Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Protester Speaks Out From Tehran

By Taylor Mirfendereski

The following is the transcript from my June 20 (June 21 in Iran) interview with a young Iranian protester in Tehran, Iran. She has taken a big risk to speak with me. To protect her safety, I will refer to her as Parisa.

I first communicated with her by phone, but because many phones in Iran are tapped, she preferred to communicate through the Internet. I have corrected the grammar and English of her responses for clarity, but have not altered the content.

Photos in this entry are courtesy of The Boston Globe.

TAYLOR: Have you gone to any protests?

PARISA: Yes, I go to all of them!

TAYLOR: What are your reactions to the protests and riots?

PARISA: I participate in all of them because I am sure that there is a big [election] fraud. In fact, the reason for the increase in voter participation was that [the Iranian citizens] see the lies that Ahmadinejad tells for themselves. Everyone said, “It doesn’t matter who will be president. We will vote to not let Ahmadinejad get elected [again].” This election was the first time that we ever had this large of a voter turnout (40 million).

Until now, I believed that these protests were good because it shows our population. Imagine, they say Mousavi won about two million votes in Tehran and on June 15, our biggest rally, there were three million of us who attended. For example, everyone in my family voted for Mousavi, but I was the only of us who attended the rally. Therefore, you should multiply the population.

Another reason that I was in favor of rallies was because the government’s threats of arrest, violence, and even killing people, no longer has an effect on the will of people.

Imagine, on June 15—from morning until the last minutes of the rally– every 15 minutes in all news, they said, “There is no permission for a rally. If you go, we will behave violently. There will be serious sanction against people who attend this rally.” Many of my friends were really frightened by this because the day before, the Basij (militia) started their violent actions. We saw their brutality, but we went.

Interestingly, they asked taxis and busses to not take people to Enghelab Square (where the rally took place), but we went and we showed them how many of us there were and how brave we are. It had a very good effect.

TAYLOR: If you look outside of your window, what do you see? Are there people on the streets protesting?

PARISA: In fact, no! Only at 10:00 pm. At this time, everyone chants “Allah Akhbar” (God is great). But it’s really stupid because after two days of saying “Allah Akhbar,” they [the government] said that the Iranians chant “Allah Akhbar” for Ahmadinejad. After that day, we changed our chants to “Allah Akhbar” and “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein” to show that we are protesters of Ahmadinejad. (NOTE: Mir Hossein, as said in the chant, refers to Ahmadinejad’s opposition leader.)

TAYLOR: Can you leave your house? Is it safe?

PARISA: In the morning, yes, we can go and it is safe. During the first days after the election, it was even unsafe in the morning. People were gathered close to their homes and offices and the police hit every body. An interesting issue that I want you to pay attention to is that in the middle of election day—before it was finished—they [the government] said, “Tomorrow, any gatherings are forbidden!” I wonder how they knew that people would gather the day after the election? At that time, the election wasn’t even finished. We were still voting! So, it shows that there is definite election fraud because they were sure that after they announced the winner there would be protests.

TAYLOR: Are you scared? Why or why not?

PARISA: When I saw the basij, I was so scared that I couldn’t breathe! Imagine, there were 30 motorcycles, two people on each, without uniform—like normal people, with batons. They had beards and their faces were very aggressive. You know, I am a lawyer. I know the dangers of letting normal people interfere with governmental issue. The problem is that they don’t work for money like all the other police. The basij work for their beliefs. So they think they will go to heaven by killing those who protest against Khameneyi (Supreme Leader of Iran). After Khameneyi spoke during Friday prayer, I got so scared. But I don’t have any fear of being killed.

TAYLOR: Have your friends gone to any protests?

PARISA: Many of my friends went, but some didn’t go because they were scared.

TAYLOR: Has anyone you know been injured or killed? Please explain what happened to them.

PARISA: One of my family members had his head broken. He was hit by a baton.

TAYLOR: How has the atmosphere in Iran changed from before the election to now? What is the atmosphere like now? Are people more open to speaking out against the government?

PARISA: It is very amazing because all of the people have become more brave. You see many artists, soccer players, and lawyers protesting in so many ways. When I was at the rallies, I noticed that people were kinder than before—they help each other and I feel there is a big change. We don’t have any leader in our rallies, but everyone respects the rule of being silent. For Iranians, who usually don’t obey the rules, it is very interesting. I think that the capacity of bearing injustice and watching the lies of government is full. That is the reason that we have all become brave.

TAYLOR: Did you expect it to change like this? Are you surprised?

