I would be facing the death penalty

Student wants to teach the Dutch about Iran

Taco van der EbYalda Walinezjad: “Sometimes I just want to get a plane straight back to Teheran.”

By Harmke Berghuis

Leiden student Yalda Walinezjad fled from Iran five years ago, and though still a constant threat hangs over her, she has founded an institute because she loves her country. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

“In 2009, I held a lecture on Iran in the Netherlands, and afterwards. I received threats – via the Internet, on the telephone and face-to-face. Iranian students in the Netherlands who have good relations with the Iranian embassy said to me: ‘You’re going to regret this”, so I laid low for three months.
“But I live in a free country now, I have found out for myself how essential it is live in a free country like the Netherlands instead of an Islamic dictatorship. It’s my duty to contribute something to Iran. I’m prepared to do almost anything to achieve my dreams. Freedom of expression means everything to me.”
Yalda Walinezjad (1984) fled to the Netherlands in 2006. Back in Iran, she was a medical student and very much involved in the campaign for Mohammad Khatami, the predecessor of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khatami was the president of Iran from 1997 to 2005. According to Walinezjad, his reforms were not very popular with conservative clergy, who really control Iran. “Although he was part of the regime, he was attempting to introduce a few good measures, to reform. Democracy is a process, it needs people like him.”
So she handed out flyers, scrawled his slogans on walls and organised lectures, and this lead to threats and problems at the university, particularly with the Head. “There is no such thing as freedom of speech in Iran, but I’m not afraid of speaking out and I am a girl. Campaigns must stop twenty-four hours before to the elections. I was with a group of other students and the conversation turned to Khatami. Then the Head of the university arrived and slapped my face.” She looks up fiercely: “I’m a woman who does not like being forced. It was not the first or the last time someone had struck me, but I realised: this makes me unhappy. I can’t live my life here.”
Not long after that incident, she was driving through the city with her then boyfriend quite late one evening. “We were stopped by men from the Revolutionary Guard, a corps of the Iranian army. They were in civilian clothes, so we just drove on. Then shots were fired, forcing us to stop.” The men walked up to the car and struck her boyfriend’s face with the butt of a rifle. “That was it for me.”
Her friend underwent a lengthy operation, and was jailed directly afterwards. She was arrested too, but as her father was a well-known professor, she was released again immediately. “My friend was given sixty lashes of the whip. We left Iran as soon as he was released.”
“The first six months here were very difficult. ‘What am I doing here?’ I would wonder. But I became active straight away, got to know the language. I am a very social person.” After six months, she started two courses, Public Management at The Hague University and Public Administration at Leiden University; she is nearly ready to graduate from both.
“I’m doing well with the language, I’m doing well at my courses, but on a personal level, things are different. I live two lives. I worry about Iran and my parents. Sometimes I get very lonely. May people say: ‘you have lots of friends, everyone appreciates what you’re doing’, but even so, I’m often very sad. I’m on my own here, I’ve had to give up so much for my dreams: my friends, my family, my country. I haven’t seen my parents since I moved here.
“Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here and I think: I just want to get a plane straight back to Teheran – with my Dutch passport. Obviously, that wouldn’t be a very clever thing to do. If I ever did return, I’d be sentenced to death, not because I’m so important, but because the regime is terrified of ambitious young people with extensive networks who rebel. I organise political debates on Iran. You are not allowed to criticise the regime. Or, instead of the death penalty, perhaps I’d be locked away in an Iranian prison for the rest of my life. I think I would rather be dead.”
“I love Iran, I love its culture and its people, but the regime frustrates me. I’ve spent some time in Israel. Iranians don’t hate Israel, only the regime hates Israel. This distinction between the people and the regime must be made evident.”
She has founded the Iran Institute partly because of that, and partly because of the unfamiliarity of the Dutch with Iran – “Iran is quite different to Iraq”. It was opened officially last week and the intention is that is to become an independent knowledge institute, where the media and other interested parties can go for advice and information. “If the papers want to know something about Iran, they contact individuals they find via Google, because there’s no independent institute, and that doesn’t produce a reliable picture.”
The institute will start giving lectures at The Hague University in February 2012, and if Walinezjad has her way, they will be followed by a series of lectures at Leiden University too. “We’re still negotiating, but they’re very enthusiastic.”
But what about the people back in Iran, can she help them too? “I can provide information for the people there and give them advice, make their voices heard. Our institute’s network is far-reaching, although, of course, I’m not very popular with the Iranian embassy.”
Walinezjad can’t yet say what the consequences of the Arab Spring will be for Iran.  “There will be elections in March next year, but everything is still quiet and no names have been announced yet. The things that have happened in Syria and Libya are very relevant to Iran. If the people in Syria can keep up their protests, it will mean a lot to the Iranian people. Even so, I’m not expecting a ‘Persian Spring’: the army in Iran will not support the population like the army in Egypt did.
“The regime must fall, but the question is how? I think we need tough sanctions that really affect the regime, and we need support to groups like liberal student movements that have a very important part in the resistance. In addition, the West should try to improve free access to the Internet and to support organisations that post news on Iran and that are dedicated to liberal, democratic values.”
Though Walinezjad has fled to the Netherlands, the regime still won’t leave her alone: her Facebook account is frequently down, for instance. “Recently, I heard that someone in London was trying to log into my account. But I can’t say any more about the threats – my parents are still in Iran. I just want to let the regime know that I am strong and I’m not afraid of anything. I don’t care if it ends in my death. These are my dreams and I will fight for them.”

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