Iranians may not observe Christmas, but as much of the West celebrates this year’s holiday season many in Iran are also embracing the spirit of giving, one wall at a time.
The “kindness wall” movement — in which ordinary citizens hang clothes on walls as donations for the homeless during Iran’s cold winter — is picking up across the country, which has long struggled under the weight of economic sanctions imposed by the West over Tehran’s nuclear program.
It’s not clear how or where the movement started, but Iranian newspaper Hamshahri said it likely sprang from one man’s goodwill gesture in a neighborhood in the northwestern city of Mashhad.
The man, who asked to remain anonymous, told the newspaper he had spotted social media reports of similar initiatives in Australia and Europe, and thought he should start a wave of giving in his city. The concept is simple. Someone places clothes hangers on a streetside wall and paints instructions similar to his: “If you don’t need it, leave it. If you need it, take it.”
The initiative took off quickly in Mashhad, and has spread to other major Iranian cities including Isfahan, Kerman, Tabriz and Bandar Abbas. Iranians are also supporting it via Facebook, Instagram and other popular social media websites.
Emad Hashemi, a young Iranian who lives in Qeshm Island, said he learned about the movement on social media, then posted a picture and location of a local “kindness wall” on his Instagram page and wrote, “Friends, whoever has extra clothes can hang them on the kindness wall to not only fulfill their soul, but also help those in need.”
“Thank God, there was a strong support,” Hashemi said.
Amir Sadeghi, a photographer from Tehran, also said he was excited about the growing movement.
“I heard about these walls. In fact, my mom told me about them, and said, ‘Why don’t we have them here?’ I can’t wait to take photographs of them and also help the cause,” he said.
Sadeghi said such grass-roots initiatives create unity among people and bring a sense of joy during tough economic times.
“It’s so cold now — especially in Tehran — and with these high prices and economic hardship, it’s just so beautiful to see these gestures, even if it’s a small project or may only help a few people,” Sadeghi said.
In Iran, government agencies have long been the primary source of support for the homeless and others in need. Most shelters, orphanages and drug-rehabilitation centers are funded and run through official or semi-officials channels.
However, “the government budget is absolutely limited and there is no strong infrastructure for a sustainable and strong support,” said Mohsen Nemati, a 32-year-old businessman who works in the medical device industry. Like many of his friends, he has volunteered for privately funded charities that mainly provide support for children and women in need.
“Nowdays, you see more private charities, NGOs and groups setting up humanitarian and grass-roots initiatives to help those in need,” he said. “We can’t just rely on government support, because it’s not enough.”
Data on Iran’s homeless and poor populations is incomplete. In May, Vice President for Women’s Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi warned of a rise in homelessness among women.
“We are efforting to have a more analytical approach and be able to address these issues in a tangible way — ways we can evaluate them properly,” Molaverdi told the semiofficial ILNA news agency, estimating that women comprise a third of the 15,000 homeless individuals reported by the government across all of Iran.
Nemati suggested that the actual number is far higher, but hard figures remain difficult to come by.
Anoushiravan Mohseni Bandpey, director of Iran’s government Welfare Organization, announced this week that 450 homeless women from Tehran are now being given shelter in a government-funded camp, and that almost half of Tehran’s female homeless population has migrated to the capital from smaller cities and rural areas.
According to a World Bank report, as of 2005, the latest year for which the bank provided hard data, Iran’s poverty level was 1.45 percent of the population, using a poverty line of $1.25 per day. The report estimated that only 0.7 percent of the population — about half a million people — lived under that line in 2010, “although a large proportion of people are living close to it.”
For the past decade Iran has undergone severe economic hardship due to international sanctions imposed by Western countries over it’s controversial nuclear program. In July, a final accord between Tehran and six world powers, including the United States, led to an agreement that will result in a lifting of those economic sanctions.
“Hopefully things will getter better,” Nemati said. “When it does, it will be good for everyone, but mainly the working class.”