This Cambridge Life

The student linguist who started a pro-refugee fashion revolution

Tiara in the gardens at Robinson College

Tiara in the gardens at Robinson College

Tiara in the gardens at Robinson College

Tiara Sahar Ataii has just been named Undergraduate of the Year for Impactful Social Action. She shares how her love of languages and exploration of her Iranian roots took her on unexpected paths, and led her to found a charity using fashion to fund legal aid for refugees.

I thought my future lay in classical music. I attended the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music for three years while I was at school and initially, I was offered a place to study music at Cambridge.

But during my gap year my focus changed. For some time I’d wanted to become more in touch with my Iranian roots, and I’d started learning how to read and write in Farsi, to complement my spoken Farsi.

I decided to go to Calais to volunteer as an interpreter in one of the camps. There, I was confronted with how much privilege I had, simply through an accident of fate whereby my parents had decided to emigrate to the UK in their twenties. As a result, I’d had a really stable and comfortable upbringing in safety and security.

Before visiting the camps, I’d had a general belief in justice. I thought that people who had been subjected to some sort of perversion of justice would generally come to some sort of resolution. I realised that was grossly wrong. Only two law students seemed to be available to help over ten thousand people. It seemed unfathomable to me that anyone would be able to be advocated for, in order to avoid these entirely avoidable miscarriages of justice, with so few trained professionals on the ground. Even as a 19-year-old I thought, “this is dysfunctional, this is crazy”. I felt it was appalling that this was the best we could do.

I realised that my career lay elsewhere – not in classical music. I was invigorated to think about the humanitarian sector and also to understand more about the region I come from. I decided to study Modern and Medieval languages with Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. It’s been a great choice and I’ve had a fantastic time.

Over the Christmas break of my first year I went out to Chios in Greece to volunteer at the refugee camp there. It was freezing, with temperatures below zero. The tents the refugees were sleeping in froze so they were more like igloos. I was shocked that people were living in such terrible conditions, but even more shocking was that this seemed to be accepted by all parties involved.

The few lawyers who were there didn’t have enough interpreters, “Look, it’s either you or Google Translate” I was told, when I tried to explain I wasn’t a trained interpreter, though a native Farsi speaker. Even though I was just an undergraduate student, I realised I was the best solution they had at that point.

Legal aid is the route to citizenship and therefore a safe and secure future. It’s the most dignified aid you can give, since it means that those who have been forcibly displaced can take advantage of education and healthcare as inalienable rights, and not as charity.  It therefore means that a narrative of gratitude is not necessary – we often hear narratives around refugees being ‘hardworking’ and ‘good people’ and being ‘so thankful’ for being accepted into a new country. But you shouldn’t have to be a good or nice person to live in safety and peace.

Tiara gives a TEDx talk on her experiences in Chios in Greece and how this led her to set up SolidariTee.

When I returned to Cambridge, I decided I wanted to spark conversations around the plight of refugees, show solidarity with their situation, and raise funds for lawyers and translators in the camps. I remember thinking: “what if people could wear their morals, what if we could create a wash of solidarity, what if I could normalise pro-refugee support?” I realised a fashion statement could be a gateway into talking about these issues, with the money raised from clothing sales going to fund legal aid for refugees in the camps.

I did a mock-up on my laptop of a pro-refugee slogan and used my student loan to get this printed on 600 T-shirts which I got delivered to the Porters Lodge at Robinson College. The Porters were in disbelief. Had I anticipated it would take up my entire dorm room I may not have printed so many. But at that point I just needed to sell them, to at least get my room back.

Amazingly the T-shirts sold really quickly. I think it was just the right moment for something of that kind. People were really frustrated by what they were seeing on the news, about the the dire conditions asylum seekers were forced to live in, but which they couldn’t do anything about, and they also wanted to see their money being used well.

I would deliver the T-shirts to students’ pigeon-holes by bike. I was cycling around Cambridge with T-shirts hanging off each handlebar, T-shirts in my bike basket, T-shirts in my backpack, and I even had this cloth laundry bag which I would hang over my back like a knapsack.

After that, things just grew and grew. That summer we recruited 11 universities from around the UK to be involved in the initiative which we called SolidariTee. Each summer, we recruited more. We now have just under 60 universities involved, in what is the largest student-led charity, fighting for change in the refugee crisis. We raise awareness of the crisis and offer grants to NGOs and individuals.

One thing we’ve pioneered is that we’ve never shown a photo of the faces of refugees or asylum seekers. It shouldn’t matter what someone looks like, all that mattes should be core values of human decency and human rights. We didn’t want to use people’s faces in an exploitative or tokenistic way.

And in a way the real face of the refugee crisis is us in the West, as we’re the ones who seem to have a crisis of compassion. People seeking refuge have been crossing borders for millennia and it never was a problem, until we put the label ‘crisis’ on it. We need to stop seeing the problem as the refugees, and start to see the problem as our own mismanagement.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an increased level of threat for refugees in camps. The camps are full and the normal preventative measures to avoid viral transmission are incredibly difficult to achieve. We launched our COVID-19 Emergency Fund in March to support NGOs working to protect the health of refugees during the pandemic.

This year I handed over SolidariTee to the next generation of students, led by the amazing Alexa Netty (Magdalene 2015). While it was in some ways difficult to step back, I know our strength lies in fresh thinking. As students we are able to rethink structures and establish new ways of doing things, we can experiment and see what works.

I now work at the UN in humanitarian programming but am still a trustee of SolidariTee and this year was named Undergraduate of the Year (UGOTY) for Impactful Social Action. SolidariTee’s raison d’être has always been to empower students to be the change that they want to see, and therefore to have won the UGOTY Impactful Social Action award is such wonderful confirmation for our hundreds of SolidariTee volunteers across the country, that we can, and will, have a positive impact on social issues we care about.

What do I look forward to? I look forward to the day that we begin to see compassion and respect for human rights as an integral part of our national DNA, instead of a stance we adopt when it also suits our political and economic interests. I look forward to the day that human rights are truly inalienable.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life – stories from the people that make Cambridge University unique.

Interview: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Nick Saffell