During the November 2019 riots that engulfed much of Iran, news eventually escaped that the regime had slaughtered over a hundred Ahwazis who had launched a peaceful protest outside the port city of Ma’shour, located within the Ahwaz region. The notorious IRGC Basiji forces opened fire immediately, and dozens fell. Others, mostly wounded, fled to the nearby sugar canebrake, which was ignited by machine-gun fire in a horrific incident that achieved at least brief global attention and condemnation. And yet, the reason those young men and women risked their lives to protest has gone largely unexamined. The authors of this article have been able to speak with Ahwazi labour activists, who paint a bleak picture of systemic racism and suppression by a ruling regime that views its oil-rich region as essential, but its inhabitants as less than nothing.
Two Ahwazi labour rights activists, whose names are withheld for their safety explained that, “last week on a road leading to one of the biggest petrochemical complexes of Ma’shour port in the Ahwaz region – one of the biggest petrochemical industries in the Middle East – we came across dozens of young Ahwazi men who were standing by the side of the road selling small barrels of gasoline.”
The labour activists reported, “as we approached them to have an interview about the economic and employment situation of Ahwazi people, one of them with a sarcastic and painful smile pointed to the few small barrels around him and said they are his only share of the underground ocean of petrol and gas which is being extracted of his colonised homeland.”
His name, he said, was Samy; and our contacts reported that “a few months ago, he was working as a guard in one of the petrochemical complexes, but along with a number of other Ahwazi labourers he was expelled from his job. Samy continued to say that ‘after people from Ma’shour took to the streets in mid-November and protested Iranian ethnic discrimination, state violence, and marginalisation, you know our demands were met with live bullets, and hundreds were killed, wounded, many were arrested, and some died under torture merely for asking for fair treatment in terms of employment, development of our areas.'”
The activists said, “Samy talked bitterly and nervously of the oppression which targeted him and the local Ahwazi Arab population and tried to open his heart to fully convey his suffering, caused by poverty due to expulsion from his job that have led him and many other Ahwazis to the brink of addiction to drugs, amid failure and the destruction of his family as a result of ongoing rises in prices in shopping and housing, and his trouble with buying and selling gasoline.”
Samy continued, “after the protests and massacre of Ahwazi young men in Ma’shour, we expected the government officials here to revise their policy and prioritise the suffering of local people here especially in employing them in these giant industrial sectors. But, whenever we go to apply for any type of job, they would say, ‘how come you want to work here, while a few months ago you wanted to destroy these companies?’ They treat us as criminals and instead of looking at our skills, they ask, ‘did you take part in the anti-regime protests, were you or any members of your family involved in the protests arrested or wounded or killed?’ My answer was no, but I told them my younger brother ended his life after one year of his marriage after his wife left him because he could not find work.”
The labour activists continued. “Samy’s friend Fayez was also there and spoke with us. Twenty-seven years old, he holds a BA in chemistry but has been unemployed since he graduated from university. His eyes were shining with tears as he said ‘I gave up seeking and applying for jobs, because I applied for several jobs over twenty times, but it was useless.’ He added that when he went to job interviews, after fake greetings, the Persian mangers in charge of employment would begin to assess his qualifications. But in fact, they do not ask him about his professional abilities, they ask instead, ‘which ethnicity are you? What is your mother language? Have you ever been in prison, especially during the recent protest?’
Fayez recounted, “in addition to many other irrelevant questions which I cannot remember right now, at the end, they would say ‘you can go and look forward for our call,’ but I have never received any call or response from any of them.” His last words were a bitter complaint of injustice and oppression. As he put it, “I am no beggar. I am not looking for charity. And I do not need oil money, but I need a job that I can rely on at least for a few years to have a comfortable life. So personally, do you think it is a difficult demand to be met by the government, for me as an Ahwazi whose land is the most fertile and richest in the Middle East?”
The labour activist recalled that, “I had no answer for his question. All I could do was leave him, his questions unanswered, alone with his small barrels under the scorching sun of Ahwaz.”
The rights activists also reported another heartbreaking story of another educated Ahwazi young man subject to racial discrimination.
Twenty-nine-year-old Adnan is one of innumerable jobless young Ahwazi men. Although he has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Abadan, he has been sitting at home unemployed for the last five years. He has applied for work many times, but all of his efforts have been in vain, and he feels hopeless. In his interview, Adnan burst into tears as he explained, “I am living aimlessly, and my life is becoming a cycle of daily pressure. I am in complete despair. A couple of times, I have considered killing myself, only avoiding suicide in the final moment”.
He went on, “I spend all my days applying for jobs in many companies. The last time I remember, I went to an oil refinery company and asked if there is any upcoming recruitment. The response was from one very young man with an Isfahani accent (Persian accent), who asked, ‘what’s your last name?’ I told him, it is Kaabi; my last name shows me I am Ahwazi. He said, ‘oh no, I guessed you are Arab from your accent,’ then with a humiliating smile said, ‘OK, go and leave your phone number and we will inform you if we want labour force,’ the only answer I have ever received.”
Adnan was able to take the rare opportunity to share his struggle. “What I want to say is that Arabic last names and Arabic accents are used to reject Ahwazis from jobs. Of course, other excuses, such as lack of previous work experience and lack of practical training, are adopted to deny Ahwazi locals from getting jobs. On the contrary, ethnic Persians who are very young, and have no prior work experience or training, have the highest priority because of their Persian ethnicity”.
The stories of Samy, Fayez and Adnan are disturbingly common among Ahwazis, especially the younger generation. Even those few Ahwazis who are able to rise above the rampant poverty and complete their educations are openly discriminated against and deliberately kept unemployed through flagrant racism and political reprisals. Before the world turns its eye away from those Ahwazi youth who protested and were gunned down or burned alive in the blazing canebrake, the ongoing story of these young people courageously striving against a brutal and bigoted regime must be told.
By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.