Changing the world from 11 453.24 kilometres away. Impossible you may think. Enacting reforms, freeing illegitimate prisoners and reshaping a whole country. That is the quest, one man; Tayeb Saedighan has endeavored to do for his hometown Iran.
An Iranian refugee, forced to flee his country, his family and all he stood for in the hopes of preserving his security arrived at the Brisbane airport in 1989. He has devoted his whole life to the well-being of his people and his home.
As a young 18 year old, Tayeb decided to support an exiled opposition group in Iran called the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK), or the People’s Mojahedin. In our modern society, the very name, ‘mojahedin’ conjures up notions of fundamentalist Islamic extremists, but the People’s Mojahedin is different.
Representing a more moderate form of Islam, they are strongly committed to democracy, human rights and the equal rights for women. After the fall of the Shah, the Khomeini regime came into leadership, swaying away from installing democracy in Iran. The People’s Mojahedin sought to campaign against the Iranian Government ever since.
It is from these democratic beliefs and actions, that Tayeb was imprisoned for the following two years. Cramped into a cell alongside 12 to 13 prisoners with an allowance of a maximum of half an hour spent outside daily. At night, prison guards would often wake him and enact various forms of torture.
“It was hard, very hard” he says, with the threat of being imprisoned following him after his release, from town to town. The fundamental regime sought to prevent stability in the lives of the members that opposed them, causing them to lose employment and outlawing them.
It is in the year following his release, in hopes of preserving his personal security, he made the hardest decision of his life; to leave Iran. Making the illegal trip to Turkey and then to Brisbane, he was faced with the common problems met by asylum seekers. Moving into the House of Freedom Christian Community house in West End, he sought help from the South Brisbane Immigration and Community Legal Service in applying for refugee status and Australian citizenship. Referred to as RAILS, the independent not-for-profit community legal center specializes in refugee and immigration law providing free legal advice and assistance to disadvantaged people.
Dr Aparna Hebbani, a specialist refugee researcher from the University of Queensland explains that although refugees are faced with multiple hardships with Australian resettlement, “the main one is in terms of getting employment and the second hindrance is related to perceptions of discrimination on part of the Government, employers, and the community at large”. Surrounded by negative stereotypical and inaccurate portrayals of refugees, struggles and strife were inevitable for Tayeb.
Perhaps, the greatest aid to his settlement and future happiness with meeting his wife Jillian, one spring day in the heart of Brisbane. Since her early twenties, Jillian has always regarded Tayeb as “someone who lived what he believed”. Surrounded by friends who never took action, she has involved herself with Tayeb’s fight to free Iran from a fundamentalist government.
On one occasion, they travelled to America specifically to rally the American and Iranian exchange of oil for weapons. “In the middle of the night we were given a bucket of glue and posters and told to put them up everywhere, even where we weren’t allowed to” she says.
In the middle of the night, Tayeb often wakes up screaming, plagued with nightmares and flashbacks of the torture he experienced at jail. The Australian Psychological Society sayss “refugees often have high levels of trauma prior to and during migration, with negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing”.
Michelle Barrat, a psychologist with Vision Psychology Brisbane, explains, “trauma may be at the root of a broad spectrum of problems, impacting the physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and relationships”.
Equipped with these experiences drawn by his drive to reform Iran, Tayeb actively involved himself in the quest here in Brisbane. Acting as president of the Association of Iranian Refugees in Australia, he is concerned that the ‘war against terrorism’ has mistakenly targeted supporters of Iranian democracy in North America, Europe and Australia.
He displays his ongoing commitment to his beliefs by organizing rallies and protests regularly alongside emergency relief fundraising such as the earthquake in Bam. Venturing into King George Square, Tayeb would demonstrate collaborating with various organisations such as Refugee Action Coalition Sydney and United For Iran.
As a psychologist herself, Jillian believes that it’s the courage Tayeb brings to their relationship that keeps it strong. Perhaps the most confronting event of their lives together, was a raid of their family home by the Australian Federal Police on June 3, 2003 alongside nine other families in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Claiming to be hunting members of the MEK, plain-clothed police confiscated computers, diaries, books, papers, photos, cheque books and anything relating to Iranian refugee associations. “They were here for seven hours and taking everything to put on their drives to show that we were not part of a terrorist association or fundraising for a terrorist association” Jillian said. Their son, Taher, only seven-years-old at the time remembers being frightened at the time.
“They checked everything to see if Dad was a terrorist,” he says.
As Dr Hebbani stresses, members of the community and media “characterise Muslims as a ‘threat’ and in most cases, this is incorrect.
With all the hindrances, struggles, trauma and sadness that Tayeb has faced in his life so far, he looks forward with the most optimistic of dispositions. On his eagerness to share his story, “I am proud of what I did for my own people because everything I did, I did for them, for human rights and for the respect and equality between men and women and my people and the different kinds of the world” he says.
Indeed, a just cause by any standards.