By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI, March 19 (Reuters) – Like many Iranians, Mahnaz left Iran and settled in a western country 10 years ago after political restrictions in the Islamic Republic made it difficult for her to live and work there.
The family dispersed further when her two sisters followed her abroad two years later in search of better lives.
Now the coronavirus has denied them the chance to reunite in Turkey for the Iranian new year on Friday.
“This virus has further divided us. We had to cancel our annual reunion in Turkey because of the travel limitations and the health concerns about my elderly parents and my young nieces,” said Mahnaz, who cannot visit Iran for political reasons.
“I cannot stop crying. My father might not be alive next year to celebrate Nowruz with us. He is 86 years old.”
Nowruz, or “new day” in Persian, is an ancient celebration and the most important date in the calendar, when families gather and exchange gifts.
But the coronavirus has overshadowed preparations this year in a country severely hit by the outbreak. There have been 1,284 deaths and 18,407 confirmed cases in Iran so far, overloading hospitals and upending everyday life.
“What Nowruz? People are dying. We have no money and no hope. Every day I pray to God to protect my two children from this virus,” said government employee Reza, who asked that his surname not be used. He and his family live in the city of Shiraz.
With most businesses closed, the outbreak has further battered Iran‘s economy, already suffering under sanctions.
Authorities said around two million Iranians might lose their jobs amid the outbreak.
“We have been very careful and self-isolated since 10 days ago and closed down our company,” said Shoa, 73, a Tehran businessman.
‘I MISS YOU’
For many Iranian families living apart, the past few weeks have brought fear and stress.
“How is mom? Is she ok? I miss you all,” Firouzeh Bagheri wrote on the family chat group on Telegram. A 58-year-old retired engineer, she left Tehran 35 years ago and has since lived in Germany.
“God, please give me the chance to see my mother. How can I celebrate Nowruz when my country and the world is mourning?” she said.
Almost all flights have been suspended to and from Iran.
A 35-year-old Iranian who works in finance in the United Arab Emirates said his mother was due to visit him to celebrate Nowruz on Feb. 27, three days after flights from Tehran were cancelled. The UAE has temporarily banned foreigners from entering the country.
“It was only recently that she got her passport; we got her a visitor’s visa and booked the flight. Then came coronavirus. I don’t know when I will be able to see her again.”
But despite warnings by the authorities against travelling, state TV showed heavy traffic on roads leading to the Caspian coast, a favourite destination during the Nowruz holidays.
“As usual, only a small number of people trust the government, which means many go about their lives as before,” said painter Farzan, 44, who lives near Karaj.
On social media, Iranians post videos of themselves dancing to traditional Persian music. One video showed people clapping and singing from their windows in the northern city of Amol. Others lit torches on a balcony to celebrate the annual new year fire festival.
“What if the situation gets worse and the internet goes down? WhatsApp is the only way I can see my parents,” said Aftab, 24, a student in the United States. “I feel lonely this year in Nowruz.”
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mike Collett-White)