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How I long to hold to hold my darling again: British mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

A child’s Mother’s Day card: simple but potent with yearning. Five-year-old Gabriella Ratcliffe drew a red plane with a flower on its wings for her mum.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was freed last week for a fortnight from an Iranian jail. 

Could any words express more eloquently a small child’s hope that her absent mummy — ankle-tagged and now confined to her parents’ home in Tehran — would soon fly back to London to be with her and her dad? 

The poignancy is not lost on Nazanin, who spent Mother’s Day with her own mother but separated from her only child, whom she spoke to remotely on Skype. While she saw Gabriella’s handmade card, the hug she longs to enfold her daughter in is still a long way off.

‘It is traumatic not being able to really see or hold Gabriella,’ says Nazanin, speaking exclusively from Iran through her husband Richard.

On Tuesday Nazanin, arrested in 2016 on spying charges, was freed under a temporary furlough, but will not be permitted to move more than 300 metres from her parents’ home. ‘It has been really good spending time with my mum,’ she says, talking for the first time about her release.

‘I cooked noodles for my parents’ lunch, Gabriella’s favourite, but I don’t want to talk about things related to her. It makes me feel too vulnerable.’

Nazanin explains that while she cannot bear to speak about Gabriella — the exhumation of memories is just too painful —her mum finds solace in chatting about the granddaughter she adores. ‘She’s proud of her granddaughter. She wants to talk about her memories as she is missing Gabriella so much.

‘It’s hard for me, though; hard when we were organising a clear-out of some of her toys yesterday; painful to be around all those memories. My defence mechanism is to switch off and not dwell on her absence.’

She adds: ‘I know she is happy in England. That’s all that matters. And who knows? This might soon really be the end. I am so happy to be out [of prison]; even with the tag.

‘Being out is so much better than being in — if you knew what hell this place is. It is mental. Let’s hope it is the beginning of coming home.’

It is a fervent hope Gabriella and her father Richard Ratcliffe share. ‘On Sunday Gabriella wished her mum a Happy Mother’s day but spent most of the call explaining about the movie night she’d be having at home in her pyjamas,’ he says.

‘Nazanin, meanwhile, said she had been going through Gabriella’s outgrown clothes.’ Dual British/ Iranian national Nazanin, 41, was arrested in Tehran as she prepared to board a flight to the UK with Gabriella after a holiday with her parents nearly four years ago. The charity worker was imprisoned for five years over allegations, which she strongly denies, that she plotted to overthrow the Iranian government.

Richard was never granted a visa to visit. Gabriella remained in Tehran in the care of her grandparents — visiting her mum regularly in jail — until last October when she flew back to her father in London to start school.

It has all been too much for a child of five to understand. The experience, however, has made her resilient. She has a wide smile, a capacity to charm all she meets and an indomitable spirit.

Since her mum’s release, the little girl’s emotions have swung from joy to regret.

Last Tuesday, she had her first chance since her return to London to Skype-call her mum from the family’s flat in Hampstead. Richard recalls their shared excitement; the thrill of that first conversation.

‘The first thing Nazanin wanted to do was speak to Gabriella after school,’ he says. ‘Gabriella was giddyingly excited. She had been resisting speaking by phone to her mum in prison. She found it too upsetting. It was much easier to call this week when she was able to see Nazanin again.

‘Gabriella took the phone off and went round the flat, showing her mummy her bedroom with her new big girl bed. Nazanin was admiring her world. Gabriella showed her her dollies and ran a bath for them. I had to intervene! There was a real exuberance.’

For Richard, the sight of his wife’s smile was long overdue. ‘It’s been lovely to see her with a big grin. She’s been catching up with old friends and it’s so nice to see her doing normal things and feeling like a person again.

‘For Gabriella, to be able to talk to her mother outside the confines of a prison cell was happiness itself. I don’t recall Gabriella asking too much except, “When are you coming back home?”’ says Richard.

‘But on her second Skype call to Nazanin, Gabriella asked, “Why are you at Mamany’s [granny’s] and not with us?” She was disconcerted. I told her, “We’re hoping Mummy will be coming home soon.” Sometimes she asks, “When? Tomorrow or the next day?” and I say “hopefully soon”, and she normally accepts that.’

The night before we speak, Gabriella painted eggs over Skype with her Mum; a tradition of the Iranian New Year. Afterwards, Richard confides, his daughter was upset: ‘Gabriella was reminded that she was away from her mummy. She wanted to be in Iran with her for the celebrations.

‘I explained that Mummy had been allowed out of prison for Iranian New Year and we told her that it was because people were poorly [with coronavirus] in prison and that Mummy has been poorly as well.’

Richard is ‘pretty sure’ that Nazanin has had coronavirus and recovered: ‘She had symptoms that lasted a couple of weeks and felt horrible, but they wouldn’t test her.’ The Covid-19 death toll in Iran has soared to more than 2,000 and more than 27,000 have been confirmed as infected. Nazanin’s temporary release is due to end on April 4, but the family holds on to the hope that it will be a prelude to her permanent freedom and return to England.

‘My feelings have been all of a mix — pleased at the happiness for Nazanin and Gabriella, but fear this is a new drawn-out game of chess,’ says Richard, who has run a tireless campaign to secure his wife’s freedom.

The 45-year-old accountant admits his parenting skills were ‘rusty’ when Gabriella — a sweet-faced, affectionate child whose confidence is bolstered by a steely determination — bounded back into his life five months ago. Speaking only Farsi, she arrived to find her bedroom ‘frozen in time’; unchanged since she left it as a toddler four years earlier.