PARISA: One week before the election, there were signs of something strange. You know, we had televised debates between the candidates, and in all of them we saw that Ahmadinejad said too many lies. He accused the candidates of so many crimes. The day after, the formal institutes who were responsible for the information that Ahmadinejad said, sent a formal letter to TV channels and said that Ahmadinejad tell lies. The TV stations didn’t read their mail and said that they would read it after the election (although they still haven’t read it) and so we see there is a power who wants to show Ahmadinejad as a good person and show the opposition as liar. The day that all of this happened, I thought, “If this power wants to ignore people’s vote because of the lies that Ahmadinejad told in front of 70 million people who have brains and can think, there will be tension in society.” However, I didn’t know that Mousavi was this brave.

TAYLOR: Who is protesting? What are the demographics?

PARISA: It’s very interesting. All ages—even very old people and religious people. You can see all kinds of people. If you have access to the video of Friday prayer, compare the people who were there with the pictures of the protesters. There is a big difference. But I have to say that most of the protestors are young and most of them are educated.

TAYLOR: Can you drive your cars on the streets or are they blocked with people?

PARISA: Rallies are at a specific time and place so cars cannot move just at that time and that place.

TAYLOR: How have people organized their protests if cell phones are shut down?

PARISA: They use their landline phones. Some people who can pass filters use their Internet and email to find out. Our mobile phones sometimes work and sometimes don’t work. But when we go to rallies, they are completely shut down. The SMS (text message) system has been off since the day of the election. All of Mousavi’s websites are blocked. He has tried to make other sites, but the speed of our Internet is very slow. During the rallies, people share the next day’s schedule with each other. Imagine, without having tools for communication, the Iranian people are this strong! So if we had communication access, then we could be much more!

TAYLOR: Can you access information? How? Which information can you access?

PARISA: With difficulty. Our TV has only government-owned and operated channels. It has become the god of lies. It makes us crazy and recently, I haven’t watched it because it makes me crazy. We have to try so hard to find true information and so there are not too many people who have the time or tools to find it. So I have to say no. We don’t have access.

TAYLOR: Can you still go to work this week? Why or why not?

PARISA: I could! But I didn’t. I was so tired of rallies and not sleeping. I didn’t sleep because I have been trying to find information on Internet.

TAYLOR: What outcome will come from this situation? What do you foresee for Iran's future?

PARISA: This election marked the start of change. I don’t know when there will be change, but I am sure the start day is today.

TAYLOR: What is the overall energy in Tehran right now— fear, excitement, hope, etc.?

PARISA: It goes up and down. The first day, we were so upset. We didn’t see any hope. After the June 15 rally, we got happy, but again after Khameneyi spoke at Friday prayer, we became so sad and scared.

TAYLOR: Is this another revolution? Do you believe that a revolution is needed?

PARISA: No. We just want to have another election with a supervisor who is not in favor of anybody who is running. But after Khameneyi’s speech in Friday prayer, I don’t know what will happen.

TAYLOR: Who did you vote for in the election? Who do you think won? Do you think they will do the election over? Why or why not?

PARISA: I voted for Mousavi. I thought he would win and I am sure he is the real winner. Their [the government’s] behavior shows that they will not have another election because they want Ahmadinejad to be the president, even with the price of killing their people.

TAYLOR: Describe the most memorable thing that you have seen since the protests and riots began on election day?

PARISA: The amount of people who came to the rally on June 15 (3 million). Although, the best thing was that they said they would attack us.

Yesterday, June 20, the amount of basij and police and their brutality was the worst thing I’ve seen. I cried the whole time. They hit everyone. Old, young, girls, boys. They didn’t let us gather. You know, when the population is spread, we are vulnerable. Yesterday they tried to spread people. They used everything. I heard the sound of guns. They were very scary. There were too many basij. I think they came from all over the country.

TAYLOR: How is the older generation reacting to everything? Upset, excited, scared?

PARISA: They are active in protesting and they think like the younger generation.

TAYLOR: Have you met anyone who is upset with the situation?

PARISA: Every one is upset!

TAYLOR: Why is it safer to communicate online than on the phone?

PARISA: The government controls the phones and records the conversations. They try to say America and England are leading the protesters. For example, last night in Iran, the Iranian news stations said that there is evidence that proves England had influence in this situation. Their evidence was the voice of a woman who was talking on the phone and asked her friend to burn the cars, banks, and say death to Khameneyi.

TAYLOR: Has the city of Tehran shut down? Are the malls and restaurants open?

