Five days ago I called the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee at Tehran’s District 5 branch and appealed for help. “I am a woman on my own and I cannot pay the expenses of my two sick children,” I told the official who answered the phone. “I went to the Welfare Organization but its medical committee rejected my request. I live with my elderly parents who are both supported by the committee and have no other source of income. My husband was an addict and a few years ago he abandoned us. How can I apply for protection from the committee?”
The response was very disappointing. “You are not legally considered the guardian of the family because you are not divorced,” I was told.
“He abandoned us a few years ago," I repeated. "I am the only one who can provide for my family." But the official replied that before I could apply for help from the committee I must demand a divorce on grounds and prove that I am the family’s guardian. He emphasized that there are many needy people on their list, from orphans and widows to men and women over 70.
The charity was founded in March 1979 on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini. It was one of several charitable organizations set up to provide support for the poor and the “oppressed.” The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei oversees the committee’s work, and also appoints its CEO. The majority of its budget comes from the government, but it also receives contributions from the public, chiefly through their religious dues.
Recently, the committee was the center of a controversy over its large donations outside Iran, including to people in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.
Bread from the Garbage
Sedigheh, a native of the village of Ab Darreh in Landeh county in the southwestern province of Kohgiluyeh, has asked for the committee’s help many times but has never been successful. She says that her family goes for weeks with nothing to eat; they usually have to make do with pieces of stale bread that they find in the garbage bins behind a sandwich shop or a restaurant in the village. In 2013, her mother died of poverty and sickness. She was only 45.
“From a week before my mother died we were hungry day after day,” Sedigheh says. “Sometimes my uncle sent over a piece of bread or a dish of yoghurt. Not that they are any better off but they are covered by the Relief Committee so they have the minimum amount necessary not to die. My mother suffered so much from hunger and she was so worried about me, my younger brother and my addict father that she had a stroke in the middle of the night. She died after three days in a coma and did not have to suffer anymore.”
When her mother died, Sedigheh’s 13-year-brother set out to find a job. “At first he could not find anything because he had a weak constitution and was not fit for manual labor,” she said. “He had to drop out of school because of poverty. My brother loved getting an education and his grades at school were excellent. Several times I took my papers to Landeh’s Relief Committee and they referred us to social workers. I told them everything about our situation — from my brother, whose life is being wasted and whose dreams are being dashed, to my mother’s untimely death because of poverty and deprivation. But they said we did not qualify because my father is alive and he is not in prison.”
Sedigheh says that an encounter with the Relief Committee is nothing like what the media leads people to believe. “They treat you like they are handing out a piece of their own fortune,” she says. “The conditions that social workers demand of women is that you must be the head of the family or you must be divorced. The father must be dead or must be so disabled that he cannot afford to pay the family’s expenses. They don’t understand that an addict father who is plaguing his family and contributes nothing is even worse than a dead father. At least a dead father does not beat you. A dead father does not grab a piece of bread that you have found in the street. For the social workers, unemployment, a terrible financial situation and an addict as the head of the family is not enough to qualify you for help.”
Living on $23 a month
Meysam, 31, lost an eye as a result of a welding accident at work, and he has only 55 percent eyesight in his other eye. He can no longer work as a welder. Since the court ruled that it was his own fault that he lost his eyesight because he did not wear protective goggles, the company he worked for did not have to pay him any damages. It did keep him on for a few months, but then he was fired because he was unable to do his job.
Meysam made do with the meager unemployment benefits for a year and half and, although he tried again and again, he could not find a job as a welder because of his poor eyesight.
So he appealed to the Relief Foundation and, after eight months, it agreed to cover him and give him a monthly stipend of 95,000 tomans, close to $23. “At first they would not accept me,” says Meysam. “They said I was under 50 and that I had 55 percent eyesight in one eye. But, at last, after a lot of persistence and because of medical evidence, they relented and agreed to pay me 95,000 tomans a month, but they rejected my request for a self-employment loan. Even without expenses of utilities and medical treatment, with this money I can only afford to buy a loaf of bread, two eggs and an apple per day, and a one-liter bottle of cooking oil per month. That is all.”
The Gift Basket and Inflation
Nadereh, 39, a divorcée and the mother of two children, aged 17 and 14, has been receiving a monthly stipend of 70,000 tomans, less than $17, from the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation for the past three years. “It was not easy at all,” she says. “They assume everything you say is meant to defraud the committee unless it is proven otherwise. They have promised to increase it to 100,000, but seven months have passed and nothing has happened. They pay the 70,000 tomans, but I get paid for two months every other month.”
Twice a year Nadereh also receives a “gift basket” from the committee. Up to last year the basket included school stationery for her children but this year there was no stationery in the basket. “Inflation” was the reason given. “On top it,” she says, “we also have the problem of medical insurance. People covered by the Relief Committee must go to medical centers that are under contract with the committee — but most medical centers, hospitals and specialist doctors have no such contracts.”
This means that an accident can turn into a disaster. “Last year my son had gone to the yard to hang the carpet to dry,” Nadereh said. “He slipped and three of his front teeth broke. We took him to the dentist but when he came out, he had had all three teech pulled out. I was shocked and protested. They said their contract with the committee did not cover repair and implants. ‘This was all we could do to stop the pain,” they said. ‘You must find another way to do the implants.’ Now for months I have been coming and going but they have done nothing for us. My son is 17 and he has lost all self-confidence. He is even ashamed to talk. The cost of implants is over 10 million tomans” — close to $2,400. She receives 90,000 tomans, around $22, as a cash subsidy from the government, but inflation and high prices make it practically meaningless. “What can I do when a can of tomato paste is 20,000 tomans [almost $4.80]?”
Parviz Fattah, the CEO of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, concedes that the help it provides is meager [Persian link]. He says that the recent runaway inflation has wreaked havoc with its finances. “It is possible,” he says, “that we might fail to get anywhere in this situation and poverty will leave us behind, making those under our care even poorer.”
But, say Sedigheh and Nadereh, “it is possible” is now an irrelevant response. Poverty has already destroyed them.
More on poverty in Iran:
Families and Fishermen Lose Out as Prices Rise, October 1, 2018
Selling Body Parts to Survive, September 19, 2018
Can Iran Survive the Inflation Hike?, August 29, 2018
Living on the Margins in Iran: Bandar Abbas and Hormozgan Province, August 24, 2018
Living on the Margins in Iran: East Azerbaijan, August 23, 2018
Living on the Margins in Iran: An Introduction, July 11, 2018
Iranians Are 15% Poorer than a Decade Ago, January 9, 2018
Please Help Stop the Sale of This Baby Girl, October 5, 2017
More than 40% of Iranian Households Live Below the Poverty Line, October 2, 2017
Child Trafficking by the Truckload, July 7, 2017
Stories From Iran's "Kidney Street", February 28, 2016
Hundreds of Thousands of Tehranis Living In Poverty, June 16, 2015
Wasted Youth: The Hidden Trash Collectors of Tehran, December 2, 2014