His mother Zahra was murdered in front of 300 people, by his father Zia. But 28-year-old Arman Abrahimzadeh, recently named Young South Australian of the Year, has turned his family’s tragedy into a way to help others.
It had never been good, but now it was worse than ever. Their father, armed with a knife was threatening to kill them all. This time, he meant it. This time, they had to run for their lives and they didn’t have long to do it.
The relationship wasn’t always marred with violence. Ziaollah, an Afghan known to the family as Zia, met Zahra in her native Iran. He was in his late 20s, she in her late teens. Following a whirlwind romance, they wed in 1985 before moving to Australia in 1997 with their children Arman, then 10, and his sister, Atena, 11. Another sister, Anita was born in 1997.
“Dad’s family was here and he believed it was a country that offered a superior education system and more opportunities,” Arman says. But with no English and no friends, Arman hated his new country. He felt outcast and isolated, a feeling that manifested in depression and took at least a year to subside. When he finally made friends and visited their homes, he noticed the marked difference in how their fathers treated their wives.
“He wrenched open the knife drawer... he kept screaming that he was going to kill us."
“I had never seen affection at home from Dad,” he recalls. “It was completely foreign to me.” But to the outside world, Zia was a religious leader and pillar of the community. “He had studied law and had a very sharp mind,” Arman says. “He worked with migrants in the not-for-profit sector. They loved him.” But at home, Zia was a very different man.
Arman reels off dark examples of his father’s violence, harrowing memories that form a nightmare kaleidoscope of his youth. The violence was so extreme, so constant that Zahra and the children learned to normalise it.
“The reality was that there was absolutely nothing normal about any of it, but we came to regard it as just part of our life,” Arman says. “It was our means of self-protection, the only way we knew how to cope. We told no-one outside the home what was going on. Mum acted differently when Dad was around; she pretended everything was OK. Mum was a beautiful person, inside and out and her greatest fear was for our safety, not her own.”
Zia wasn’t tall, but he intimidated his family with mental games. He decimated their confidence. The psychological abuse was shocking, but the physical abuse was worse. Arman counts the occasions on his fingers: the time that his father “beat the shit out of Mum” and Anita watched, cowering in terror. Arman was 12 years old; Anita just 2. The time Zia kicked Zahra, repeatedly as she lay on the ground, unconscious and refused to let them get her medical help. The time he dragged her by her hair along the hallway. The time he shoved her through a window, her lacerations bleeding profusely.
The times he beat Arman, or took to Atena with his belt. The blood that saturated the floors and furniture and their mother forced to clean up the mess; the constant fear, like a rancid taste in their mouths; the negative energy that permeated the household and stole all joy.
But the moment the family had to flee was, for them all, pivotal; their last chance to escape the brutality. On a late, hot February day in 2009, Zia, in a mad rage threatened to kill them all. “He ran to the kitchen and wrenched open the knife drawer,” Arman remembers. “Atena and I tried to wrestle him and he kept screaming that he was going to kill us.”
When they finally calmed Zia down, he snarled at them that when they weren’t watching, he was going to lock them all inside and burn the house down. They couldn’t, he warned, watch him 24/7. They understood, this time with a chilling clarity that he meant it; that he would kill them. It was time to run.
“Dad went to work the next morning and Mum made the decision that we had to go,” Arman says. “We were all supportive of that decision; we knew it was the right thing to do. Sure, it’s easier said than done but we were more isolated in our own home than we were outside it.”
With only time to pack what they needed to wear, two days later they left behind all their material possessions. “Safety was our primary concern,” Arman says. “When you run for your life, you literally run for your life. We had no idea where we were going to. We couldn’t go interstate as it would have created custody issues with my youngest sister. So we were trapped in South Australia.”
With no confidence that a restraining order would keep her husband at bay (a lack of confidence Arman shares) Zahra went straight to the police, who advised them that someone would be in touch with emergency accommodation. “We spent three months in a safe house run by the Central Domestic Violence Service but we always looked over our shoulders,” Arman admits.
“I saw Mum lying in a pool of her own blood. This sight hasn’t left me.”
Memories of those days are still raw. “We faced homelessness, poverty and isolation,” he says. “When you’re all alone, the smallest task can be seen as mammoth. But we pushed through.”
During the 12 months the family spent on the run, they were necessarily mindful of who they were in contact with, and the information they shared with people. “Our entire focus, really was to suppress our presence in the public as best we could,” Arman says.
But they couldn’t stop Zia looking for them. Through that long year, he continued to stalk his family, securing visitation rights to Anita, through whom he relayed threats that he would kill her mother for leaving him.