PARISA: In the morning, they are open. But during the evenings, the places close to the rallies are closed.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Voices from Iran during Iran Election Fallout

By Taylor Mirfendereski

Following Iran's presidential election last Friday, where Iran's state media declared that incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the election with 66 percent of the votes and that his main challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, had won just 31 percent of the votes, protests and riots broke out all over the country.

Iran has seen no protests of this magnitude since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. I spoke to two people in Iran's capital, Tehran, about what they have observed in the city since the presidential election. The interviews were conducted on June 16, about four days since the fallout began.

More interviews from Iran to come.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What it means to be homeless…


By Taylor Mirfendereski

Have you ever ridden your bicycle on a park’s bike path? It’s probable that one or more people are living in a makeshift shelter or tent inside the woods along side the bike path.

Have you driven over a bridge? There could be someone living underneath.

Notice empty beer bottles, bags, or shopping carts in an area? It’s likely that homeless people panhandle in the area.

Results from Ohio’s 2008 Point and Time Count show that over 12,000 Ohioans were homeless during a single 24 period. Many of these people reside in shelters—places like the YMCA, Open Shelter or ministries. Others are unsheltered. Due to their sometimes-remote locations, they’re often unnoticed by the average person.

In hopes of gaining a better understanding of the conditions that thousands of Ohioans live in and to learn about how they ended up in their situation, I spent three days interacting with the homeless in the area.

Since some homeless individuals are mentally unstable, substance abusers, or live in unsafe areas of town, I did not go on my journey alone. I was accompanied by Maryhaven Engagement Center’s Brian Hall. Brian is an outreach coordinator for the homeless. He locates those living on the land and interacts to help them find better living alternatives.

Day One:

We first drove through an abandoned parking lot towards woods behind a building. Brian and I went to assess the situation before bringing my video camera, as we did not want to frighten or intimidate anyone.

We lifted up branches and created our own path to get through the woods. We finally found the homeless person’s shack. It was a one-room shelter that appeared to be made of plywood. Empty beer cans and trash surrounded the structure and a knife was stabbed into the ground.

Brian had been there before and knew the person who lived there by name. No one was outside when he got there, so Brian yelled, “This is Brian Hall with Outreach. Anyone home?” An angry man came outside and screamed, “GO AWAY! GO AWAY!” Brian asked the man if he needed any blankets or food. The man slammed his door shut. We left.

This was my first indication that some homeless people do not want the help from others and that some people are more assertive or angry than others. After leaving this location, Brian explained to me that the man’s reaction was not unusual.

"What is most disturbing for me is to see people decide they don’t want the help at that particular time. But we’re not satisfied with that. We continue to engage people. That’s our job,” Brian said.

Our next stop was in a similar location as the last. A person lived in a patch of trees behind a building in a one-room shelter. His “yard” was a lot cleaner than the first person’s.

This man’s name was Jim Mills. The shelter, which he said he built himself, was made out of wood, siding, tarp and a screen material. He used to have a neighbor, who lived in a similar shack, but the person doesn’t live there anymore. Jim said that he built his shack on private property and is not supposed to be there.

Jim was very quiet, but a nice and friendly guy. He used to live in another campsite and also lived in the YMCA for six months. He gets his food from church groups and food pantries. He has no stable income, but finds temporary work when he can.

“Oh, I can do all kinds of things. Concrete, dry wall, siding,” Jim said.

He was kind enough to give me a short tour of his home. Watch the video below to meet Jim and see the tour of his shack.

We left Jim’s home and drove towards Confluence Park in downtown Columbus. Once we were near the park, Brian drove his car onto a bike path. This was surprising.

I asked him where he was going and if he was authorized to drive on the bike path. He explained that many homeless people live inside of the trees along the bike path. Because of the nature of his job, the police allow him to drive in locations that the average person cannot.

We stopped in the middle of the bike path and walked through the woods. A person’s tent was next to a river. I asked the man who lived there if I could talk to him about his life and how he ended up in his current situation. He was very apprehensive to speak to me. He agreed to talk if I did not show him of video or disclose his full name. His first name is Aaron.

Perhaps what was most fascinating about Aaron was his life before becoming homeless. He went to college at The Ohio State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He held several reputable jobs, was married, and owned a home. He said that he lost his job, had no back up plan and consequently lost his house and everything else he owned. Now he lives by himself in a tent.

He told me that one of the greatest challenges that he faces is the weather.

“When it’s lightening out here, you really shouldn’t be out here with all these tall objects around here...but there’s not much you can do,” Aaron said.

Day Two:

We started off the day walking through another wooded area to get to Israel Dominick’s tent.

Watch this video to see the path we took to reach Israel’s location. NOTE: the playback speed of this video has been increased.

