It cost Emad Tayefeh $10,000 to bribe Iranian border guards for safe passage to Turkey, $2,500 of which was financed by the advocacy organization Freedom House. While living as a refugee in Istanbul he paid $4,700 for rent, $3,000 for food, and $600 for local transportation over the course of a year. After receiving humanitarian parole status from the U.S. Embassy he had to scrounge together $1,000 for a plane ticket to New York City.
Tayefeh fled his native Iran in September 2015 following multiple occasions where he was imprisoned and severely beaten and tortured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The 31-year-old filmmaker had been working covertly on Public Enemies, a documentary covering Iranian dissidents, with interviews including veteran filmmaker Mohammed Nourizad. After his most recent arrest he was warned that the repercussions next time would be far worse. It was then that he made the decision to leave Iran for good.
But despite the grave circumstances of Tayefeh’s relocation—the excruciating emotional, physical, and financial burden—his story is still a relatively positive one.
Since arriving in New York City in July, he has become a finalist for a teaching fellowship at Northwestern University and a guest lecturer at Adelphi University. He is continuing to produce his documentary while auditing classes at the New York Film Academy. He has secured pro-bono legal support from Human Rights First, medical care from the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, counseling from the Crime Victims Treatment Center, work authorization, and a literary agent for his memoir.
This level of support is in large part due to the visibility of his work. But he has benefited as well from an ad-hoc network of supporters—individuals and organizations, in New York City and elsewhere—that has formed out of a shared commitment to protecting freedom of expression and exercising it for common good. Since Tayefeh’s case was first brought to my attention I have been in contact with half a dozen prominent arts, free expression, social justice, and human rights organizations that were aware of his case.
Add to that his work ethic, his language fluency, and his on-going commitment to supporting the community of activists in Iran taking extraordinary risks. Tayefeh is the type of artist that demands attention and support.
But despite his connectedness and consciousness, there are fears the recent U.S. election results and new, potentially draconian immigration policies will place (the likes of) Tayefeh in a situation similar to the one he fled in Iran—on a list, living in fear of attack.
There has already been significant nativist backlash against the Obama adminstration’s commitment to accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees. This xenophobic sentiment has only been exacerbated by Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign platform. New York City has long been the cultural capital of the world in large part because of the global migration of artists and thinkers and their contributions to the city’s cultural vibrancy. Now the very essence of New York City’s identity is under threat along with the livelihood of some of its most valuable assets.
At the end of this month, many of the individuals and organizations that were involved in troubleshooting Tayefeh’s case, including PEN’s Artist at Risk Coalition, Artistic Freedom Initiative, and the International Cities of Refuge Network, will gather at the Malmö Safe Haven Meeting. Part of their agenda will be thinking about the future of “safe cities” and artist protections in light of the multiple, unfolding refugee crises, and the ripple effect of a Trump administration’s policies given the anti-immigrant sentiments already pervading the Global North. Stay tuned for a report from Malmö.
Sidd Joag is a visual artist, journalist and producer working on issues closely related to social inequality and human rights. He is the Managing Editor at ArtsEverywhere and a member of public art collective Amber Art & Design.