shariati thinks about what more Canada and the world could do to help the Iranian protesters.
“Canada has done a lot. A lot more than many European countries. A lot more than even the U.S. But I think there can be more. I think they can push for more action from other countries as well because Canada has a strong voice in international platforms,” she said.
Canada has issued five sets of sanctions on Iran this year in response to what Global Affairs Canada calls “ongoing gross and systematic human rights violations and continued actions to destabilize peace and security.” The sanctions lists include businesses and leaders associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
“There can be more targeted sanctions on the leaders. IRGC can be recognized as a terrorist group,” she added.
She also wants to see UNICEF and the United Nations step up their involvement.
“Statements don’t cut it. We need a lot stronger action.”