Far From Tehran, Seyed Fights for Freedom in His Homeland


“It’s one of those rollercoaster feelings. I’m happy and sad, but it’s the price that we have to pay to truly be free.” These are some of Chef Seyed’s first words as he sits at the left end of a long table in the Lakeside Middle School cafeteria, patting his weathered hands together on the table’s surface and kindly aiming his eyes at a gaggle of students behind me. He’s referring to the rash of recent protests in Iran in response to the immoral killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was detained by the country’s morality police for allegedly failing to correctly wear her hijab before being placed in a van, severely beaten, and transported to a detention center where she would collapse into a coma and eventually die. 

More broadly, these demonstrations began as a means to voice the Iranian public’s frustration with a continually hemorrhaging economy and the government’s oppressive policies on free expression and women’s rights. However, since then, the movement has evolved into something considerably larger, with organizers and participants now calling for ends to excessively cruel punishment in the justice system, the total abolition of some of the regime’s most restrictive limitations on expression and movement, and the end of the Islamic Republic altogether. 

Violent punishment by the government has continued in response to the protests: reports place the civilian death toll at 458 at least, 63 of which are estimated to be children. This is the core of Seyed’s ambivalence on the protests: “On the one hand, I’m happy: They’re standing up against a corrupt system. They’re rebelling, and I support them all the way. But I see these women getting hurt, and I fear for them. I feel their pain.”

Many members of the Seattle Iranian community can empathize with the protesters. Seyed himself, before becoming a chef at Lakeside, was once a political prisoner in Iran, beaten and tortured mercilessly for opposing the then-newly installed Islamic Republic. Ultimately, he decided to leave Iran to give his daughters a better future in the U. S. Upon arriving, he joined Facebook groups with other Iranians in Seattle who’d also been forced to leave and wanted a means to connect with their community and continue to fight for peace in Iran. 

Since 1995, these Facebook groups have grown exponentially (with some exceeding 2500 members) and rallied together to support the protest movement in Iran. Seyed reports you can regularly find Iranians, clad in the green, white, and red of their flag, marching together in large numbers on Saturdays outside the state Capitol or in Downtown Seattle. Their requests are simple — “Women [and self-autonomy for them], life, and freedom” — but by mirroring the slogans that dominate Iran’s demonstrations, they hope to spur American politicians to action against human rights violations by the Iranian government. More and more people and politicians are joining their community here in Seattle, as Iranians and their allies, uniting to stress the global responsibility of protecting civilian liberty in Iran. 

I see these women getting hurt, and I fear for them. I feel their pain.

“It wasn’t always like this, though.” Seyed interjects, pausing briefly to take a deep breath. Having arrived in Seattle in 1995, Seyed is considered a veteran and leader in the Seattle Iranian community and has been largely responsible for many of their protests. But this cooperation and sense of unity was not a guarantee for a long time, both in and outside of Iran. As he explains, there are three primary groups of Seattle Iranians: “the students, the pro-Shah, and the, em, those who are in-between…” 

The students are considered to be idealists. As youth, they represent the future of the movement and typically connect with one another through their shared passions and identity as Iranian students in the U.S. 

The “pro-Shah” hope to see the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) superseded by the Shah family of Iran, who autocratically ruled the country before the IRI came to power and who remain exiled. This contingent tends to view the Shah’s regime with a rosier tint, pointing to some of the Western reforms the family implemented while ignoring the oppressive aspects of their rule. Additionally, they believe the deposition of the Shah was unjust and claim he is the rightful ruler of Iran.

Finally, there are the in-betweeners, of which Seyed considers himself a member. These individuals oppose the re-institution of the Shah but aren’t certain about the ambitious idealism of the student groups. 

Beyond those three, there’s also socioeconomic diversity and division to consider within the Iranian community. Seyed describes software engineers and refugees, all with their views on how best to shape Iran’s future. As a result, prior to 2022, the Iranian community was split by these internal divisions and the significant animosity between them. According to Seyed, little got done, as conversations and outreach between factions often and rapidly broke down into antagonistic debates regarding policies in a post-IRI world. “It was chaos,” he reflects. This would fundamentally change with the killings of Amini and Shakarami.

As Seyed explained, Seattle’s Iranian community collectively realized that discourse on a post-IRI world was worthless so long as the IRI remained. “This happened in Iran too!” he adds excitedly. “And every day, every moment it’s getting easier. It’s no longer arguments but instead everyone helping each other.” Attendance rates at protests in Seattle have grown significantly, with the lines between formerly distinct factions of Iranians continuing to blur. 

This novel sense of unity and a common goal inspire hope in Seyed for the future success of the movement. “It’s a movement of collective love, of collective will!” he says. “There’s no violence or illegal stuff — just people expressing themselves and rights, and the Iranian community has never been closer.” 

Indeed, this unique approach of a unified and civic Iranian movement here in Seattle and abroad appears more effective than its predecessors. In early December, for example, Iran announced they would abolish the morality police responsible for Amini’s death. Furthermore, pressure from Iranians protesting in other nations led to the Iranian expulsion from the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women just weeks later. 

There’s no violence or illegal stuff — just people expressing themselves and rights, and the Iranian community has never been closer.

Many still question the true impact or veracity of the statement. For one, no further action has been taken to disband the morality police, and other apparatuses of oppression like the Basij or regular police still exist. As Seyed says, Iranians and allies here shouldn’t be satisfied; “I see the Iranian government as a cancerous tumor. Though at this moment, the ban of the morality police takes out a big piece, there’s still a lot left. We need to be shaving it down little by little. We need to be pressuring our governments to put more, more, more sanctions and [for nations other than the U.S.] to sever diplomatic ties with them.” 

When asked about his recommendations for Lakesiders looking to get involved, he suggested writing to local lawmakers demanding they take greater action to pressure Iran into enforcing human rights, attending or organizing protests or demonstrations, and following a trusted news outlet (Seyed prefers NPR for Iran-related notices) to stay as informed as possible. 

“It’s a movement about democracy,” he concludes. “Not just in Iran, but everywhere. And if we hope to win, then we must preserve our feeling of community, with all people — Iranian and non-Iranian, young and old — fighting together for the most fundamental idea: freedom.”