“Through it all, Mum was so brave and determined to keep us safe,” Arman says. But tragically, she couldn’t keep herself safe from her ex-husband. Humiliated and enraged that Zahra had dared to leave him and take his children, Zia plotted his revenge.
“He was hell-bent on killing Mum,” Arman says. “Nothing was going to stop him. Right to the end, he was making calculated moves to get to her. He worked behind the scenes to reach his goal. And he finally succeeded.”
In March, 2010, Zahra and Atena were enjoying a rare night out together on Persian New Year’s Eve at the Adelaide Convention Centre. Exploiting a loophole in the law and knowing Zahra was at the event, Zia casually walked into the centre and shortly after, ran behind where Zahra was seated, brandishing a knife. In front of Atena and a horrified 300 onlookers, he stabbed Zahra eight times in the torso, neck and chest, continuing to plunge the knife even as she fell forward.
"We saw this murder coming and it could have been stopped."
The ferocity of the frenzied attack was matched only by the stealth and speed with which Zia executed it. He stopped only when restrained by guests.
When Arman received a phone call that his mother had been attacked, he rushed straight to the venue. “I was trying to get into the room where it had happened,” he says. “The crowd was rushing to get out, pushing past me and I could hear people screaming and sobbing. All I wanted to do was to get inside that room and see if mum was OK.”
She wasn’t. The sight that greeted Arman continues to haunt him. “When I got there, I saw Mum lying in a pool of her own blood. This sight hasn’t left me and in nightmares, when I recall it, it still makes me tremble.”
Arman had the heartbreaking task of identifying his beloved mother’s body at the hospital. “Blood was seeping through the white sheets that covered her lifeless body,” he recalls. “The ventilator was still taped to the side of her mouth. It was truly shocking.”
Zahra was just 44 years old. It was her birthday.
At Zia’s trial, Justice John Sulan noted Zia had been both an abusive husband and father who had relentlessly sought revenge on Zahra because she refused to stop divorce proceedings. Courageously, all three children – whom the judge praised as impressive witnesses - testified against their father; a move that prompted Zia to change his plea to guilty.
"Your continued denial of your behaviour demonstrates your lack of remorse,” Justice Sulan admonished Zia. Describing his actions as ‘premeditated and deliberate’, he said that Zia was “prepared to have counsel cross-examine your children to suggest that they were lying”.
While Atena articulated that she had felt unable to protect her mother during the verbal and physical assaults, Arman handed a savage salvo to the system that had let them all down: “The agonising and searing pain that this coward has caused us is one that will last a lifetime," he said outside court. “The malicious nature and character of the criminal is one thing, but the actual fact is that this murder could have been prevented. We saw this murder coming and it could have been stopped by authorities.
“When you run for your life, you literally run for your life.”
"Today is just another day where the system failed to protect a brave woman, a caring friend and a loving mother. Regardless of the sentence, nothing will ever bring my mother back, nor will it give us any form of closure on this horrific chapter of our lives."
He added that despite going into hiding, the family had not received enough help from authorities. "It obviously goes back to the restraining order that was put in place and also my father being flagged in the system, [but] he was never questioned about the threats," he said.
Sentenced to 26 years in prison, Zia wrote Arman a defensive 10-page letter that painted himself as the victim. Purporting to seek forgiveness, it was instead a self-pitying justification for what led him to murder.
“Do you think that I deserved to suffer so much punishment because I married an Iranian woman?” he wrote. “I suffered 25 years of sarcasms, verbal abuses, belittlements, false accusations, threats and eventually I was robbed off [sic] all the hard earnings for 35 years of work; these included being deprived from my family and children. How much do you think the body and mind of a human being can tolerate? How long can a human being live with fear and anxiety, and with no security? Everything has a capacity that once exceeded results in overflow…”
Arman, a soulful young man and deep thinker with chocolate-brown eyes and a remarkable energy for life born from dealing with brutal death, has a pragmatic view of the world; a maturity that belies his 28 years. The trauma forced him to abandon his Master’s degree in Architecture, but he believes it has led him to what he does today.
But the grief is never far behind him. “Before Mum died, I’d never lost anyone close to me,” he says. “It’s been six years now, but it doesn’t get better with time; you just learn to deal with it.”
As they normalised the violence, so now Arman and his sisters normalise the grief. “It’s like a nightmare, a bad dream, so we try and move on.” But moving on is not easy. Arman admits that in the first year after their mother’s murder, when he realised he could no longer see her, feel her presence or joke with her, he felt a physical pain in his chest; an ache that literally felt like a broken heart. Even today, that ache can reduce him when he least expects it. His sisters suffer similar feelings.
