Neda Amin, an Iranian journalist who made it to Israel and claimed political asylum to save her life, speaks to Aish readers.
Neda Amin, an up-and-coming journalist, left Iran and moved to Turkey in 2014 when she was 29 years old and continued her writing career there. Writing a single piece for The Times of Israel and blogging extensively on the newspaper’s Farsi language site, raised the ire of Turkish police who dragged her in for questioning six times and broke into her apartment.
During one interrogation, Neda asked, “Is it illegal to write for Israeli media?” The Turkish police allowed that it wasn’t against the law in Turkey. “So why all the investigations?” she asked. “Because,” they answered, “we don’t like working with Israel, and we don’t like you working with Israel.” Turkish authorities gave her a terrifying ultimatum: they were going to expel her from Turkey. If no other country would take her in, Neda would be deported back to Iran where her life would be in danger.
“Germany and the USA were willing to give me asylum,” Neda explains, but there was one country she wanted to move to more than anything: Israel. For her, Israel felt like home.
I’m a daughter of a Jew who worked and supported Israel, and my life was in danger because of my support of Israel.
“My father was Jewish,” Neda recounts. Growing up in Tehran with a Jewish father, she always felt a strong pull of Jewish identity. “In Iran, the father determines the religion of their children,” and Neda never considered herself Muslim like so many of her friends and classmates. As she entered journalism, writing for an Israeli-based website seemed like a natural thing to do. “I’m a daughter of a Jew who worked and supported Israel, and my life was in danger because of my support of Israel.”
Desperate, Neda called David Horovitz, editor of The Times of Israel. He didn’t recognize her name, nor could she recall the pieces she’d written for his paper. He also had no idea of her Jewish heritage. “Mr. Horovitz, please save me” she asked on the phone. For Mr. Horovitz, “It was enough.” He made a barrage of phone calls, explained Neda’s plight, and was overwhelmed with positive responses as Israelis from all walks of life mobilized to help bring the Iranian journalist to Israel.
Eventually, Neda was cleared to board a flight to Israel where she could apply for political asylum. The moment she landed in the Jewish state was one she’ll never forget: “I felt I was back home after many years, that was an amazing feeling.”
One of Neda’s first phone calls in Israel came from Natan Sharansky, the famed Soviet refusenik who spent nine years in a Russian gulag, moved to Israel in 1986, and later served as Chairman of the Jewish Agency in Israel. “He called me and said ‘Welcome to Israel Neda…’ I couldn’t believe it when I spoke with him the first time. He was one of my heroes from the time I was fifteen years old,” Neda explains. “But I visited him here! It was amazing!”
Sharansky arranged for Neda to take Hebrew classes and at first it seemed that her asylum application would be expedited smoothly. But as the months and years have dragged on, this has not been the case. Neda has been living in Israel for over two and a half years and still doesn’t have official asylum status. With a Jewish father, she technically is able to claim Israeli citizenship under the country’s Right of Return, but she lacks the necessary family documents and can’t go back to Iran to retrieve them. Without permanent leave to remain in the country, Neda hasn’t been able to work. The Times of Israel pays her rent in Jerusalem as she waits and waits for notice that her asylum status has been approved.
Neda hopes to become a citizen of Israel, convert to Judaism, and resume her journalistic career in the Jewish state.
The situation is incredibly frustrating and heart-breaking for Neda. At times she feels close to despair. She hopes to become a citizen of Israel, convert to Judaism, and resume her journalistic career in the Jewish state.
Neda’s case is unique, but shockingly, other Iranian citizens have been turning to the Jewish state in recent months, saying they would like to claim asylum there. Iran has no diplomatic relations with Israel and frequently and openly calls for its destruction. Yet, as Neda explains, although “the media in Iran has propaganda against Israel, the majority of people understand they are liars and don’t trust them.” Some Iranians view Israel as a desirable place and potential source for help.
“I am often put in jail for political reasons,” pleaded one Iranian in a recent letter to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Two of his uncles had been put to death by the regime already. “I would like to escape this slow death. Israel is my dream,” he wrote on a social media account operated by Israel’s government. In recent months, many other Iranians contacted the Jewish state to ask how they could travel to Israel to claim asylum as well.
In recent months, thousands of Iranians have been contacting Israel, asking for help, guidance, news – even permission to immigrate to the Jewish state. Despite the demonization of Israel inside Iran, many ordinary Iranians are clamoring for contact with israel. Israel runs a Twitter channel in Farsi, the language of Iran; it has 220,000 followers. Israel’s Farsi language Instagram account has nearly half a million followers.
“They’re asking for all kinds of assistance: medical advice, information about immigration to Israel or other countries; they want to know how to make business or simply want to tell us that they hope that their country will one day establish diplomatic relations with us,” explained Yiftah Curiel, head of the digital diplomacy at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, after his office announced this week that there’s been a sharp increase in requests from Iranians. Some of the increased interest in the Jewish state seems to be a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed thousands of lives in Iran, but many inquiries predate the crisis.
When I told her that Iranians were expressing a desire to apply for political asylum in Israel, Neda seemed incredulous. “It’s impossible,” she explained.
Despite the many frustrations Neda’s gone through as her asylum application awaits its approval, she still has found many things to love about Jerusalem. She’s made many friends and found that ordinary Israelis have greeted her warmly. “I love Israel’s police,” she says, contrasting them with the terrifying police she encountered in Turkey and who threaten to imprison and possibly even execute her if she ever returns to Iran. Israeli police “are so kind, conscientious, well-mannered, gentlemanly….” In Israel, Neda can finally feel safe and free. It’s a sentiment many of her compatriots wish they could experience as well.
Neda’s favorite place in all of Israel is the Western Wall. “I feel free when I’m there. I feel all the Jewish prophets are there. I feel that they are all protecting me. Abraham, Isaac, Yaakov, Moshe, David, all.” Despite the heartbreak of not being able to know for sure that she can gain formal asylum in Israel, Neda hopes against hope that she’ll be allowed to remain. “I feel like I’m in heaven.”
As thousands of other Iranians turn to Israel in hope, Israel’s Foreign Ministry can only do so much. “Our ministry’s social media platform allows us to be in direct contact with millions from across the (Middle Eastern) region, among them many from Iran,” observed Yuval Rotem, Israel’s Foreign Ministry Director General, after the sheer volume of would-be asylum seekers from Iran became public. “The Iranian people are not our enemies. They are first and foremost immediate victims of the radical Ayatollah regime… Instead of taking care of its own people, the Iranian regime is still putting unlimited efforts in obtaining illegal nuclear weapons, is supporting terror across the globe and is promoting subversive activities throughout the Middle East.”
The emergence of thousands of ordinary Iranians seeking to contact or even move to the Jewish state gives hope that perhaps a new generation of Iranians will seek warmer relations with their Jewish neighbors. For Neda Amin, one of the few recent Iranian asylum seekers able to make it to Israel, the experience has been both frustrating and joyous. I hope that it ends soon with her final approval to live and contribute to the Jewish nation she’s worked for and loves.
Neda describes Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, as her “favorite day”. God willing, by next Yom HaAatzmaut, Neda will finally have a permanent decision on her asylum application – and the many Iranians currently clamoring for closer ties to Israel will have helped bring about even warmer feelings for Jews and the Jewish state inside Iran.