Iranian human rights activist Atena Daemi refused to leave her homeland – even after spending six years in prison and being subjected to physical and psychological torture.

But in 2022, her multiple sclerosis (MS) had progressed to such an extent that her doctor told her she needed to seek medical treatment abroad.

“I never thought about leaving Iran, even in the darkest days of my imprisonment,” Daemi, 35, said in a recent interview with CBC. “I wouldn’t have left without my MS.”

And so she undertook a dangerous and unpredictable six-month journey that took her from Tehran to St. John’s.

Daemi’s decision to leave Iran came amid one of the most violent crackdowns on anti-regime protests in the Islamic Republic. From September 2022 to 2023, security forces killed more than 500 people and arrested over 20,000 – actions the UN described as “Crimes against humanity.”

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Daemi struggled with early symptoms of MS in prison but was denied medical care. When she was discharged in January 2022, her right leg was completely numb due to the untreated disease, affecting her mobility.

Daemi faced a two-year travel ban as part of her sentence and decided to leave the country illegally.

But Daemi insisted not to leave her older sister Ensieh behind. Ensieh was targeted by the authorities because of her commitment and advocacy for Atena. Aware of the high likelihood that Ensieh would be imprisoned if the authorities found out about Atena’s escape, the siblings decided to escape together.

Escape from Tehran

Atena Daemi contacted Front Line Defenders, an Irish NGO, who informed her that she and her sister qualified for the Canadian resettlement program.

Without special measures for Refugees are to be resettled directly from Iran to CanadaDaemi says the NGO urged her to flee to Turkey by May 2023, ahead of that country’s presidential election, at a time when security measures at the border are expected to be tightened.

When CBC reached out to Front Line Defenders for more details, the organization said it “cannot provide details about the process in individual cases – the details are kept confidential to ensure the safety of the defenders we support.” , especially those who are at high risk.” .”

Mapping Daemi’s Journey:

While in hiding, Daemi struggled to find a smuggler to Turkey.

She was desperate to leave quickly and instead found smugglers who took her to Iraq. The Iran-Iraq border, a dangerous route for “porters,” is closely watched by Iranian security forces who shoot those who attempt to cross.

With a complicated plan, Daemi said goodbye to her parents and managed to reunite with her sister in Tehran without persecution from the authorities. The next morning, they drove west toward Kurdistan, Iran, with a hired driver.

“I saw death before my eyes every second”

In the town of Marivan, about 20 kilometers from the Iraqi border, the smugglers stuffed Daemi and her sister’s essentials – a change of clothes, Daemi’s medical documents and her prison letters – into a rice sack.

A woman wearing a baseball cap stands in a forest.
Iranian human rights activist Atena Daemi is seen somewhere on the Iraqi border during her escape from Iran in spring 2023. (Submitted by Atena Daemi)

To conceal their identities, the siblings dressed in Kurdish clothing and followed their smugglers on foot toward the Iraqi border, guided only by their whispers. Under strict instructions they remained silent. Daemi says the smugglers also advised them not to stop to get water because that would only slow them down.

What was supposed to be a quick, hour-long crossing turned into an arduous, ten-hour hike through the mountainsides and along narrow paths.

“I couldn’t walk properly. My body was swollen from the injections.” [from a failed MS treatment]. “I was in bad shape,” Daemi said. Eventually she said she had to drag her right leg behind her to keep up with the rest of the group.

“I was terrified. I felt like I was seeing death before my eyes every second. The fear of being discovered. It all made me so sick. I vomited a lot,” said Daemi.

Just a few meters from the barbed wires that mark the Iraqi border, Daemi fell into a deep hole from exhaustion. It took three people to pull them out while the smugglers looked for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) soldiers. Daemi’s arms were badly bruised.

When they finally crossed the border shortly afterwards, Daemi was overcome with emotion and sobbed uncontrollably.

“It’s ready, it’s ready,” she said, one of the smugglers kept whispering to her.

A woman lies on the grass with her legs raised.
This photo of Atena Daemi was taken shortly after she crossed the border from Iran into Iraq. She says she was overwhelmed with emotion at that moment. (Submitted by Atena Daemi)

“I couldn’t believe we did it. “It felt like a huge lump had been stuck in my throat for years and was finally released,” Daemi said.

Detained in Erbil

But even though they made it to Iraq, their journey was far from over.

In Erbil, the siblings lived in constant fear of being found and often moved to avoid deportation. Daemi says her days are filled with reports of violence against Iranian dissidents by Iranian proxies and IRGC missile attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan.

Because there was no adequate Canadian representation in the region’s capital, Daemi said she contacted then-Canadian Ambassador to Iraq Gregory Galligan about the difficult situation. She and Ensieh submitted their documents to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and waited.

Fearing Iranian proxies in Erbil, the Daemi sisters retreated and only ventured out of their home when absolutely unavoidable.

It took six months for the siblings to be accepted into Canada’s resettlement program for at-risk human rights defenders. They finally left Iraq in October 2023 and flew to St. John’s, NL, where they now live as permanent residents.

When reached for a response, Global Affairs Canada recommended CBC speak to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which did not provide a comment in time for publication.

“I can’t sit still until I achieve this goal”

Today, Daemi still struggles with the physical effects of the trip, complicated by painful mouth sores caused by another MS drug that her body rejected.

Nearly a decade since her first symptoms of MS, Daemi has yet to find a treatment that effectively treats her condition.

Two women stand opposite each other, water can be seen in the background.
Atena Daemi (left) and her sister Ensieh now live in St. John’s after fleeing Tehran, Iran in May 2023. (Mike Rossiter/CBC)

The siblings receive a modest stipend from the Canadian government to cover their basic costs – but they must pay back the cost of their plane tickets within a year.

While Daemi says she will continue to shine a spotlight on Iran’s political prisoners, she often struggles emotionally with the need to leave the country.

She feels overwhelming anger towards the Iranian regime. Her goal is to usher in a revolution that will usher in a new era for her homeland – a future in which, as she says, “the prison doors swing open and all political prisoners are released.”

“Prison didn’t deter me. I lost everything: my health, my youth, my family. I haven’t reached my goal yet. Until that day I cannot remain idle. “My life may be lost, but there are Iranians whose future can still be saved,” she said.

Daemi believes that regime change in Iran is inevitable given the recent nationwide protests. But she says it’s the consequences that activists need to focus on.

“When that day comes, how will we protect the hard-won freedoms we fought for?”

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