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The Telegram Channel that Helps Find Missing Children

April 13, 2018
Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
7 min read
Ms. Karimi's charity and her volunteers receive at least one or two appeals to help locate missing children each day
Ms. Karimi's charity and her volunteers receive at least one or two appeals to help locate missing children each day
Yeganeh Yunesi was found six years after she was abducted
Yeganeh Yunesi was found six years after she was abducted
Donya Elmi was kidnapped from the yard of her home in 2015
Donya Elmi was kidnapped from the yard of her home in 2015
The family of Donya Elmi, who was abducted in 2015, has not moved her tricycle from the place she left it in the yard outside their house
The family of Donya Elmi, who was abducted in 2015, has not moved her tricycle from the place she left it in the yard outside their house
Donya Elmi’s parents appeal to the police regularly, but so far no trace of their abducted daughter has been found
Donya Elmi’s parents appeal to the police regularly, but so far no trace of their abducted daughter has been found

During the second week of April, the families of six children who went missing from the town of Garmsar posted photographs online, appealing to the public to help find them. Along with the photographs, the families posted phone numbers and offered rewards for the return of their loved ones. 

The children went missing at the same time from the same square in Garmsar, which lies 95 kilometers southeast of Tehran. 

A few days later, all six children were found at a park in Tehran. The provincial police chief confirmed that the children had indeed gone missing, but the police statement stated they had run away from home of their own free will, setting off to make money by panhandling in the capital. 

The police statement failed to explain how a four-year-old child could escape his or her home and travel to Tehran without the involvement of someone else — most likely panhandling gangs, which are a persistent problem in the capital.

Unfortunately, close to 90 percent of children who go missing do not meet the same happy ending as that of the six children who returned home to Garmsar. Children go missing all over the world, and large numbers of them never return home. Reports say that in Europe alone, one child goes missing every minute and the number of missing children in the United States is significant as well. According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, as of December 31, 2017, there were 88,089 active missing person records, of which juveniles under the age of 18 account for 32,121 (36.5 percent).

These statistics show that if missing children are not found — whether by police, families, or other groups — and returned to their families within a reasonable amount of time, it usually means they have either been murdered or kidnapped. Children might be kidnapped for a variety of reasons or motives, including personal vendettas, people using them to make money as part of panhandling operations, child trafficking, or ransom. In some cases, there have been cases where couples who cannot have children of their own have kidnapped a child. Most horrific of all, sometimes children are kidnapped by people who intend to sell their organs or body parts.

In Iran, the police annually record around 400 cases of missing children, more than 87 percent of which remain unsolved.     

Police record and follow up on cases of missing children, as do other groups, including the Iranian Red Crescent’s office for reuniting families. This office mainly focuses on finding individuals who have gone missing as a result of natural disasters and war. And various citizens’ volunteer groups help find missing children too, offering a helping hand to families of out of personal or altruistic reasons.

Death on the Backseat

One of these volunteer groups is Ms. Donya Karimi’s Telegram group, which was set up in the summer of 2017 after the tragic and heartbreaking story of an Iranian baby girl hit the headlines. On July 20 of that year, a father left an eight-month-old baby girl in the backseat of his car while he searched for a parking spot when thieves stole his unlocked car. The baby's body was found six days later, in  the same car, in the same backseat. The carjackers had left the car on a street corner and she had died of thirst and hunger.

Following the incident, Karimi was determined to play her part to help find missing children, and set up a Telegram channel to facilitate this. Soon the charity attracted many volunteers to support its work. Since she set up the charity and the Telegram channel, Karimi says she receives at least one or two pleas from the families of missing children every day. And the charity and its channel not only deals with children who have recently gone missing, its volunteers have also been trying to put together an archive of all children who have gone missing since 1950.

Karimi and her volunteers have had some success. Most of the people who appeal to the charity are family members of missing children, those who have grown up in the Welfare Organization’s centers for abandoned children, or parents who years earlier had given up their children for a range of reasons.

Recently, two young women who were born in Iran to an Iranian mother and Afghan father, and who later moved to Afghanistan with their father, sought the help of the group to locate their mother’s family, although their mother had passed away. The group was successful in finding the family and the two women traveled to Iran to meet with them.

Sometimes, the stories of missing children take unexpected twists and turns. One such story is that of Yeganeh Yunesi, who was abducted at the age of two and a half. At 2pm on January 25, 2012, Yeganeh’s mother, a teacher in the city of Khorramshahr, was walking down a street carrying a heavy shopping basket, accompanied by her two daughters, Yeganeh and Mobina. A short distance from their home, a Peugeot stopped alongside the girls, and a woman sitting in the back of the car holding a baby in her arms reached out and grabbed Yeganeh, pulling her into the car. Her sister and mother watched the whole ordeal, but were unable to save her from being taken. 


Baby as Loan Payment

Throughout all these years, Yeganeh’s mother never gave up. She tried everything to find her daughter. She posted Yeganeh’s photograph on various sites that offered help over and over again. Every time she and her family received a phone call about a possible sighting, they traveled to wherever that person said they thought they saw Yeganeh, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles. Six times they travelled to Mashhad and scores of times to Tehran. One tip they received even sent them looking for her in Malaysia.

Eventually, a family in the city of Rey, near Tehran, contacted them. Six years prior to this, the family had agreed to adopt a baby girl as payment for money someone owed them. They named her Roghieh. But when they saw her photograph online, they noticed how much Roghieh resembled Yeganeh, and that’s when they got in touch with Yeganeh’s mother. A DNA test proved their hunch, and Yeganeh has now been returned to her biological family.

But 90 percent of missing children are not as lucky as Yeganeh Yunesi and her family. Donya Elmi was three years and seven months old when she was abducted in the summer of 2015 from her home in the Caspian port city of Bandar Anzali. “Donya was riding her tricycle in our yard,” her mother Zahra Mirzaei told IranWire. “I picked her up and washed her face and her hands. She insisted that I put her down so she could continue playing on her tricycle. Our yard was secure and, without a second thought, I went to the kitchen to make a pitcher of ice water. It did not take more than a few minutes, but when I returned she was nowhere to be found. The door to the outside was half open but Donya was not there. I was sure that in my absence she had not stepped out on her own because I had impressed on her that it is was not safe to go out. I had scared her about passing motorbikes and the possibility of an accident. I rushed into the alleyway. Still, no Donya. I immediately called my husband’s office. They came, and with the help of police and neighbors, searched the whole area, but could not find Donya."

Donya’s father says he just wants his daughter back, and that he promises not to take any action against whoever took her. “I will not file a complaint against the kidnappers,” Rahman Elmi says. “I will give them everything that I have, if they would only return our child to us.” He says he's dissatisfied with the police, who have failed to find a single clue about Donya and her disappearance. “Every few days we go to the police investigation department and they say that my daughter’s case is under investigation,” he says. “And each time we return home more desperate than before.”

The Elmi family’s life stopped at around 11:30am on August 11, 2015. Every trace of happiness disappeared along with Donya. Every morning when her parents wake up, their only hope is that their beloved daughter will be returned to them so that their lives can start again. 


More on the impact of Telegram on Iranian society and politics:

Clashes Make Telegram a Hot Topic — Again, February 2018

Alternatives to Telegram or a Security Trap?, February 2018

A Messaging App That Can Change Iran, May 2017

Judiciary Blocks Telegram Voice Calls, April 2017

Fears for Activists and Journalists as Telegram Still Popular in Iran, September 2016

Iran’s Filtering Committee tells Telegram: Follow Our Demands or You’ll be “Removed”, February 2016



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