A community member at a rally opposing Iranian government human rights abuses in downtown Minneapolis, MN on December 17, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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Hossein Jalali skipped school with other students to join massive demonstrations against the Iranian monarchy in 1978. At worst, the then-16-year-old protester saw Iranian authorities use tear gas to break up the crowds. 

By February 1979, Jalali watched tear gas give way to bullets as he followed news of the historic Islamic Revolution from his new home in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was a high school exchange student. 

“I pursued my education here while the revolution happened, but it’s nothing like this,” Jalali said of the current demonstrations in Iran, noting the military-grade weapons and harsh imprisonments used against protesters today. 

Jalali, who is now a dentist, is part of a community of about 3,000 Iranians in Minnesota, many of whom have been rallying weekly in solidarity with the ongoing women-led revolution in Iran. The killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September sparked worldwide outrage across generations of Iranians. Since then, the local community has been meeting at Nicollet Mall and South 11th Street in downtown Minneapolis every Saturday afternoon to bring awareness to Amini’s death and the imprisonment of Iranians who protested her killing.

The group plans to demonstrate weekly until human rights abuses end in Iran.

“Nobody really can comprehend in the international world that this is an imminent danger,” Apple Valley resident Saghi Saghazadeh said at a recent rally. “So we’re trying to raise awareness and also think of action items.”

Protesters across Iran, a country of 80 million people, are calling for a citizen-led revolution, an investigation into Amini’s death, and the dismantling of the morality police, the law enforcement agency that detained Amini for not covering her hair to their liking. The headcovering has been compulsory for women in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

Police deny mistreatment and say she died of a heart attack while she was detained. Amini’s family said she had no history of heart issues. 

Fazy Kowsari leads chants against Iranian government human rights abuses in downtown Minneapolis, MN on December 17, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Longtime advocates organize in Iranian community

Jalali has advocated for the Iranian community since his early years in the United States, and has organized the annual Twin Cities Iranian Culture Festival to challenge stereotypes of Iranians in America. 

“I really value my heritage and I appreciate my culture,” Jalali said. “When I came here, a lot of people didn’t have a good understanding. They didn’t know where the country is, nevertheless what the culture is like, what the people are like.”

Jalali’s daughter, St. Paul City Councilmember Mitra Jalali, found her place in advocacy at the local government level. In 2018, she became the first Iranian elected to political office in Minnesota. 

“The women and girls in September and October that we saw tying back their hair, singing in the street, dancing, and taking off their headcovering in public and throwing it back at the police—they look like the young women and girls that I view as my adopted sisters,” Mitra said. “They look more like the people I work with than any other movement I’ve seen.”

Mitra and other Iranian elected officials across the country distributed a letter in October urging U.S. citizens to ask their federal representatives to push for a United Nations’ investigation into human rights abuses in Iran.

“Our own parents fled the country they love because of the brutality of the Islamic Republic and its extreme regime,” the letter says. “The Islamic Republic has tortured and killed several of our family members and loved ones. That’s how our families came to call the United States home.”

St. Louis Park resident Jay Shahidi is an active member of multiple human rights groups based in Minnesota, including the local Amnesty International chapter and groups affiliated with the United Nations Foundation. 

“Right now in Iran, we’re trying to stop executions and free the peaceful, nonviolent prisoners,” Shahidi said. “Amnesty International has really been lobbying heavily to remove capital punishment. That’s one of my passions.”

He added that the group has faced difficulties with its work because of a lack of reliable information from the Iranian government. He’s turned to his own elected officials instead, urging them to condemn human rights abuses but to not intervene. 

“When a foreign power gets involved—and this is what history shows—things get worse,” Shahidi said. “It’s up to the Iranian people what kind of government, what kind of system they want.”

Iranian flags and posters in a snowbank in downtown Minneapolis, MN on December 17, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Protesters gather in downtown Minneapolis

A few hundred people gathered in a circle on Nicollet Mall on December 10. They held up Iranian flags, posters, and a long banner with photos of political prisoners and protesters that were killed that week. 

Iranian officials have acknowledged the death of 300 people during protests. However, human rights groups have reported that 481 protesters were killed by authorities, including 68 children, and that more than 18,000 Iranians have been arrested.

Bundled up in a parka and bright red hat, Saghazadeh led the chants at the Minneapolis rally. The protesters chanted, “Minnesota remember, we told you in November,” referring to their previous rallies.  

“We have been warning the international community that they are going to suppress people. They are going to start killing our youth” in Iran, said protester Ghazaleh Dadres. “And that’s what they have done.”

Protesters also sang along to Iranian music, at times stomping one leg in unison, which Dadres explained is a common act of solidarity among Iranian protesters. 

Saghazadeh encouraged attendees to listen to stories from student protesters in Iran. She also called on the United Nations to hold Iran accountable. Internet access, misinformation, and censorship are also huge concerns, she said. 

The United States government has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and agencies that repressed protestors and disrupted internet access in October.

A protester holds a sign at a rally opposing Iranian government human rights abuses in downtown Minneapolis, MN on December 17, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Coming home

Minneapolis resident Shahin Khazrajafari, 35, has visited family in Iran every year for weeks at a time since immigrating to the United States in 1998 at age 11. Khazrajafari and his wife visit parents and other relatives in Tehran, Shiraz, and its surrounding areas. 

“You go back from an extreme place of privilege, to go there and be able to spend time there and see your loved ones,” he said. “But you don’t have to go through any of the pain and the struggle that they’re going through, because you come back. You’re back to your normal life here, even though it comes with the pain of constantly missing them.”

Khazrajafari said he hasn’t been able to visit since the summer of 2021, and has resorted to keeping up communication over the phone and internet every other day, constantly fearful that the government is listening since the internet isn’t secure.

“How are you doing? How is everybody else?” Khazrajafari asks. 

His relatives respond shortly, “Good.”

“Okay, well, be safe,” Khazrajafari replies. “Goodbye.”

Khazrajafari said he has felt helpless knowing what his family back home is going through, and finding few ways he can directly support them. One way he’s been able to help is by getting his relatives connected to the internet through a virtual private network access. That allows his relatives to use social media websites that are otherwise blocked in Iran. Khazrajafari asked that the names and relations of his family members not be published for fear that they could be arrested.

Khazrajafari has sent letters with photos of Iranian protesters who have been executed to  Minnesota’s congressional delegation, urging them to recognize and support the people of Iran. He said he’s been disappointed by their lack of response. 

“I don’t know if tomorrow it’s going to be a photo of my own family member,” Khazrajafari said. “I would want to know that someone cares.”

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...