A year ago, I answered the phone and spoke for the first time to Sarah Hekmati. Sarah was looking for someone to help with the campaign to free her brother for Iran’s Evin prison and a friend referred me to her. I remember seeing a few brief news stories on Amir Hekmati’s plight in Iran, but I didn’t know a lot of the details surrounding her brother’s imprisonment. I Googled his name and found every article I could and spent the rest of the night learning as much as I possibly could.
I wasn’t surprised at his story. A dual-citizen being picked up by Iranian intelligence agents, accused of working for the CIA, coerced into making a false confession, and held indefinitely. There have been many high profile cases following the same protocol: Roxana Saberi, Maziar Bahari, and, of course, the three American hikers. What make Amir’s story different, however, is that at one point, he had been sentenced to death — the first death sentence issued on an American (though Iran doesn’t recognize dual-citizenship) in over 3 decades, since the Revolution rocked Iran’s streets and changed their world. His death sentence was overturned on appeal by the Iranian Supreme Court, them citing insufficient evidence for the sentence. A new trial was ordered, but it has yet to take place. This was in March of 2012.
Since that time, Amir was kept isolated in solitary confinement for 16 months. His only company were the four walls of his tiny cell. He had three blankets. No books. Alone only with his thoughts. His attorney was not allowed to visit him, the Swiss Ambassador who acts on behalf of the United States was denied access, and his Iranian relatives were turned away from the prison. Books and letters did not reach him. He was truly alone. His solitary confinement ended only when guards found him unconscious on the floor of his cell after a 30 day hunger strike.
During this time, his father, Ali, was diagnosed with brain cancer. His treatment has included both radiation and chemotherapy. He holds onto hope. I think the best medicine will be when he finally gets hold his son in his arms again.
When I first started working for the campaign, I would tell my friends and would be shocked that they hadn’t heard of Amir, his imprisonment, or his death sentence. Then I remember that day I spoke to Sarah, Googling Amir that night.
Media on Amir’s case has come in burst: his forced confession, his death sentence, his sentence being overturned, the year anniversary of his imprisonment, his father health, the anniversary of his death sentence being overturned, a letter he smuggled out of prison to John Kerry.
This week, things changed. Congressman Dan Kildee is leading a bipartisan effort to show support for Amir, with members of congress on both sides of the party divide taking up Amir’s case and posing for pictures with a sign that says Free Amir. This past week, he also spoke about Amir on the House floor. Iranian president Rouhani visited the United States this week for the UN General Assembly. In media interviews, he was asked specifically about Amir. People took to twitter, using the hashtag #freeamir. Some tweeted directly to the Iranian president calling for Amir’s release. Senators started posting on their own social media accounts photos of them holding a Free Amir sign, including Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Debbie Stabenow. And, in the historic call between President Obama and President Rouhani – the first direct communication between the leaders of these two countries since 1979 – President Obama discussed his concern over the imprisonment of Amir.
I ended each night in tears. Finally, people were hearing about Amir.
My tears, though, were not only for Amir. They were for Amir’s family, too. Since that first conversation with Sarah, she’s become like family, so whenever a friend would call me to tell me that they heard about Amir on NPR or saw a piece about Amir on Fox News, I felt joy for them, knowing exactly how heavy Amir’s imprisonment weighs on them. With every article, with every mention in the media, and with every letter of support, I hoped that the weight they have been carrying by themselves might be lifted just a little bit now that so many other people now knew Amir, too, and wanted to see this former Marine released and sent back home to his family in Michigan.
My tears came from seeing people, ordinarily separated by their political beliefs, come together for Amir and his family and call for his release.
My tears came from seeing strangers show love, compassion, kindness, and empathy to a family going through so much.
My tears came from seeing all of these things together and, on some level, change things for Amir.
The tears came from knowing that all of these beautiful, good things in life really can change the world.
Our world is littered with quotes by great men and women about changing the world:
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” - Gandhi
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Dalai Lama
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Sometimes the world seems so big and the problems so large that the real meaning behind these quotes are easily lost by how overwhelming it all is. Or by how selfish we are. Or by our politics. Or our religions. Or our nationalism. Today, however, I get it. I GET it. I witnessed it. I felt it. I saw it. Now, I know the real power of those words and the truth they hold.
After talking to a friend about all of this last night, she sent me an e-mail this morning. The only words inside were this:
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela
As I sit on my stoop writing, something I do every morning, with my coffee to the right and my two cats at my feet, no truer words could have been said to me today.