Israel has lived in the same location for three years.

The area is very quiet and peaceful. His tent is covered with a clear tarp and sticks. He explained that wild animals—especially raccoons are a big problem for him.

Israel said that he has no income and has never had a job. He said that he shovels driveways in the winter for free. He hopes to get out of his current situation, so Brian talked to him about finding an apartment.

After leaving Israel’s, we spotted some panhandlers sitting next to a building in Columbus. About five people gathered in the area, only one was female. From my observation, most were drunk. I spoke to the oldest man in the crowd. His name was Kenneth Page. Kenneth has been homeless for seven years. He used to have a job, a home and was married, but lost everything after he went to prison for assault. He has no shelter to sleep under.

He doesn’t want a job, because he makes 50 to 60 dollars a day holding a sign. He calls this flying. He says that he gets drunk every day and has no plans to get out of his current situation.

Day Three:

Across from a library in Reynoldsburg, Ohio in a patch of trees behind a Carpet Cleaning Company business, a homeless man lives in a tent. This was one of the most industrial and functional setups that I saw while exploring different living situations.

The individual had built cabinets on trees, used tree branches as a place to hang clothes hangers, and probably had more cleaning supplies than I have in my own home. The man was not there when Brian and I arrived, but Brian had interacted with him many times before. Apparently, the man is very reclusive and spends each day at the library where he reads. He has no plans to move into an apartment.

View the slideshow below to see pictures of his campsite.

The next place we visited was the most fascinating. We stopped the car on a bridge off the freeway and got out of the car. We ventured underneath the bridge, which was located next to a golf course.

My jaw dropped as soon as I stepped underneath the bridge. Each structural column underneath appeared to have a different residence inside. There were four or five cubbyholes that had mattresses, blankets, dirty clothes, and trash inside each one. There was a very intense odor of urine and feces.

I was kind of frightened at first, because from the angle that we were standing, we could not tell if anyone was there. Brian yelled, “Is anyone here?” and no one responded. Because we couldn’t see anyone, we walked further underneath. I wanted to capture footage of the situation, so I went down the slope—next to the river.

I looked up from below and noticed a man sitting in a chair in one of the cubbyholes. He sat still and said nothing—just stared at me. I tapped Brian’s shoulder, as he had not yet noticed the man. My heart pounded, while waiting to see how the man would react to our presence. Brian walked towards him and began to engage in conversation.

The man, who did not disclose his identity, agreed to talk to me. He lives under the bridge with about four or five others. He has two children and is struggling to pay child support. He is an ex-convict and therefore cannot secure a job. He gets everything that he needs—including food—from dumpsters. He said he keeps up with the outside world using his small handheld radio, but often cannot afford batteries. He bathes in the muddy river or goes up to a nearby laundry mat to use their sink.

The conditions under the bridge were terrible. In another cubbyhole, someone was using a old seat from a car as a couch. View a slideshow of pictures below.

Following our experience underneath the bridge, we drove to another wooded area next to railroad tracks. We followed holes in the ground--which served as steps--up a mound. We were then greeted by Mike. Mike is a homeless man who lives in a one-room shack on property owned by the state of Ohio. Immediately after our arrival and after he understood that he would be on camera, he got out his "Pledge" dusting spray and began cleaning the coffee table inside his shelter.

His shelter is made of wood, fences, tarp, and other materials. He built it himself and even painted the wood blue. Here's a picture below.

Compared to the living conditions underneath the bridge, Mike's home and yard were immaculate. Behind the shelter were lawn chairs and a make-shift grill. In front of the shelter, a large American flag blew in the wind. He had a bed and night stand inside. A picture of a model hung on his wall.

Mike said that he is unemployed, but formally built residential homes and mansions for others. He has no source of income, but isn't looking for a job either. He said that he's content in his current situation. He was very talkative and friendly. He even asked Brian and I to come back sometime for a meal and soft drink--welcoming us as if we were lifelong friends! I asked him if he ever gets lonely. He said the birds are his company.


In Columbus, the living conditions of the homeless that I met were vast. Some lived on the streets, others in makeshift shelters, and some in tents. Some of these conditions were better than others. Yet, all of these people were still considered homeless.

In other parts of the world—like Mexico—entire families live in comparable shelters to those that I saw in Columbus. The difference is—these people aren’t considered homeless, they’re considered poor.

I spoke to Jason Barger about the different standard of living in Mexico. Barger has spent much time building homes for the poor in Tijuana, Mexico and also started a project to assist the unsheltered homeless in Columbus.