‘It still had her baby cot in it and she came back determined to get a big girl’s bed. We finally agreed on one, with a Little Mermaid duvet set,’ Richard recalls.

There were, of course, more profound changes for her to adjust to. ‘It was daunting — traumatic — for her to come over here, build new relationships and learn a new language from scratch,’ says Richard. ‘We had quite a few nights when she’d cry herself to sleep because she wanted Mummy or Mamany and not Daddy.

‘There was a time when she wouldn’t sleep on her own. She’d wake up in the night sometimes, crying, but she hasn’t recently. She is adjusting to a completely different world. To begin with, she wondered why women were not wearing head scarves. She knew all about surveillance and wanted to know what the CCTV cameras were watching.’

Despite this awareness of a dark world she encountered in Iran, she remains an innocent little girl with a child’s preoccupation with cuddly toys.

‘She still takes a teddy bear and rabbit to bed that Nazanin made her in prison and has a pair of toadstool tights her Mamany gave her that she uses as a snuggle blanket. She’s surrounded by a family of animals.

‘Now a teddy she got from my mum and sister has made the grade and is on her bed. And for me, being a “real” dad instead of a dad campaigning for her mum’s release is a rediscovery. There’s a sensitivity I’ve had to re-learn.

‘Nazanin was always concerned about how Gabriella was feeling. She was thoughtfully focused on things she’d need. I’m more reactive, behind the curve in my parenting at the moment. I’ll say, “Of course, you’re irritable because you’re hungry,” while Nazanin would have food prepared.’

Theirs is a warm, mildly chaotic household — washed crockery drains by the sink; finger-paintings adorn the walls; hyacinths bloom on a side table — and Richard has the slightly distracted air of a solo father newly grappling with the mysteries of parenthood.

Gabriella is at school when we speak — it is her final day there before it’s closed due to coronavirus — and I ask if he is prepared for the onslaught of child-related mayhem. ‘We’ll muddle our way through,’ he smiles.

He charts the huge strides his little girl has made — in confidence, language skills and adapting to a new and wildly different culture — in just a few months.

‘When she came to England she’d been taught to say, “Hello Daddy,” “I love you,” and “How are you?” Otherwise she spoke only Farsi, which Nazanin still tends to speak to her. But when Gabriella is describing her life here to the family in Iran, she’ll speak in English now — even if the person on the other end of the phone doesn’t understand.

‘She picked up lots of words quickly. Now I read her My Naughty Little Sister at bedtime and she doesn’t need me to explain it to her. She’s perfectly happy in her English-speaking environment. School — which she began after Christmas — made a huge difference. She’ll run into her classroom on her own now, thank you very much, without Daddy cramping her style.’

He laughs. ‘It’s good that she’s gained such independence. It’s almost an embarrassment for her to have me around. School is her space and she presumes I wouldn’t “get” it.’ Her young life, though, is compartmentalised: there’s Mummy, absent in Iran, Daddy at home — and school.

‘I feel she copes because the areas are separate,’ says Richard. ‘But she still likes the comfort of knowing I’m next to her when she goes to sleep. It makes her feel safe. Sometimes, even now, I sleep on the floor by her bed.

‘And she wants to be in the same bedroom with her cousin Dylan, who is eight, when she stays with my sister — although he doesn’t necessarily want a wriggly little five-year-old in his room.’

This new life, with its safety and happy family routines, contrasts with her life in Iran. There, she made regular visits with her grandparents to her mum in Evin jail, where political prisoners are held.

‘When Nazanin was in solitary confinement, Gabriella visited just with her grandparents. Extended family were not allowed.

‘You’re driven to places inside the prison compound in a vehicle with blacked-out windows to disorientate you. Sometimes Gabriella saw her mother being blindfolded. An interrogator stayed in the room during the visits. It was menacing.

‘The visits were traumatic for the whole family. There came a point when Gabriella didn’t like going any more, she didn’t want to go to the prison.

‘There were times when she saw Nazanin’s mum collapse — once when Nazanin was on her first hunger strike in October 2016.

‘On day six, she was looking so rough. Then Granny was interrogated and it was all overwhelming and distressing for Gabriella.’

Nazanin was moved out of solitary in 2017 and visits became more tolerable for Gabriella, who would sit on her mum’s lap, draw and eat with her in a room with other female inmates and their families.

‘In Iran, it was taboo to talk about prison. Here, she knows there’s an inconsistency; that Daddy talks about it,’ says Richard. ‘In England, some parents try to protect their children from the fact that Nazanin is in prison, but some are keen to reach out in a kind, community way.’

Certainly, Gabriella’s confidence has grown enormously. ‘Sometimes she’ll say, “You’re not the boss of me!” She thinks of grown-ups’ instructions as advisory, at best,’ laughs Richard.

‘But as she gets better at English, she is less assertive, less apt to say, “I’m not eating this.” She’s relaxing into being mischievous.

‘She’s affectionate and determined to make a place for herself, to be one of the gang. She’s quite sensitive to exclusion and will battle to be included.’

She also palpably adores her mum and dad. It is a fierce, protective love.

‘I got some old placards out the other day; one drawn by my nephew Dylan,’ recalls Richard. ‘Gabriella was keen to add her own drawings to it. When I suggested that Dylan might object she was quite indignant. She said, “She’s my mum, so!”’

She holds tightly onto her dad’s hand with a similar sense of ownership. And although they may be separated by oceans and continents, it is her most fervent wish that they will soon all be reunited.

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