All nine-year-old Mariam dreams of is a doll to play with; unfortunately, even that everyday child’s comfort is too great a dream. Despite her tender years, this little girl has already experienced more suffering than most adults could ever imagine.
The Iranian regime has already demolished her family’s home, stolen their farm, killed her father and left her and her mother homeless and destitute, dependent on begging in the streets of the Ahwaz regional capital and scavenging for food from rubbish dumps.
The Arab Ahwaz region in the south and south west of Iran – known as Khuzestan in Farsi – where they live should be wealthy as the location of over 95 per cent of the oil wealth claimed by Iran. Instead, it is one of the most impoverished areas of Iran, with the indigenous Ahwazi Arabs persecuted for their ethnicity and denied the most basic rights living in conditions of medieval poverty.
Mariam’s father once owned a farm in the rural Zwia district on the banks of the River Karoon, the main regional waterway. Now she and her mother exist from day to day, begging and scavenging amongst rubbish to survive.
Speaking on condition of anonymity due to fear of regime persecution, an Ahwazi rights activist explained that he is doing all he can, but it will take far more sustained investment to ease the suffering of Mariam and others like her in the area.
“I’ve given a lot of stuff to Mariam’s mum like a blanket, purified water, bread, rice, a small tent and a teapot and other things to ease a little bit of their suffering, the activist explained. “I approached Mariam while they were begging – she was shy and sitting near her mum and whispering into her mum’s ear. I was curious, so I asked her mum what she was saying.”
“Her mum said, ‘She’s telling me: Why did you lie to me? You promised me to buy me a beautiful doll and toys and colouring pens and pencils and a notebook’, then she burst into tears. I myself couldn’t hold back the tears at that, and I hugged both the mum and Mariam and cried with them.”
“Then, in broken words, Mariam said to me:
I’m fed up with my pillow. I play with her and talk to her treating her like a doll, but when I go begging downtown I see real dolls in the shop, but I can’t buy any
Store-owners tell me: Go, go away, don’t stand here or look through the window into the shop. They broke my heart because they think I want to rob them. I was only standing there talking to the dolls. Will you buy me one please?’”
The activist paused briefly, overcome with emotion, before continuing: “Mariam said, ‘I also dream of having shoes and a hat. When I stand all day long, my toes hurt; the ground is so hot and it burns my feet and I can’t sleep, they’re so sore.’”
“I asked her, ‘What do you miss most?’ and she said, ‘I miss my dad. My mum said he went up to the sky to a good place and he cares about us, but why doesn’t he come and get us and take us back to our home to live together?’ Then she stopped talking for a moment and looked thoughtful – I was trying not to cry – and she said, ‘Honestly, maybe he forgot about me and my mum.’”
The activist paused, wiping his own eyes, before continuing. “Her mum told me that in the street where they were begging their Arab brothers and sisters are generous and support them, bringing broth or meat for them whenever they cook, but she said that she was terrified whenever the municipality staff appear because they’re brutal – they’ll beat the mother and force her to give up whatever possessions she’s got, pitiful though they are. She said they physically assault her and call her derogatory names like “Gypsy Arab” and tell her to get lost so she doesn’t disturb shoppers and passers-by.”
“She told me, ‘Most of the time when that happens I take Mariam and go to shelter under the bridge nearby, but there are lots of drug addicts there, many of them using drugs in public and I’m scared – it’s a dangerous dirty place. I know the addicts are victims like us, but I don’t want Mariam to see things like that.’”
The activist voiced anger at the regime’s hypocrisy in continuously exploiting the cause of Palestinian freedom while treating Arabs in Iran like third-class citizens, evicting and dispossessing them and denying them the most basic rights.
“Whenever we turn on the TV to listen to the Iranian news, they’ll cover the latest reports saying stuff like, ‘Today Israeli occupation forces demolished dozens of residential homes in the West Bank’, or the Supreme Leader in his Friday sermon will condemn the continual crimes and call on the world to confront Israel. How can the regime exploit and trade in the Palestinian cause so cynically while it commits the same crimes and possibly double those crimes against Ahwazi Arabs? Is it haram [forbidden] for the Israeli government and halal [permitted] for Iran’s rulers to perpetrate these crimes against Ahwazi Arabs?”
Returning to the subject of Mariam and her mother, the activist explained that the mother had told him how their tragic circumstances came about. “She said that her husband was farming the land his father passed onto him before his own death, which had been passed down, with their home, through the family for centuries. The regime confiscated everything from them and drove them out without warning, demolishing their home in front of them and confiscating the land.”
The activist shook his head, wearily. Such crimes are routine for the Iranian regime, with Ahwazis having no legal right to compensation or any redress.
“She said that after that her husband used the small amount of money he’d put aside for emergencies to rent a home, but he was unemployed and though he asked everywhere for work nobody would hire him. So when a friend told him they could make money smuggling goods like clothes and shoes over the Iraq-Iran border, he wasn’t going to ask questions. One night while he was working as a porter carrying ordinary stuff across the border, the regime border guards targeted him and killed him.”
Mariam’s mother was left a widow, the activist explained. “Nine months after that they were evicted for non-payment of rent. She told me: ‘I had nobody to rely on, no family, so I was forced to live on the streets and beg for food to survive.’”
Her experience has left her cynical about any hope of justice. “She told me, ‘They killed my husband; they destroyed our land and confiscated our ancestral homes and lands, they left us to die. What will happen to Mariam if I die? Who’ll care about her future? They killed her dreams, they torched her childhood and destroyed her future!’”
Mariam and her mother now live in a thin makeshift tent beside a rubbish dump on 17th Street. There they endure summer daytime temperatures that routinely hit over 50 degrees Celsius.
As well as begging, Mariam and her mother sift through rubbish for tins and bottles to sell for a pittance, living on whatever food they can scavenge or receive while begging.
In the community where their home once stood only a few buildings remain, with the regime set to tarmac over the area and build a road between the nearby villages of Kurish and Zaitun. However, for Mariam and her mother the road ahead seems bleak.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.