Maedeh Ojaghlou, 28-years-old, arrived in New York City via Dubai from Tehran on an F1 student visa in August 2022. Since the 444-day siege of the American Embassy in Tehran, there has been no official American consulate presence there. When Maedeh (pr. MAH-eh-day) received her acceptance for the MFA program in photography at SUNY New Paltz, she was desperate to accept, but didn’t know how her modest, middle-class family — her father is an accountant, her mother a housewife – could afford the funds for travel to Dubai to obtain a visa, and then living expenses once she arrived on campus. Somehow, the family found the money.
Maedeh’s sister had already emigrated to the United States where she works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, so the family was accustomed to departures and struggles of their loved ones, and resigned to the financial sacrifice necessary to educate their children, especially their daughters.
Many wealthy Iranian families had fled after the mullahs came to power in 1979, after the fall of the Shah, leaving the less affluent to navigate the new theocracy on their own, in the same way ordinary Afghan families now have to navigate the evisceration of freedoms and opportunities by the Taliban after the American evacuation which privileged those working for the American government or military. The religious fundamentalism of both regimes has been life changing for everyone, especially the women. And Iranians and Afghanis even share related languages: a Farsi-speaking Iranian can probably understand a Dari-speaking Afghani, and vice versa.
Maedeh has been an activist for many years. She had volunteered for a charity helping child laborers, some as young as five-years-old, and her parents knew she would have been on the streets demonstrating every day after Mahsa Amini’s killing.“But my parents weren’t just worried about me,” Maedeh says. “They were worried about me and everyone else. We all worry about each other in Iran.”
More than 500 people have already been killed in the current protests including four public executions. Taraneh Alidoosti, a well-known Iranian actress, and one of the most high-profile targets in Iran’s campaign against celebrities who have expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, was arrested on December 18. Though she has been spared a long imprisonment; many others haven’t. Neda Naji, a labor activist, was sentenced to eight months in prison, 60 lashes, and fined.
Before long, Maedeh was on a plane to Dubai, her MFA acceptance in hand, applying for a visa. Soon after she landed in New York City, she joined demonstrations with friends and started posting photos on her Instagram account.“Women, Life, Freedom,” the calligraphy on all the signs in the photos read. They are printed in the colors of the Iranian flag minus the emblem of the Republic of Iran.
It might be difficult for Americans to understand that the demonstrators may, or may not, have an argument with Islam itself, one of the world’s great religions. Maedeh’s mother is devout, she does wear a hijab, but she supports and encourages the evolution of a new forward-looking generation. And her father, whose father was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, encourages his children to fight for freedom in a sanctioned country where there is no separation of church and state, and taxes go to advancing nuclear power and building drones for Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Life in the United States is calm by comparison to Iran, Maedeh says. She misses her family, but she is safe for now, and feels free to study and demonstrate without fear of arrest, solitary confinement, floggings, or death.
Dedicated to the brave women of Iran and Afghanistan.
Carol Bergman, an occasional contributor to HV1, is a journalist and educator living in New Paltz