From Tehran to St. John’s: An Iranian dissident’s harrowing 6-month journey to safety

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Iranian human rights activist Atena Daemi didn’t want to leave her native country — even after spending six years in prison and being subjected to physical and psychological torture.

But in 2022, her multiple sclerosis (MS) had advanced to such a degree that her physician told her she needed to seek medical care abroad.

“I never thought about leaving Iran, even through my darkest days of imprisonment,” said Daemi, 35, in a recent interview with CBC. “I wouldn’t have left, if it wasn’t for my MS.”

And so she undertook a perilous 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 Islamic Republic’s most violent crackdowns on anti-regime protests. From September 2022 into 2023, security forces killed more than 500 people and arrested over 20,000 — actions the UN has called “crimes against humanity.”

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Daemi had grappled with early symptoms of MS while in prison, but was denied medical care. By the time she was released in January 2022, the untreated illness had left her right leg completely numb, hindering her mobility.

Confronted with a two-year travel ban as part of her prison sentence, Daemi made the decision to leave the country illegally.

But Daemi was adamant about not leaving her older sister Ensieh behind. Ensieh had been targeted by authorities for her activism and advocacy on Atena’s behalf. Aware of the high probability that Ensieh would be imprisoned if authorities found out about Atena’s escape, the siblings made the decision to flee together.

Escaping Tehran

Atena Daemi turned to Front Line Defenders, an Irish NGO, who told her she and her sister qualified for Canada’s resettlement program.

Without special measures for refugees to resettle in Canada directly from Iran, Daemi says the NGO urged her to flee to Turkey by May 2023, before that country’s presidential election, a time when security measures at the border were expected to be intensified.

When CBC contacted Front Line Defenders for more details, the organization said it “can’t get into any specifics about the process in individual cases — the details are confidential to ensure the security of the defenders we work to support, particularly those at high risk.”

Mapping Daemi’s journey:

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

Eager to leave quickly, she found smugglers to take her to Iraq instead. The Iran-Iraq border, a dangerous route for “porters,” is closely watched by Iranian security forces, who shoot and kill those attempting to cross.

With an intricate plan, Daemi said goodbye to her parents and managed to reunite with her sister in Tehran without being followed by authorities. The next morning, with a hired driver, they headed west toward Iran’s Kurdistan.

‘I saw death before my eyes, every second’

In the city of Marivan, about 20 kilometres from the Iraqi border, the smugglers stuffed Daemi and her sister’s essentials — a change of clothing, Daemi’s medical documents and her prison letters — into a rice bag.

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

Cloaked in Kurdish attire to obscure their identities, the siblings followed their smugglers towards the Iraqi border on foot, guided only by their whispers. Under strict orders, they stayed silent. Daemi says the smugglers also advised them not to stop for water, because it would only slow them down.

What was meant to be a swift one-hour passage turned into an arduous 10-hour trek through the mountainside and narrow pathways.

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

“I was terrified. I felt like I saw death in front of my eyes at every second. The anxiety of being discovered. It all made me feel so sick. I vomited many times,” Daemi said.

Metres from the barbed wires marking the Iraqi border, Daemi was overcome by exhaustion and fell into a deep hole. It took three people to pull her out, while the smugglers kept watch for soldiers with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Daemi’s arms ended up being severely bruised.

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

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

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

“I couldn’t believe we made it. It felt as though a massive lump had been lodged in my throat for years, and now, finally, it was released,” Daemi said.

Held up in Erbil

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

In Erbil, the siblings lived in constant fear of being found, often relocating to evade deportation. Daemi says their days were filled with reports about violence against Iranian dissidents by Iranian proxies and missile strikes by the IRGC on Iraqi Kurdistan.

With no appropriate Canadian representation in the region’s capital, Daemi says she contacted Canada’s then-ambassador to Iraq, Gregory Galligan, about their difficult situation. She and Ensieh submitted their paperwork to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and waited.

Fearful of Iranian proxies in Erbil, the Daemi sisters went into seclusion, venturing outside their home only when it was absolutely unavoidable.

It took half a year for the siblings to be accepted as part of Canada’s Resettlement Scheme for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. They finally left Iraq in October 2023 and flew to St. John’s, N.L., where they now reside as permanent residents.

When asked to respond, Global Affairs Canada recommended CBC speak to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which didn’t provide a comment in time for publication.

‘I can’t sit still until I reach that goal’

Today, Daemi still contends with the physical aftermath of the journey, which is further complicated by painful mouth sores caused by another MS medication her body rejected. 

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

Two women face each other with water visible in the background.
Atena Daemi, left, and her sister Ensieh now live in St. John’s, after escaping from Tehran, Iran, in May 2023. (Mike Rossiter/CBC)

The siblings receive a modest stipend from the Canadian government to cover their basic expenses — though they will need to repay the cost of their plane tickets within a year.

While Daemi says she will continue to put a spotlight on political prisoners in Iran, she often struggles emotionally with having to leave the country.

She feels an overwhelming rage toward the Iranian regime. Her goal is to help usher in a revolution that brings about a new era for her homeland — a future where she says “prison doors swing open, setting all political prisoners free.”

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

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

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



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