Behnaz's story

I started my career in Vienna, where I got a degree in psychotherapy. I went on to do a PHD in anthropology. For eight years, I dedicated myself to research about religious minorities in my home country, Iran. I published my dissertation as a book and since then, I’ve continued working in this field.

In 2019, I became a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford. My research interests expanded, covering religious minorities in Iraq, as well as child marriages, forced migration and trafficking under ISIS. I became a field investigator in Iraq for the United Nations and spent a lot of time talking with vulnerable people.

50 Voices: Hestia volunteer Behnaz on what inspires her to fight for minorities rights

As I was coming towards the end of my fellowship, I was becoming increasingly active in fighting for human rights in Iran. I published a book, Trauma and the Rehabilitation of Trafficked Women: The Experiences of Yazidi Survivors, which was complete with interviews with women who had been trafficked by ISIS, which I collected while living alongside them and their children in shelters in Germany. It gave them an opportunity to have a voice.

I couldn’t get a grant to help cover the cost of my research. I covered it all from my own pocket. Sometimes, I was earning as little as £400 a month. I had to decide whether to pay my rent, or to eat.

Because of my activism, I’ve been told I can’t go back to Iran. I was in Austria at the time, organising events for women, with a focus on female empowerment. However, I decided to apply for a UK immigration visa.

Here in the UK, I wanted to find something like what I was doing in Vienna. I wanted to integrate into UK society and get to know how the system operates here. I also wanted to keep up my work around women’s and minorities rights.

50 Voices: Hestia volunteer Behnaz on what inspires her to fight for minorities rights

I found out about Hestia and applied to become a volunteer. I started as a telephone support volunteer for older people, before volunteering for the domestic abuse refuge referral line, which helps women experiencing domestic abuse to access Hestia’s refuges. Now, I’m a Dari interpreter at one of Hestia’s mental health services.

I’ve gained a lot of experience through all the roles, but particularly while working on the referral line. It made me realise that women experiencing abuse still need more support. We need the law to change so there’s harsher punishments for perpetrators. It was quite a tense role and it can be difficult to detach emotionally; the stories you hear are awful.

It’s a special feeling when you realise that a woman you’ve been talking to has been accepted into one of our refuges.

At the mental health service, I also help to run activities. There was one resident who wouldn’t join in, but over time, that changed. I remember the day I asked him again if he would like to join, and he said yes. It was quite emotional. It’s about motivating people.

I’m currently also volunteering in a dementia care home. It feels good to know you’re offering someone company. You give something and you get something back.

50 Voices: Hestia volunteer Behnaz on what inspires her to fight for minorities rights

I’ve been waiting to become an official resident of the UK so that I can start to work here. I’d like to continue working in the human rights sector or in psychotherapy. I’ve considered going into drug and alcohol rehabilitation. I’d also like to do law degree at some point.

In the next few years, I plan to stay in the UK. I have another book that came out recently, exploring women and suicide in Iran. I’m also starting to look at drug and alcohol rehabilitation for migrants in the UK, compared to eastern European countries.

When you’re not in the same shoes as those in crisis, or those who are discriminated, it’s difficult to understand what they go through. I was discriminated and ignored myself, as a minority in Iran. That’s why I do what I do. The idea that I’m empowering women and minorities – that is what keeps me motivated.