The news that Iran threatened the families of its World Cup soccer team, which refused to sing the national anthem, came as no surprise to Shabnam Goli.
When Goli was one, she was arrested. She and her mother spent a night in an Iranian jail for being at a birthday party where men were present.
The Iranian soccer players’ defiance represents the latest in a series of challenges to the Iranian regime. The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September sparked protests across Iran after Iranian morality police arrested her for wearing her hijab head covering improperly.
Such brutality resonates with Goli, 38, now a University of Florida alumna and founding member of the UF Iranian Students Association.
“Just imagine this burden,” Goli said. “I have talked to a lot of my students and faculty I work with and nobody can focus.
“We are watching our people getting killed on the streets. How can we get back to work and have a normal life?”
Iran’s team lost to the U.S. in a World Cup match Tuesday and was eliminated from the tournament. Goli hopes the world does not lose attention to the struggles of protesters in Iran.
“I have had friends that were killed by the morality police,” Goli said. “I have been arrested many times. I was severely oppressed, and I was humiliated so many times.
“Every time it is scary. They beat you, they insult you, and they call you the worst names you have ever heard,” she said.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought severe scrutiny of women and restricted numerous human rights. The revolution set a precedent that allowed the morality police to arrest, beat and verbally abuse citizens of any age who violated the rules of conduct.
UF Iranian Students Association Treasurer and chemistry doctoral student Niloofar Gopal Pour said the situation in her homeland is getting worse.
Gopal Pour, 30, said her 14-year-old sister is barely able to get in contact with her from Iran due to the country’s internet restrictions.
“I am so worried because they are arresting high school girls and boys who fight back against the regime,” she said.
Iran’s leadership uses these brutal tactics to maintain its theocratic republic governed by an authoritarian regime based on Islamic religion.
An Iranian UF professor who asked to be called by a pseudonym for fear of reprisals against his family in Iran, said the country’s leadership kills in the name of religion.
“Shivad” said during the final year of his bachelor’s degree in Iran, the police killed 200 students at his campus and threw tear gas in the dormitories to suppress protests against the regime.
“I grew up in this corrupt, dirty system that had me beaten many times for speaking against the oppression of my sisters,” he said.
“I told myself I would never stay in that country for any price. I had to leave.”
Shivad said no matter how much an Iranian citizen contributes to the country, the moment anyone speaks against the regime, their citizenship is degraded.
“For them, we are the enemy when we go home again,” he said. “I cannot be caught supporting this movement on social media or elsewhere for fear of what they will do to my family who is innocent.”
While Americans may think the threats are contained in Iran, Goli and Shivad said their safety in the U.S. could be compromised at any time.
Shivad said Iranians are stationed in the U.S. by their government to report on citizens who speak against the regime.
“We have a good community of people here, but we can’t even trust who is who,” Goli said.
“There was always this big fear that the Iranian government has people in the U.S., and people were scared of telling the truth of what we think about the government,” she said.
Goli said her graduate research at UF was focused on Iranian immigration and included political content, but it was not published because of her advising committee’s “fear for her life.”
“Even from inside Iran they say that they could kill you in the U.S., and it would be easy for them,” Goli said. “It’s insane.”
“The point is, anyone who can think and can analyze and has a voice – they don’t want us. They want us quiet.
“Now, I have something to say. And I will make sure I say it.”
As an Instagram influencer with nearly 82,000 followers, Goli said she is using her fitness-themed account to spread awareness and put the fear away.
“What happened to me as a kid since I was one year old needs to stop,” she said.
“If people can hear about this, then maybe the next time they see an Iranian they can simply ask how we are and how we are dealing with this killing of our families and people on the streets. That conversation is really valuable.”
She said in her eight years at UF as a student and instructor, she received many racist reactions to her nationality from students. However, she said the faculty and staff at UF supported her with opportunities to work and sensitivity.
“I will forever be thankful to the UF School of Music staff and faculty,” Goli said. “I am who I am today because they gave me this opportunity.
“When I came to the U.S. in 2011, I thought, ‘This is the free world.’ In the free world I can do what I have a passion for.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran reported that in 2021, there were roughly 1.5 million Iranian-born Iranian Americans residing in the U.S.
UF International Center Data Management Analyst Yanina Morero said as of this fall, the university has approximately 4,970 international students enrolled, of which 82 are Iranian.
Marta Wayne, the dean of the UF International Center, said it is important to her the center prioritizes international students who are impacted by crises in their homeland or culture.
She said the center supports students who are dealing with the effects of international crises by reaching out to them and reminding them where to find resources and support on campus.
Wayne said she wants Iranian students who are coping with the effects of international turmoil and concern during the Iranian movement to “feel seen” with concern and support.
UF Iranian Students Association member Mahsan Farzaneh said she and her husband, the association’s social chairman, enjoy holding cultural events.
“We want to help each other and make a place where students who are not familiar with the culture (and experiencing shock can) find friends,” she said.
“The best way for them to connect with people who have shared experience is with other Iranian students through ISA.”
Farzaneh, 34, came to the States from Iran with her husband in 2017 for graduate school at the University of North Texas. Now studying for her doctorate in mechanical engineering at UF, she wants to create opportunities for UF students to learn more about different cultures.
The association’s next cultural event on campus will be held on Dec. 21 to celebrate Yalda Night, the longest night of the year. Farzaneh said she expects over 100 students will attend the event.
Gopal Pour said one of the main goals of the association is to make Iranian students feel they are not alone during these holidays that are normally celebrated with family back home. This is incredibly important during such emotional periods where the results of the humanitarian protests in Iran remain unknown.
“We are a large family altogether,” Gopal Pour said.
Goli said the perspective of the oppression and killing of Iranian people being on the other side of the world with nothing we can do about it is wrong.
“We can talk about it. That is going to change so many things.”