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Thousands of Iranian Canadians celebrated Nowruz in the Lower Mainland on Monday, but according to one local activist, there’s an unusual somberness to this year’s start of Persian New Year festivities.
The fight for freedom in Iran weighs heavily on the minds of the community, said Golnaz Fakhari, and casts a dark shadow over an ancient holiday linked with spring, harmony and new beginnings.
“It’s devastating at the same time that it’s refreshing, which is a very frustrating feeling because you want to feel good about Nowruz … but at the same time, you’ve lost so much,” Fakhari told Global News.
“It’s a very confusing feeling.”
Monday marks the first Nowruz since the start of anti-regime protests in Iran, catalyzed by the in-custody death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Amini died last September in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police for reportedly wearing her hijab too loosely.
Since then, dissenting citizens, whose movement is called “Women, Life, Freedom,” have been subjected to arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution at the hands of the Iranian state.
According to the Iran-based Human Rights Activists News Agency, more than 19,000 protesters have been arrested and more than 500 people have been killed, including minors. The state’s intelligence and security forces have also allegedly beaten and raped children as young as 12 to “quell their involvement,” Amnesty International said last week.
Reporters Without Borders reports 70 journalists have been arrested since last September, 16 of whom are still being held.
Visiting cemeteries to remember loved ones lost in the previous year has long been a tradition before the start of Nowruz. This year, Fakhari said that custom has been particularly crushing.
“For the past few days, we’ve been receiving a lot of images, a lot of videos of all of these families who’ve put their teenagers, their youngsters, their loved ones into graves,” she explained.
“It’s just a rush of anger, sadness and more confusion whenever I see these photos and videos.”
In Vancouver, Fakhari said she visited the graves of several victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 as a way “symbolic way to honour everyone who has lost their lives for the past four decades” under the Islamic regime. The plane was deliberately shot down three years ago by the Iranian military, killing all 176 passengers aboard.
“When you are an immigrant and when you’re away from home, you always harbor this guilt that you’re not there, you’re not present in the action,” she said.
“We’re planning to have a vigil in the weeks to come with the group that we have, so hopefully that’s going to be a collective honour that we can have.”
Fakhari has helped organize anti-regime solidarity protests in Vancouver for the past six months. She said she draws strength from women in Iran, who continue to fight for freedom knowing their lives are in danger every day.
“I’m amazed and I’m humbled by all of the kindness and all of the unity I’ve seen in the past six months, and I’m hopeful that with the start of spring, with the start of the new year in Iran, we can keep moving forward as a collective,” she said. “This is the only way we can win.”
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A poster with small photos of those killed by the state in the past 44 years sits on Fakhari’s Haftsin table this year, as does a statue of free bird sitting on top of its cage.
“I think it’s really hard to take away freedom from people who are seeking freedom, who have tasted freedom one way or another, but at the same time I think we are up against one of the most evil governments in contemporary history,” she said.
“It’s not going to be easy to overturn such a government, but I’m hopeful it will happen and it will happen soon.”
A Haftsin is a traditional display of the seven symbolic items whose names start with the 15th letter in the Persian alphabet, including sweet pudding, apples, vinegar and garlic. Fakhari said many Haftsin tables contain special additions this year, in recognition of the freedom movement now underway.
Nowruz celebrations last 13 days. March 20 represents the start of the year 1402 in the Iranian calendar.