Maryam Mombeini discreetly slipped her phone into her pocket, with her sons listening in from the other side of the world, as she nervously made her way through the Tehran airport in hopes of escaping the nightmare she was living in Iran.
Ms. Mombeini’s sons, Ramin and Mehran Seyed-Emami, were shaking as they listened to the muffled phone call. They heard their mother pass through security and the gate check, and kept the call going as she took her seat on the plane. They breathed a sigh of relief as the flight took off and they lost connection with their mother.
Nearly 600 days after Ms. Mombeini was barred from leaving Iran, her sons had devised a plan to get her out of the country and, to their surprise, it worked.
“Everybody’s online together at the same time and we hear our mom and people are talking to her and we don’t know who these people are. Why are they talking to her? Is she going to get through?” Ramin said in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail.
“It was just so insane. It really felt like a freaking movie the whole time.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since Ms. Mombeini’s return to Canada last month, Ramin recollected his mother’s nail-biting escape from Iran. Ms. Mombeini, 57, was blocked from leaving the Islamic Republic after her husband, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died mysteriously in Tehran’s secretive Evin prison in February, 2018. The entire family has dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship.
Prof. Seyed-Emami was a sociology professor and managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. He died two weeks after he was arrested by Iranian authorities on what his family says were unsubstantiated allegations of spying.
Ms. Mombeini and her sons decided to flee Iran in March, 2018, after facing threats for rejecting Iranian authorities’ allegations that Prof. Seyed-Emami died by suicide. When Iranian officials prevented Ms. Mombeini from boarding the plane, she told her sons to leave without her. Iranian authorities repeatedly renewed a travel ban against her, preventing her from leaving for another 582 days.
After 20 months of high-level diplomatic talks and international headlines about Ms. Mombeini’s consular case, the Seyed-Emami brothers were desperate to get their mother out of Iran.
The diplomatic efforts were difficult as relations between Canada and Iran have been fraught for years. The former Conservative government expelled Iranian diplomats and closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran in 2012 over concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, its deplorable human-rights record and its support for Syria. Bilateral ties between the two countries had deteriorated a decade earlier when Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photo journalist, was beaten to death in Evin prison.
The Liberals pledged during the 2015 federal election campaign to re-establish diplomatic ties, but halted talks with Iran when Ms. Mombeini was barred from leaving.
During a compulsory check-in about her travel ban in September, an Iranian official advised Ms. Mombeini that her Iranian passport, which was confiscated when she tried to leave the country with her sons, had expired. Her sons encouraged her to apply for a new passport, in the rare chance that it was renewed so she could try to leave the country.
The plan, Ramin acknowledged, was “a shot in the dark.” He and his brother told their mother “not to tell a single soul." The brothers shared the plan only with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who kept close tabs on the consular case and phoned Ms. Mombeini a number of times while she was stuck in Iran.
“She [Ms. Freeland] had been by the far the most helpful and the most involved on a very personal level and so she was the only one that we trusted,” Ramin said.
Two weeks later, Ms. Mombeini’s passport arrived in the mail. She grabbed her purse, a small carry-on bag and headed to the airport. Her sons booked her a one-way ticket to Istanbul, with the plan of buying her another flight to Canada once she got out of Iran. The journey was complicated by the fact that she was wearing a cast after breaking her leg on a hike and needed to use a wheelchair to get around the airport.
Ramin and Mehran advised Ms. Freeland’s office when Mr. Mombeini’s flight took off and the government arranged for Canadian officials to meet her at the airport in Istanbul. The officials helped her onto a flight to London and then onto Vancouver, where her sons were living.
Ms. Mombeini landed back on Canadian soil Oct. 10, where she had an emotional reunion with her sons and the family’s dogs, which left Iran with Ramin and Mehran last year.
A month after her return, Ms. Mombeini’s family is not sure if they will ever know why she was able to get out of Iran. Ramin said either his mother slipped through a crack in the Iranian bureaucracy, or a sympathetic Iranian official took a serious risk in quietly letting her board the flight.
“It’s the same thing regarding my dad’s death,” Ramin said. "It’s like a puzzle we’ve been trying to piece together for the longest time but we’ll never fully know the truth of what happened.”
However, Ramin said one thing is for sure: The Canadian government wasn’t involved in coming up with the escape plan.
While Ms. Mombeini’s family is grateful to Ms. Freeland and other Canadian officials for putting pressure on Tehran to let her leave, there was only so much Canada could do. Ms. Freeland made calls to her Iranian counterpart, and the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations raised the case with the Iranian mission in New York, but Canada’s ability to speak directly with Iran was limited because of the lack of diplomatic relations.
Adam Austen, a spokesman for Ms. Freeland, said the government is “extremely relieved” that Ms. Mombeini is back in Canada, but noted there has been no diplomatic engagement between Canada and Iran since her return.
Looking back on his family’s ordeal, Ramin has a word of caution for Canadians who travel to or live in “hostile” countries.
“If something bad happens, you’re going to be on your own … You can’t rely on your own government or international organizations,” he said.
“Even though they’re sympathetic and they genuinely mean to help, it’s so difficult in this international mess of a political and bureaucratic system.”
Ramin said his mother is living in Vancouver now, where she is taking time to finally grieve the loss of her husband. The family has no immediate plans for the future, aside from a few road trips, and are taking things day by day.
Nearly two years after his death, the family still doesn’t know how Prof. Seyed-Emami died. They hope to one day travel back to Iran to visit his grave in the mountains north of Tehran, where Prof. Seyed-Emami loved to hike.
In the meantime, Ramin said he is focused on helping his mother find happiness again. As the Iranian government continues to discredit his father in state-produced documentaries, the family has got its own revenge.
“All we can do is live a good, happy and healthy life, and that’s what I’ve always said has been the best revenge."