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2 Kansas City women are risking everything to spread messages of liberation among protesters in Iran

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Mercedeh Tavacoli
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KCUR 89.3
Mercedeh Tavacoli speaking to the crowd at protest in the Country Club Plaza's Mill Creek Park

As protests in Iran move into their fourth month, these Iranian American women aren’t giving up. With every social media post, text, or WhatsApp call, they want to bring hope and liberation to Iranians back home and living abroad.

Watching nationwide protests erupt in Iran from a cushy couch in America’s suburbs, Mercedeh Tavacoli and Azzie Amani have felt plenty of anxiety about how they can help the women in their home country.

“You really feel helpless here,” said Amani, whose family left Iran when she was in middle school.

That’s why, for the last 17 weeks, the two women have been telling whoever will listen about the importance of what’s going on in the Islamic republic.

The protests, frequently led by women, began in northwestern Iran after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran's co-called "morality police." Demonstrations spread quickly, and transformed from protesting the mandatory Islamic headscarf, the hijab, to calling for the end of Iran's cleric-led regime.

Tavacoli, who grew up in Kansas City and is the daughter of Iranian immigrants who fled their homeland decades ago, traveled alone to Iran for the first time a few weeks before the protests began. She had similar sentiments about the plight of women there.

“I was interrogated by the police there about why I was traveling alone and why I was in Iran, '' she said. “It got kind of aggressive so I had to keep my cool, for sure.”

Experiences like that spurred Tavacoli and Amani, who is not related to Mahsa Amini, to get involved any way they can.

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Mercedeh Tavacoli
Ukrainian refugees showing solidarity with Iranian protesters at Mill Creek Park in the Country Club Plaza

Using cell phones and laptops from their couches and coffee shops around Kansas City, their social media activism connects networks of Iranian dissidents all around the world. They've also spent countless hours supporting family and friends back in Iran, who are fighting against the regime.

“In the morning when I wake up, on my break time, or after work, I’m active in the resistance,” said Amani. “I spend every spare moment spreading the cries for freedom from the people of Iran.”

It's a calculated risk that they say could end in death — either for them if they ever return to Iran, or their contacts in the Middle East.

“I took a lot of time to consider what I was doing but, at the end of the day, I had to do it to be able to be a voice for the people of my motherland,” said Tavacoli.

A digital bridge from Kansas City to Tehran

Getting accurate or unbiased information on the protest from Iranian state media is almost impossible. Recent false reports of the government disbanding the morality police is an example of that.

Instead, Amani and Tavacoli use social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter to keep up with real-time information, build networks with dissidents inside and out of the country, and to show solidarity and provide support to protesters.

It's also how the two found each other last September.

“We were completely strangers before this. I saw what she was posting about the ongoing Iranian protest and followed her,” said Tavacoli. “We met in person attending the Country Club Plaza protest.”

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Mercedeh Tavacoli
Mural depicting Mahsa Amini painted by local artist Chico Sierra. Its on the corner of 30th and Cherry in midtown.

“For 17 weeks straight, we’ve been out there every Saturday trying to bring awareness to the revolution. If they can risk their lives everyday (in Iran), we can come out once a week for two hours to show support,” she said.

Amani has also connected with prominent Iranian-American comedian and activist Max Amini, who she has helped with translations and transcriptions in Farsi, their native language.

“Azzie has helped me prepare interviews with key Iranian influencers like Ali Karimi and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi,” said Amini.

Pahlavi is the son of the former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979. Karimi, an Iranian soccer legend, has received death threats from the government for supporting the protests, according to reports from CNN.

“He’s a fighter and a voice for the people of Iran,” said Amini. “The regime doesn’t like this”

Generating support locally

International students in the region have also heard Amani and Tavacoli’s online messaging. Iranians from Omaha, Nebraska, Columbia, Missouri, and Manhattan, Kansas, have all driven to Kansas City to participate in weekly protests at the Plaza.

Both hope the next rally will be their biggest yet.

On Sunday, Jan. 8, she and Tavacoli will join with local Ukrainian refugees to commemorate the third anniversary of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 being shot down by Iranian anti-aircraft missiles.

“Just so you know how united this movement has become, my friends lost loved ones on Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752,” said Amani. “It's global, and they have taken part in the protest with other families that lost their loved ones on the same flight.”

They have also collaborated with local artist Chico Sierra, who painted a mural at 30th and Cherry streets in solidarity.

“We've had two billboards up in Kansas City, along I-35 going northbound and southbound,” Amani said.

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Azzie Amani
Billboard with the protest slogan along I-35 and Lamar Avenue.

As protests drag on in Iran, Tavacoli and Amani will continue to look for new ways to expand the movement and keep it actively on the minds of Americans and Iranians across the globe.

They’ve started a GoFundMe page to raise funds and cover expenses for future advertising and protests.
Last week, the uprising passed its 100th day. But the pair says they will continue to raise their voices in protest, until the current Iranian government steps down.

“The Iranian regime is at war with its own people and is absolutely not reformable,” Amani said. “Stop saving this regime that has terrorized people and its neighbors for 44 years.”

I want to provide nuance and context to the political, cultural and sociological issues that divide us. After a decade with the U.S. Navy as an engineer, sailing to four continents and many island nations, I strive to show humanity’s many similarities instead of our perceived differences. I’m a passionate lifelong learner eager to cover whatever comes my way.
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