Arman refuses to visit his father in prison. “My opinion of him hasn’t changed,” he says, contempt souring his words. “Do I want to give him the satisfaction of visiting him? I do not. I don’t care about him at all. I would only visit to give him a piece of my mind and I’m not going to go down to his level. And nothing will bring Mum back.”
Zia is now 61. Arman says his father cannot apply for parole until he is in his 80s and will likely die in prison. He doesn’t care about that either.
“It’s all well and good to be recognised, but I’d rather have my Mum here."
A coronial enquiry held in 2013 focused on the police response to assault allegations made by Zahra and her children and the breaches of an interim domestic violence restraining order placed on Zia.
“Our father had successfully sought to vary the restraining order conditions on him just two weeks before he murdered Mum,” Arman says. “This must never happen again.”
Arman now manages the design and drafting department of an Adelaide building company, but the issue of domestic violence is close to his heart. He unashamedly uses his mother’s murder as an illustrative platform to try and affect as much positive change as he can. Last year, Arman’s advocacy work against domestic violence was recognised when he was named Young South Australian of the Year.
It is an honour for which he is deeply humbled, but, he adds sagely, “It’s all well and good to be recognised, but I’d rather have my Mum here to give me praise, to reward me with recognition.”
His advocacy helped bring about an internal investigation by South Australia Police. It resulted in 40 changes to the way SA police handle domestic violence matters, and changes to eight systemic problems addressed in the coroner’s report into his mother’s murder.
"There are many different forms of abuse, but financial abuse keeps women trapped."
“We fight domestic violence on two fronts,” he says. “First, it’s the crisis end; the coal face where it’s all happening, and secondly, it’s the prevention area. Domestic violence is a social disease. Would you wait for it to take hold (crisis) or try to break the cycle (prevention)? Obviously you would choose the latter.”
To break that cycle, Arman, who works with sports clubs and at schools, is confident that eventually the message will get through. “If you pick up a hammer and start smashing a brick wall, that wall will eventually crumble. It’s the same principle with stopping DV.”
He doesn’t know where the work he is doing will take him, but Arman is certain that what keeps him going is seeing change: in legislation and to services provided to victims and perpetrators.
“Wherever I can make that change happen, that’s where I’ll be heading,” he says. That certainty could well lead him to a career in politics, where he can make changes where it matters: at the coalface, in parliament.
In late 2015, Arman and his sisters worked with Central Domestic Violence Services to open the Zahra Foundation, which funds a five-week financial literacy course offered through domestic violence services. It covers saving and budgeting, managing debts and repayments, along with the basics of loans and credit.
“We organise dates and times to coincide with school terms, which makes it easier for women who have children,” Arman explains. “The venue and facilities we provide are a safe environment for the women.”
Anita, 18 is now at university and Atena, 30, works in human resources. “We’re all busy, but we are actively involved at the Foundation because it is so close to our hearts,” Arman says. “Women often feel trapped in abusive marriages because they don’t have the finances to escape. We didn’t either; we were financially starved by Dad.
“Our situation wasn’t unique; it happens to a lot more families than people realise. There are many different forms of abuse, including emotional, psychological and physical, but it is financial abuse that keeps women trapped.
“It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and easy to feel afraid of the future. It takes courage to stand up and be heard but there is light; there is help for women who summon the courage to leave.”
The Foundation honours Zahra for migrating to Australia with the hope of starting a better life for her family. It recognises the restrictions she faced by living in the daily hell of an abusive and controlled marriage. Despite the setbacks and hurdles, she continually embraced all opportunities as best she could in her circumstances.
“The day that any of us marry and we don’t have either parent; that will be tough."
“The fundraising and support work we do at the Foundation is aimed to give optimism and hope to women and their children affected by violence,” Arman says. "Any form of support - but especially financial - is important when you are leaving an abusive relationship. Sadly, all too often we hear stories where women have had no choice but to return to their abusive partners because they couldn’t find a place to stay, or they had run out of money. Our goal is to offer women and children long-term assistance and support to rebuild their lives.”
If his mother could leave an abusive marriage, with no money and three children, anyone can, says Arman. “Mum always remained positive and strong,” he recalls. “She never lost hope, even in the darkest of times.”
Australian police deal with a staggering 5,000 domestic and family violence matters each week. That's one every two minutes, or 264,028 per year. Each week, one woman is killed by her husband, and a further three hospitalised with serious injuries. “They are the figures we know about, the ones who are reported,” Arman says.