“What you find [in Mexico] are people crowded together in these shantytowns. Nine, ten people living in a rotted, leaned to, self-made wooden structure in the dirt that may only be 8 feet by 8 feet or 10 feet by 10 feet,” Barger said.

Amor Ministries, a non-profit Christian ministry based in California, mobilizes volunteers to build new homes for many in this situation. Amor has built nearly 16,000 homes since 1980. Each house is 22 by 11 feet. But Barger said that even the new homes built by Amor might not be considered homes in the United States.

“Within our North American brains, if you were to see a picture of the houses we build, you may have that first reaction—that’s not a house, it looks more like a garage. But really when you put that next to what they used to have, we’re giving them a space that’s twice as big—or even three times as big as what they used to have,” he said.

Katie Haar, communications coordinator at Amor Ministries, explained that the families in Mexico who receive a new home must own their land.

“We don’t consider them homeless. They have a shelter and they have a place that they can call their own, but their housing is far from adequate. The places are usually made out of scraps that they are able to collect or things that have been given to them—old garage doors, tires stacked up, all sorts of things—even tents with tarps,” she said.

Haar’s description of the housing arrangements for the poor in Mexico seem nearly identical to that of Jim, Israel and others that I interacted with in Columbus. Haar acknowledged that the situation in Tijuana is comparable to the “homeless” situation in the Untied States and attributes the different standard of living to the “American dream.”

“Everyone wants to have a house and a car and a white picket fence. Less than that is put on a ranking scale. We sometimes have the mentality that ‘Oh, that’ll do for the people in Mexico because it’s Mexico or South Africa or any developing country.’ It’s like things aren’t acceptable for America, but its okay for a country that’s developing,” Haar said.

Samuel Gonzalez, who works at an orphanage in Tijuana, said that he considers “homeless” people to be those in Mexico who sleep on the streets, steal food and steal copper to make money. He agreed with Barger and Haar about the status of those who live in man-made shelters or tents.

“Here [in Mexico] they’re just considered poor. You see a lot of good people, you know. A lot of people haven’t had a break. They have children, they have kids, and mom and dad are there. It’s usually a complete family—that’s why we don’t consider them homeless.”

View pictures before and after the homes were built. (Photos courtesy of Amor Ministries)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stine Eckert Epitomizes the Institute’s Mission

By Yusuf Kalyango, Jr.

One of our graduate students actively involved in the activities of the Institute for International Journalism (IIJ), Ms. Stine Eckert, has received the inaugural international reporting fellowship from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Stine will travel to Bangladesh this summer to investigate food security issues or the rights of women rights in that country. Stine joins five other journalism students from other universities across the country to investigate international crisis issues in Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Honduras, Ecuador, and Denmark.

Stine’s interest in global issues and her unerring desire to confront international crises as a correspondent is an exemplar of the mission of the IIJ, which is to promote the mediation and resolution of conflicts through a well intentioned global “media agenda”. One of the reasons she was selected was because of a story she reported in our Foreign Correspondence course about the struggles of women in that country.

Stine came to the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism as an exchange undergraduate student from Leipzig University, Germany. The exchange is part of a special arrangement between the two journalism schools at Ohio University and Leipzig University. The IIJ has played a central role in that exchange of journalism students and faculty visits.

As a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, Stine will have an opportunity to spend several weeks in Bangladesh investigating food security challenges and the rights of women in that developing nation. Expenses for that international assignment are provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She will also receive a cash award of up to $2,000 from the Pulitzer Center.

Stine was one of the IIJ director's brightest and most engaged students in the foreign correspondence class. She was also the editor-in-chief of the first volume of The Globetrotter international newsletter, published by the IIJ. Stine also contributes international stories to the IIJ’s online edition of the International Special Reports project. In April 2009, Stine was announced as one of three recipients of our competitive John R. Wilhelm Foreign Correspondence Internship scholarship, which is a separate international reporting opportunity administered annually by the IIJ. Stine will spend another three months reporting for Aljazeera international television from Washington, D.C. to complete her IIJ Foreign Correspondence scholarship. She plans to undertake this latter project when she returns from Bangladesh.

The Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University is a member of the Pulitzer Center’s Campus Consortium. The IIJ is the primary coordinator of the Campus Consortium between the Pulitzer Center and the Scripps College of Communication. The E. W. Scripps School of Journalism with the support from other departments in the Scripps College of Communication contributes $10,000 to the Campus Consortium of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The role of the IIJ in that partnership is to fulfill the Pulitzer Center’s educational outreach programs by fostering the debate on global crisis issues through OU campus visits by international journalists fresh from the field; and to enable student interaction and engagement in international issues reporting.