To Love and To Be Loved As A Dissident –  a roundtable at the DISSIDENT club focusing on the mental health of people in exile on the occasion of Valentines Day

To Love and To Be Loved As A Dissident –  a roundtable at the DISSIDENT club focusing on the mental health of people in exile on the occasion of Valentines Day

“In Uyghur classical poetic language, exile is defined as the absence of the face of your beloved” – Merdan Ehteli, poet and Uyghur activist at the DISSIDENT club. 

On Valentines day activists and journalists from around the world came together at the DISSIDENT club to talk about their shared experience of love and exile. Beyond living with the trauma of fleeing your country and the threat to your life, activists also face isolation as they leave their families and loved ones behind. 

Our participants included  Nazila Golestan, an Iranian journalist in exile, Albert de Gouville, the editor-in-chief at France24 and the President of Maison des Journalistes (MDJ), Vassilli Bogatov, a Russian documentary director, Laetitia Bouhana, a trauma therapist, and Hossein Hajizade Siboni, an Iranian artist, and Merdan Ehteli. 

“When you leave, you are so scared. You are scared for yourself, but more than that, you are scared for those you have left behind,” says Golestan, who left Iran after the student protests of June 1998. 

Targeting the relatives and loved ones of activists who have fled the country in order to threaten or persuade them to return is a common tactic of authoritarian regimes like the one in Iran. Recently,  an audio file of a conversation between Massi Kamri, an activist currently living in France, and a security agent of the Iranian government showed that the agent was explicitly threatening to imprison her parents and family members in Iran, if they do not stop speaking up in France.

“Most who flee their country come alone. They leave everyone and everything they love behind and are seeking refuge and security,” de Gouville, shared his experience receiving journalists in exile at the Maison des Journalistes in Paris. “We are able to provide them with material support and resources like food and a home. However, we are not able to provide them with the psychological aid that they need as of yet,” he said, realising how important such help is.

The conversation led to the Russian film-maker Bogatov’s documentary, Pussy v Putin, which forced him to leave Russia in 2022 with his girlfriend and daughter. He shared with us the impact exile had on his relationship, which was compounded  by the restrictions and the anxiety of Covid-19 which was still impacting daily lives of people in Europe. “It was a period of loneliness and isolation that tested our relationship to its limits,” he said.

According to the therapist, Bouhana, going into exile and not knowing if you can ever return is in itself distressing. “Love is a biological need and leaving your loved ones not knowing whether you will see them again is one of the most traumatic experiences.” 

To conclude the roundtable, Hossein Hajizade Siboni, recited these powerful lines from his poem on love and exile: 

“The rain is the invisible tears of lonely moments in love

Tears are the joy of meeting a loved one

The rivers are streams on the cheeks of lovers

And love is a wave that rushes from a distant path to a calm shore.”

Report by: Leah Koonthamattam , team < the DISSIDENT club >

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