Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's freedom celebrated on her high street

North London community 'overjoyed' at the prospect of welcoming her home

For one group of locals in London's Hampstead district, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s return from a six-year ordeal in Iran resonates with personal implications.

The Iranian-born staff at the Moto Green bike shop are looking forward to spotting the aid worker in the leafy Fortune Green park that sits alongside her apartment block.

They join others in the north London community who are “overjoyed” at the prospect of welcoming her home, after she touched down in the UK six years to the day since she set off to Iran on holiday.

Maryam Soltani, 27, a cashier at a store in West Hampstead, said the detention of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has made her wary of returning to Iran, and the Tehran native welcomed the “great news” about the aid worker's release.

Members of the press waiting outside the home of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and husband Richard in London. EPA

“Our Persian customers told us yesterday and I am happy for her because she can now come back to her family. She’s a wife and a mother and now she can be with her husband and daughter.”

Her colleague Hamid Nazari from Shiraz, 900 kilometres south of Tehran, said he felt “very happy” about the release of the local woman.

The British-Iranian citizen arrived back in the UK shortly after 1am on Thursday, March 17 — the same date she flew to Tehran in 2016 to introduce her 22-month-old daughter Gabriella to her parents.

Gabriella, now 7, ran towards her and was greeted with hugs and kisses as her mother, abashed, told her daughter that she had been travelling without a change of clothes for almost 24 hours. It had been two-and-a-half years since they had last seen each other, when Gabriella was allowed by the regime to leave Tehran to join her father in England.

Anoosheh Ashoori, another dual citizen, was also released and reunited with his family at RAF Brize Norton airbase in Oxfordshire. The two families waited at the sparsely furnished military-run terminal building and gingerly approached their returning relatives as they arrived on their special flight.

In a video shot as the plane came to a stop, Gabriella and Mr Ashoori's daughter Elika talked about their excitement at seeing their parents face-to-face after such a long separation.

Residents in Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s West Hampstead neighbourhood told The National the reunion was a happy end to a “devastating” situation.

Iranian authorities, after arresting Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe at Tehran airport while she was trying to board a flight back to the UK, alleged that the mother-of-one had been plotting to topple the government, which she strongly denied. She was sentenced to five years in prison, some of that in solitary confinement, on charges that “remain secret”.

Father Jonathan Kester, Anglican parish priest at Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead, with Hollie Thomas and her 21-month-old son Bobby Cooper. Father Kester and Ms Thomas welcomed the news that local woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had come home. Laura O'Callaghan / The National

In April 2021, after spending the final year of her term effectively under house arrest at her parents’ Tehran home, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was handed a further year of detention and a one-year travel ban, after being found guilty of propaganda against the Iranian government.

People in the north London neighbourhood where Mr Ratcliffe and his daughter live say plans for a welcome-home celebration fare already in the pipeline.

Hollie Thomas, a mother-of-two who lives close to the family, welcomed the news of her release and praised Richard Ratcliffe for “campaigning and working so hard” to highlight the plight of his wife.

“It’s great news,” she said. “I remember reading the story a few years ago and it was awful.

“I felt devastated for her being separated from her daughter. I cannot imagine it. She deserves a huge celebration for what she’s gone through.”

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe speaks to her daughter Gabriella, after landing at RAF Brize Norton. EPA

Jonathan Kester, Anglican parish priest at Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead, said he and his congregation had for six years been praying for the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family and offering practical support.

Members offered moral support to Mr Ratcliffe during his 21-day hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London last year and attended prayer services and carol singing outside No 10 Downing Street.

He told The National he felt “overjoyed” when local MP Tulip Siddiq broke the news on Wednesday, but did not feel Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release was a done deal until she had left Iran.

“Even when she was at Tehran airport under the care of the Revolutionary Guard, we were still only cautiously optimistic,” he said.

“The community here have been offering support to Richard. We’ve been praying for him but it’s important that you also offer practical support as well as prayer.

“When he was doing the hunger strike, we made sure there was always somebody with him, sleeping in another tent.

“Lots of members of the community have come here asking how can we help in some way.”

A photo of the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family has for years been displayed at the front of the church, near the altar, as a constant reminder to worshippers of how close to home the diplomatic dispute has been.

A message on the poster reads: “We pray earnestly for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from the community of West Hampstead, in prison in Iran since April 3, 2016, for her daughter, Gabriella, and husband, Richard.”

In light of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release, Father Kester said he would need to replace the sign with a message of thanksgiving for the community's answered prayers.

“It’s time to change the message now to one of gratitude,” he said.

Jonathan Kester beside a photo of the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family. He and his congregation had been praying for them for six years. Laura O'Callaghan / The National

Having waged a long campaign that included two hunger strikes and many ups and downs, Mr Ratcliffe says he is looking forward to life together as a family, doing ordinary things such as tidying their home and making cups of tea.

Rebecca, his sister, said the couple had slept with Gabriella between them for the first time in six years while staying at an undisclosed location overnight. The family are aware that the challenge ahead will be to adjust to a new life together after the trauma experienced by each of them.

“They’re not going to go back to where they were before,” she said. “They’re never going to be a normal family. They’ve been living apart for such a long time. There’s an element of having these normal experiences they haven’t been able to: going swimming together, going to supermarkets, going for walks, all those things that the rest of us take for granted.”

Also at Brize Norton was Liz Truss, the fourth UK foreign secretary who has worked on the detention of the UK dual citizens since 2016. Ms Truss took office last year and has won praise for her grip on the issues presented by the Iranians during the negotiations, including the demand for repayment to Iran of a near £400 million ($523m) deposit for UK tanks in the 1970s.

Ms Truss spoke to the families during the reunion and expressed her joy they had been brought back together. “It’s been very emotional, but also a really happy moment for the families, and I’m pleased to say that both Nazanin and Anoosheh are in good spirits and they’re safe and well back here in Britain,” she said.

Updated: March 17, 2022, 4:52 PM
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