“Australia is witnessing a family violence epidemic. The figures have increased by 7 per cent in the past year, which reflects the increase in the numbers of victims telling police. The message is that the victim is not to blame; DV is a crime and is treated as such. We know it’s going to take a generation to turn the tide, but it’s happening, slowly.”
Domestic violence, Arman says, is not an issue that should be hidden inside the home. “It was terrible for Mum and terrible for us. Dad was our role model – a home devil, but to people outside he was an angel, a charismatic and intelligent man. But he put us in a situation we should never have been put in; he forced us to hold onto dark secrets about what was going on behind closed doors.
“But when someone is yelling abuse at you; when the furniture, windows and crockery is smashed; when you are punched and slapped and kicked; when your eyes are swollen and bruised and you are beaten with a belt; when your mother is assaulted so badly she falls unconscious – that’s not something to keep hidden. That’s something to talk about – to teachers, child care workers, police - anyone. And when people are told, they have a duty to follow protocols and to act on that information.”
Arman’s hectic schedule leaves him no time for a partner or a social life. He is also an ambassador for both White Ribbon and Our Watch, organisations that work in domestic violence prevention. “In my rare spare time, I sleep,” he grins.
“I’m also an adrenaline junkie; I love skydiving and joy rides in World War II planes.” And he swims and runs regularly. “It’s important to be physically as well mentally active,” he says. “You need that balance.”
When his schedule allows, Arman spends a quiet weekend with Anita, catching up over lunch or driving through the Adelaide hills, chatting. “It’s so important that we have that time together,” he says.
Arman has no intention of winding down his gruelling schedule: “I’ve seen some change, and that makes me hungry to see more.”
Zahra’s murder has had wider implications for her family. I wasn’t just Arman who dropped out of a Master’s degree to start full-time work and get an income.
“Atena also had to defer some of her study,” he says. “Anita was in primary school and missed a few weeks of school. I can say this with absolute surety: you never get over losing someone close to you, but you do learn to live with it.
Their mother’s loss has brought the siblings closer together. “There is no conflict between us,” Arman says. Atena is on the foundation’s board, while “Anita attends functions and occasionally volunteers. I promote the foundation at events and wherever I can as well as being involved in the fundraising.”
He pauses to collect his thoughts. “Who knows what the next five or ten years has in store for us?
I imagine the day that any of us marry and we don’t have either parent there to support us; that will be very tough. Equally when we have children or reach our life goals.”
“Without realising it, my father taught me how a husband and father should never behave.”
Their mother’s murder made Arman and Atena parents overnight. “Mum was dead and Dad in jail, so we had to step up immediately to look after Anita,” Arman reflects. “We were thrown in the deep end and had to learn on the job.”
“We had a handful of friends around us, but no family other than our father’s, whom we couldn’t trust, and that made it difficult. But we never forgot we had one another.”
Arman doesn’t forget the power of his message either. He regularly speaks at public forums about domestic violence, a remarkable effort for a young man who did not speak a word of English until he was 10.
“Domestic violence is a social scourge,” he says. “This issue is everybody’s business. And we should remember that while not all intimate partner disrespect ends in murder, all domestic violence murders start with disrespect.”
Arman relishes the time spent with his younger sister. “I am a father figure to her as well as a brother,” he says. “I have loved every moment of it, not just because we are similar in personality and get along really well but because it has taught me so much about myself. The experience has also made me think about fatherhood and what sort of a father I want to be.
“Without realising it, my father has taught me a lot. He has taught me how a husband and father should never behave.”
Anita, in turn, adores her siblings. “Since Mum passed, they have become my guardians,” she says. “In many ways they have filled Mum’s shoes and have taken on her responsibilities. They have been my role models since the age of 12, and I still look up to them.”
She is proud of the Zahra Foundation: “I believe it brings hope for many women and children who are going through what we went through as a family. It is in honour of my beautiful mother and I couldn't be more proud of her and the legacy she has left behind.” Atena, too reflects on the close bond the siblings share. “We have endured many challenges and struggles over the years and after her death, Mum's vision for life was in a way, transferred to us,” she says. “This is how we have managed to sustain the unity between us.”
Arman, Atena and Anita spent Mother’s Day this year visiting Zahra’s grave and reflecting on how precious she was to them all. “Mum was funny, charming and smart,” Arman says sadly. “We used to joke together a lot. We had a very close connection.” Now, the children look after each other, a sibling bond forged stronger through their mother’s murder; a shared tragedy that has become a shared determination to help other women and children.
If you need help, or know of someone who does, contact the 1800 RESPECT helpline: 1800 737 732.
Editor’s note: the Zahra Foundation was the recipient of a grant from the SBS Foundation.
Photos of Arman by David Solm.