Solidarity at first sight

Iranians and Ukrainians join forces on the University of Waterloo campus to fight for democracy

By Sam Toman University Relations

This winter Iranian-made drones have been terrorizing Ukrainians. These violent machines routinely target and destroy civilian water, heating, and electrical infrastructure. That’s not really their objective though. Their true aim is to smash the spirit of Ukrainians, who for centuries, refuse to accept the imperialist aggression of Moscow.

At the same time in Iran, hundreds of thousands of people are resisting. Taking to the streets at the risk of brutal reprisals from the state. They are resolute in their demand for basic human rights for women, men and anyone who does not adhere to strictures of that country’s patriarchal state apparatus.

Thousands of kilometres away, outside of a coffee shop on the University of Waterloo campus, two women, one Iranian, the other Ukrainian, greet and hug each other tightly. The forces of polarization and the geopolitical complexities swirling around the pair have brought them together in solidarity, far from home, doing whatever they can to fight for democracy.

"What is right now happening in Ukraine is partially because of the Iranian authorities, who supply Russia with drones that absolutely terrorize Ukraine," says Padalko, who is studying Global Governance at Balsillie School of International Affairs. "It’s important to know the difference between the Iranian people and the actions of their government. We are all in the same boat." 

Padalko is acutely aware that Iranian people are fighting against their "cruel" government because they want a new better life and will pay a high price for it. "That’s why we understand this distinction and support Iranian people. But with Russia we see the opposite situation when a significant majority of Russians are supporting Putin and becoming accomplices of this crime against humanity in Ukraine. Indeed, Iranian, and Russian governments are together, but Iranian and Russian people are not."

For her new-found Iranian friend, Padalko’s perspective is a great comfort during some of the worst moments of her life.

" These are very difficult times for me and my fellow Iranians ," says Sorour Yekeh, an Iranian PhD candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering. "We cannot focus and work properly. Many of us need to be with others like us to cope with the emotional consequences of what is currently happening in our country."

Tonight, the women are here at Hagey Hall for a fireside chat titled, " When Memes Go to War Against Russia ," a discussion on the impact of social media on the outcome of the Russian’s asymmetrical attack on Ukraine.

A handful of the 50 or so guests filing past the two special constables on the lookout for protestors are from the small close-knit Ukrainian community that coalesced when 34 Ukrainian students, including Padalko, made the hard decision to leave embattled Ukraine and continue their studies in safety at Waterloo.

"You know, we both have the same enemies - the dictators," adds Yekeh, who has emerged as a student leader for an Iranian community on UWaterloo campus many times larger than that of Ukraine’s. "We are fighting the same battle."

Though their battle against authoritarianism might be similar, the information space those two conflicts inhabit isn’t. The war in Ukraine has been front-page news for close to a year. The protests in Iran are harder to decipher-a deliberate strategy of the Iranian authorities.

"We don’t have enough data because they shut down the internet," says Yekeh. "There are very few students and communities who are following these events and caring about them."

Yekeh herself only gets information in drips and drops. "Sometimes in the night they have access to the internet. They release some video clips of what’s happening in Iran, but we’re sure that’s not everything. During the protests, they killed more than 400 people, at least 63 of whom were children."

Universities are important places to get  this information out. As Yekeh explains, university students are the ones with access to the technology and strategies for bypassing these internet restrictions. 

"University students in Iran are also educated. They are aware of what’s happening in the world. And they’re smart. And they are not the kind of people to believe everything that the regime tries to feed us."

In many respects Padalko’s struggle is the exact opposite. In some ways there is too much information about what’s happening in Ukraine. Russian propagandists flood the digital information space with distortions and misinformation.   

"It’s absolute bulls**t. And we need to fight with it considering how much effort Russia puts into flooding peoples’ feeds with disinformation," says Padalko, who rhymes off some of the lies spread about Ukraine. NATO has bases in Ukraine, that their government is led by a neo-Nazi Jew and that Ukraine somehow provoked the invasion.

