Although Amir Emadi had not seen his father in person since departing Iraq's Camp Ashraf as a young child, there is a natural sense of connection between father and son when Emadi discusses the narrative of his own life. He makes these connections fluidly and spontaneously as he reflects upon his upbringing, education, and work in the United States. The country where he has lived virtually all of his life is half a world away from where he was born and where his parents and family carried on the Iranian struggle for freedom from the current theocratic regime.
Given the length and distance of the separation between them, there is no mistaking that the elder and younger Emadis lived very different lives. Yet the seeds planted by the father have survived a long journey to bear fruit in the son. When I ask about his father's background, Amir pauses to consider the correct translation for the name of the Iranian degree he received. There is no such hesitation, however, in recalling the actual work that his father did as an electrical engineer. Amir has seen that work in videos and images depicting the building and the thirty years' development of Camp Ashraf, where three and a half thousand members of the Iranian Resistance, the MEK, made their homes after being forced out of Iran.
These images are all that Amir has to take the place of group photos and childhood mementos, which are no doubt familiar fixtures in the lives of his American friends and colleagues. Yet the distant correspondence of pictures and the necessarily brief phone calls to an oft-embattled region seem to have served much the same purpose for Amir as snapshots and personal memories serve for families that haven't been rent apart by political circumstances. They have kept the family closely bonded, so that Amir knows his father well and speaks of him fondly.
Thus, still holding an image in mind from the early days of Camp Ashraf, it is with pride that Amir explains how his father helped to bring energy to that self-built community of expatriates. Amir's education has been much different from his father's training. After growing up in Chicago and then moving to California, Amir earned a Bachelor's Degree in International Security and Conflict Resolution from San Diego University. Recently, he has also obtained an MBA in Global Management. This he plans to apply to a focus upon energy policy, and Amir quietly considers that perhaps it is his father who spurred this interest from afar.
But such subtleties are only a small part of the connection between father and son. Far more obvious in both of their lives is the mantle of the MEK, which has united Amir with his parents since his earliest childhood, like a banner stretched across three continents. The elder Emadi was born in Qa'em-Shahr in Northern Iran about two decades before the Iranian Revolution. His hometown would go on to become a major headquarters of the MEK, placing Emadi at the very center of the struggle for freedom that has now spanned two generations and has tragically claimed his life.
Amir thinks back for a moment on his last conversation with his father and decides that it was in April, several months before the September 1st attack by the Iraqi government on Camp Ashraf. Even after hearing of the attack, its fifty-two victims of execution-style killings, and the seven people kidnapped by al-Maliki's forces, Amir was all but certain that his father was safe. He had been told that his family had moved from Ashraf to Camp Liberty, the former US Army base that has now been set up ' far too late ' as a relocation center from which MEK expatriates will be moved from under the hand of the antagonistic Iraqi government.
But while Amir's mother and the twenty other relatives residing in the camp had successfully relocated, his father had stayed behind. Under the terms of the deal negotiated among Camp Ashraf residents, the Iraqi government, the US, and the UN, one hundred people were permitted to stay behind indefinitely after the rest had relocated, in order to sell off and otherwise dispose of the property that people like Amir's father had built with their own hands.
Instead of being left to say a proper and complete farewell to their homes of more than three decades, these one hundred individuals were brutally attacked without provocation; the hands of many were tied behind their backs before they were shot in the head. These people staked their lives on an agreement with the international community and the United States ' the adoptive home of Amir and many other Iranian expatriates. Now half of them are dead, leaving displaced families mourning the fathers and sons, mothers and daughters with whom they will never again be reunited in this world.
Amir Emadi does not know why his father was among the one-hundred Camp Ashraf residents who stayed behind. But knowing the role that he played in the community, he has a theory. "The museum may have been his primary reason for staying," Amir speculates after he has told me of his father's work managing a Camp Ashraf institution that housed artifacts of the MEK's formation, repression, and ongoing struggle. It is easy to imagine that among unresolved property issues, relocation of a museum collection may be among the most difficult, and also among the most important to the community. If the dreams of the recently deceased martyrs and their survivors are realized, the artifacts of the MEK will one day be the artifacts of the legitimate government of a free Iran.
It is astounding to think of a community of exiled political dissidents having its very own museum. Yet this, along with several parks, a university, a library, two Olympic-sized swimming pools, a shopping mall, and concert halls, is part of the home that many MEK members built from scratch after they took their fight against Ayatollah Khomeini beyond Iran's borders. Amir describes the town of Camp Ashraf so vividly that it is difficult to believe that he hadn't set foot there in his adult life. Drawing from pictures and recollected conversations when he talks of it, he is describing his parents' life.
"It was a resort," he says. "It was an oasis in the middle of dessert." Amir means this both literally and figuratively. On one hand, he describes a landscape dotted with trees that rose up like a beacon on the horizon as travelers approached it. On the other hand, he tells of how the community welcomed in lifelong Iraqis and mediated conflicts between Sunni and Shiite, practicing the very conflict resolution that Amir would go on to study on the other side of the world.
Of his father, he says, "Yes, he was an Iranian. He was a member of the MEK. But he was an Ashrafi. It was his home." And so was it home to thousands of others, most of them now displaced, many of them killed without cause, except to suppress the greatest source of peaceful opposition to the tyranny of the Iranian mullahs.
Yes, once upon a time, the MEK was an armed resistance, but the Iranian struggle for freedom has gone on long enough that that time has passed. It now takes place through the sort of international organizing that Amir Emadi has devoted his life to. His volunteerism for the MEK cause began in high school, and in the wake of his father's sacrifice there can be no doubt that it will never stop. "It gives you strength," he says, "knowing that he dedicated his life to freedom and democracy, and to creating a country where his child could be free."
But while Amir carries on his father's work in fighting for a free Iran, if more actual fighting is to be instigated by the Iraqi government, it will be up to others to defend the survivors of the Camp Ashraf massacre. For that, Amir looks mainly to his adoptive home. During its occupation of Iraq, the US gave the Ashrafis Protected Persons Status in exchange for total disarmament. But in 2009, the US withdrew its protection, leaving the community vulnerable to a regime with ties to its sworn enemies across the border. And worse yet, says Amir, "the US knew about the recent attacks. And this latest one was foreseeable."
Thus, when asked who, apart from the gunmen themselves, Amir holds responsible for his father's death, the US is the first name that comes to mind. Yet at the same time his grief has brought him closer to the many US service members he counts as personal friends. He imagines them assembled for our conversation and remarks to them, "Now I can say I'm one of you guys. I too have a loved one who died in defense of freedom."
Knowing it as his home, Amir hopes the country that these men serve will step forward and take a leading role in negotiating the immediate return of the seven hostages taken from Camp Ashraf. But if the US chooses to further neglect its responsibility to these people, the UN must not. Amir, along with many other observers of this tragedy, calls for UN Blue Helmets on site in Ashraf to protect those who are still under threat from the al-Maliki government.
Beyond this, Amir only hopes that the presence of peacekeepers and the continuance of international attention will facilitate the relocation of all former Ashrafis to new homes in the United States and Europe, where they can live a normal life. But of course a normal life for these people will be a life replete with struggle for a free Iran. "Killing us," Amir declares, "has only pushed us harder."
Thinking back on all the condolences that he has garnered since his father was killed, Amir Emadi finds in them a wealth of inspiration for continuing his father's struggle. "If one day you cry," he says, "you spend forever fighting. I've cried many days. I suppose I'll fight on for eternity."