I was desperate for my daughters just to survive - Refugee Council
July 28, 2016

I was desperate for my daughters just to survive

Aziz Anzabi was a university professor at the University of Tehran in Iran. After the election in 2009 he was harassed and imprisoned by the authorities due to his work with the opposition party and profile at the university. Aziz is now based in London, expressing the experiences of refugees through painting and sculpture.

When I was teaching at the university in Tehran, art was just a hobby. Now, it is a powerful tool to explore refugee experiences in a British society.

Since I arrived in the UK my work has been featured in dozens of exhibitions, won international awards, been cited in the British Library and even been printed onto clothes and scarves. But it wasn’t easy. Five years ago I relied on charities to give me second hand paint brushes. I’d spent two and a half months in the back of a lorry with my wife and two baby daughters.

When I arrived in the UK I realised that I couldn’t use my PHD so I concentrated on my art. I wasn’t over my experiences in Iran, or the tension of being a stranger in this new world, but I was desperate to be a part of a society.

After five months I had my first exhibition; the people of Glasgow were so friendly and supportive, with their encouragement I got my first painting into McTear’s auction. The sale of my first artwork made a massive different to my life.

I started teaching art and taking jobs such as mural painting so that I didn’t have to rely on the JobCentre and could be helpful to society! I’m now the part-time manager of a small charity.

I was a teacher of psychotherapy at the University of Tehran. I was also politically involved with the opposition party. My students frequently asked me questions about religion and life. How could I not answer? Before the revolution, I lived in a golden cage. I had a house, a car and money in the bank. But I was not free.

After the revolution a lot of people went to prison. The authorities frequently broke into my house and turned it upside down time and time again, taking away my documents, computer and papers. They threw me in and out of prison. They asked me “what are you thinking?” In my country, they can throw you in prison just for thinking.

I didn’t decide to come to the UK. I just knew that my family and I had to be out of Iran. Life for us was becoming more and more dangerous. When we put our lives into smugglers hands we had nothing but the clothes on our backs. We had no idea where we were going. For two and a half months we spent all day in the lorry. We went to the toilet in plastic bottles. We came out only at night to grab gasps of fresh air. I was desperate for my daughters just to survive.

When we finally came to a stop it was freezing cold. When we went to the police station we found out we were in Scotland. Though it was incredibly painful, I told the police our story. Scotland offered us refuge.

Here I am safe. Freedom is possible.

In ‘Battle’ I explore surveillance of thoughts and freedom of expression.

After I left Iran, the authorities harassed my family for years to come. They burst into their houses asking “Where is he!”. They gave them no peace. I can’t imagine what would have happened to my wife and children there.

Like Banksy’s piece in Calais I believe art helps people access difficult social questions.

This painting is my interpretation of Syrians fleeing war and terror in their homeland and seeking safety in Europe. Access to safety is closely guarded by an official.  ISIS, which has appeared in the country without roots or history, is represented by an ominous black cube dominating the skyline.

I think it is important that Britain continues to protect refugees. People must understand that refugees do not flee for economic reasons. Refugees are desperate for freedom; they bring skills and talents and the belief that they can improve the life of their children and those of the society which offer them sanctuary.

Now, for me, art is not just art. It shows the inside of my mind – it helps to show people the problems others are facing, it helps them to understand.