Shaking her head, Padalko says, "it’s very sad to understand that even here in highly educated environments believe such things, but we are trying our best to educate people here." 

Halyna and her fellow Ukrainians created a multimedia exhibit showing the horrors of war, as well as sharing aspects of Ukraine’s culture beyond the context of the invasion.  

"People here are very thankful to us for sharing our personal stories from war." she says. "UWaterloo, being a democratic hub, supports people who are standing on the right side of history, giving a voice to them and a platform to continue fighting for democracy." 

Yekeh and Padalko both agree that even if that means occasionally dealing with bad-faith actors in the name of academic freedom, universities are a bulwark for fairness and upholding democracy. 

In both cases UWaterloo was quick to side with the oppressed. Charmaine B. Dean, Vice-President, Research and International published a message the day after Russian forces crossed into Ukraine offering mental health supports to those impacted. Eight days later UWaterloo President and Vice-Chancellor Vivek Goel released a statement expressing that the university is unwavering in our solidarity with the victims of this invasion. 

In the weeks after the death of Masha Amini as demonstrations popped up across the globe Goel once again asserted solidarity with Iranians taking to the streets and expressed "the importance of university environments being free, open and safe." The University has also supported student rally’s on the campus aimed at raising awareness of the plight of Iranians.

"Universities are the champions of a free and fair global community."

"I am grateful for the University of Waterloo for giving us space to rally," says Yekeh "Universities are the champions of a free and fair global community. Universities can promote respectful conversations about the hot topics around the globe. They can also promote data-driven and evidence-based news and fight disinformation, and conspiracy theories."  

In truth there is a lot of uncertainty about what is happening in both Ukraine and Iran. Two countries who seem destined by fate to be linked.

At the beginning of 2020 Iranian forces shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. Onboard were 176 people, 55 of them Canadians. Many of them were international students headed back home to Canada after the winter break.

Killed in the disaster were UWaterloo PhD students Marzieh (Mari) Foroutan and Mansour Esnaashary Esfahani , alumnus Mojgan Daneshmand (PhD ’06), her husband Pedram Moussavi (a former Waterloo postdoctoral fellow) and their two young children, Daria and Dorina, as well as former student Dr. Neda Saddighi. 

With this much political turmoil swirling around, UWaterloo special constables were also present at the numerous events organised by the Iranian Students’ Association of Waterloo in October where scores of students from all backgrounds gathered to denounce  the murder of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Tehran’s Guidance Patrol.

"What gives me hope", says Padalko who met Sorour at one of these demonstrations, "is that those who come out to show solidarity come from every corner of the globe. You are Ukrainian, Iranian, Brazilian, it doesn’t matter."  

"It’s not about identities anymore, it’s about being the centre of the fight for human rights, the centre of democracy."

For Padalko, "It’s not about identities anymore, it’s about being the centre of the fight for human rights, the centre of democracy. Just the fact that we are doing an interview right now, is because you, the UWaterloo community, support us and give us a floor."

Having a platform to broadly share their frustrations, sorrow, and defiance with fellow students is a way to cut through media bias and get the truth from real people with lived experience gives Padalko and Yekeh a sense of agency that they can make a difference in peoples’ understanding of what’s happening in their home countries. 

"Some people may think the current situation in Iran is about gender-apartheid," she says. "Yes, the current regime is a gender-apartheid regime; but the slogan "woman, life, freedom" is more than this," says Yekeh. "It is about fairness and respect of life for all Iranians; it is about replacing the current totalitarian regime with a democratic one."

The two wish they had more time to chat, but the event is about to start, so Yekeh offers one final message before heading inside. This one to their fellow UWaterloo students.

"I believe this revolution in Iran will succeed. We have a lot of hope because this generation is different," says the Iranian graduate student of her undergraduate peers. "The new generation of Iranians has demonstrated an unprecedented level of bravery." 

"It’s shocking and is a testament to the strength and determination of this generation, which gives me the confidence to say that they will lead us to victory against our oppressors," says Yekeh smiling defiantly.