In 2013 Bijan Ebrahimi, a 44-year-old Iranian refugee, was murdered in a hate crime in his Bristol council flat. This was the culmination of a near-decade of persecution and abuse by his neighbours, and multiple complaints by Bijan which were ignored by police.
Photo: Belgrade refugee camp, Direct Action Volunteers
A report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission released earlier this month catalogues shocking failures by the police to take his complaints seriously, and a tendency by the authorities to assume he was the problem. An inquiry into the council’s role in what happened is currently underway.
Bijan’s nephew, Davood Khayatain, 37, grew up in Bristol, and was close to his uncle. He spoke to the Cable about how his uncle’s death, and the climate of racism in which it occurred, has changed the direction of his life and inspired his work with the refugee crisis.
“I let Bijan down by not helping him get out of his terrible situation, and we all did, by creating and sustaining it … We all have to try a lot harder than is comfortable sometimes.”
Davood grew up in South Bristol, in a “heavy atmosphere of racial hatred”. He was bullied at school for being Iranian, as well for his appearance and interests. He found a place in travelling, squatting, and environmental and community activism, from blocking loggers in Tasmanian rainforests, to campaigning to save the Magpie squat on Bristol’s Picton Street.
“When I heard Bijan had been murdered,” he recalls, “I was in London living on my boat. It was late but I could barely wait ‘til the following morning to leave to get back to Bristol. It brought up such feelings of guilt, as he had asked me how to get the people bullying him to leave him alone, and all I could suggest was that he move, or go to SARI … He said he would go and ask for help, and I never heard from him again.”
In the years since Bijan’s death, Davood says the situation in the area where he lived appears to have worsened. “Just because some areas of a large city are creative and expressive, doesn’t mean racism can’t be rife in other areas,” he explains. “With media pressure stacked against people of Muslim descent I think areas with heavy white, right-wing prejudices will only have gained strength in their already twisted convictions in recent years.”
Davood doesn’t feel that it was Bijan’s refugee status in particular that helped single him out, or caused him to be taken less seriously, just that he was different. He gives the example of Ras Judah Adunbi, a Bristol grandfather and Black community elder who was tasered by the police earlier this year, as an example of the wider racism that affects BME people in the UK. However, he worries there’s little unity between communities, and likewise between BME communities and other radical movements, making it difficult to counter the institutional racism that plagued Bijan and led to his death.
Speaking of the IPCC report’s findings that Bijan was grossly failed by the police he says, “I hope the coverage the case continues to gather is challenging the status quo of beliefs in the city/country.” As that status quo stands, “Bijan’s death is not likely to be the last act of hatred to people due to skin colour or country of origin.” “We allow this to happen to us, and we continue to work and pay our taxes,” he says. “It shames me to be even from the same country as people like Bijan’s murderers, and the racist police who could have saved him.”
Making vulnerable people safe in our society is a challenge at every level, Davood believes, from the practical to the symbolic, from what we say in the voting booth to what we say to our friends. He argues that beyond basic rights, it is representation in national and local government that is so desperately needed for BME people, people with disabilities, and other marginalised groups.
“There is no distinction in the eyes of the system whether you have rights or not,” he points out. “Otherwise there would be no problem. It’s systematic discrimination, not targeted.”
“Trees and mountains will survive, if only in part. But children crying in litter-strewn hellholes need helping above all.”
He also condemns the part played by media outlets in fuelling prejudice, calling for them to be “targeted by peaceful direct action,” such as subverting the message of their advertising with some creative vandalism (know as subvertising). “Respect to those people who risk prosecution for defacing billboards is definitely due,” he says.
Above all though, he insists we must all work harder every day to challenge the racist and bigoted viewpoints of others, saying, “I would ask people with the decency and strength of character to stand up to this in their day-to-day lives … we all have to try a lot harder than is comfortable sometimes.”
The biggest barrier to this is what he sees as a culture of exhaustion and apathy, not just in mainstream culture, but in the alternative circles he grew up in.
“We have been oppressed far too long, and had the fight beaten out of us. We revel in either the capitalism of working to have a nice comfortable life, and have no energy or time left to try to rise up, or in the case of most of the sub-cultures I’ve known, we party so hard while calling ourselves ‘alternative’, that we can’t get out of bed for a protest on Monday morning.”
Since Bijan’s death Davood has sharpened his own focus on creating change, moving from environmental activism to helping with the refugee crisis. “Trees and mountains will survive, if only in part,” he reflects, “but children crying in litter-strewn hellholes need helping above all.”
His charity, “All About Change”, works on creative projects with people in refugee camps and disaster zones, helping develop skills and self-esteem to better equip people to survive on their journeys. The work fulfills what he describes as “a huge need for alternative education” in these situations.
Davood notes that he does warn migrants hoping to end up in the UK that hate crimes such as that against Bijan do happen, so that they know “it’s not all sunshine and rainbows there.” However “I don’t lay it on too thick,” he says, “as it is still only an isolated case.”
Alongside helping to support vulnerable people and change the world for the better, Davood hopes to honour his uncle, through the strength of his convictions and the new path he has chosen in life.
“I loved Bijan dearly. He was a gentle, kind man who was struggling through a hard life, escaping his home country and its problems, just to encounter much worse here. I feel I, and we, let him down badly, and that will never change no matter how hard we fight to change the system so it doesn’t happen to others. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight.”
“I hope I can continue to work towards improving the planet we live on until it doesn’t need any more betterment … I have always felt like that, Bijan’s murder just made me able to start to say it a bit louder to people. RIP Uncle.”
More information about Davood’s work with refugees can be found here.