By Christmas, five-year-old Gabriella Ratcliffe will hopefully be back in the arms of a father she has not seen in person since she was 22-months-old.
For the last three years Gabriella has been raised by her grandparents in Tehran, visiting her imprisoned mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe just once a week.
Now Zaghari-Ratcliffe has made the heart-breaking decision to send Gabriella back to London, where she will attend school and be cared for by her father, Richard Ratcliffe.
In an open letter addressed to the “mothers of Iran” that was smuggled out of Evin prison and published online in Farsi and English, Zaghari-Ratcliffe admitted: “I have no hope or motivation after my baby goes. There is no measure to my pain.”
For Richard Ratcliffe, the reunion will be bittersweet, given the grief it will cause his wife to no longer be able see their beloved daughter.
He told HuffPost UK: “It had to be Nazanin’s decision to allow it.”
When asked how he feels about the prospect of seeing his little girl in person for the first time in years, he replied: “There is something around not getting hopes up, and I’m a little daunted, if I’m honest.
“For a long time I’ve been a campaigning dad and a campaigning husband. I’m pretty rusty as a parent.”
Father and daughter speak most days on a video call – with the pair relying on a translator intermediary, as Gabriella can no longer speak English.
“She knows me from the phone,” Ratcliffe said, adding: “All the battles around bedtime and what’s for dinner and all that stuff, it’s a long time since I’ve done any of that. It’s going to be tough for Gabriella and for me.”
Since Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s incarceration, their London flat has morphed into “half bachelor pad, half dusty, neglected space”, Ratcliffe said, but he hopes Gabriella’s return will revive it as a family home. His daughter’s room has been untouched – at her explicit request.
Ratcliffe said: “Bless her, she didn’t want me to change her bedroom at all until she came back. Even the cot is there. I would imagine that on the second day we’ll be going down to Ikea to buy a ‘big girl’s bed’, but on day one she wants to sleep in her cot. She quite likes seeing her old toys on video calls. There are toys she remembers, and for her it’s about coming back to discover her space.”
Gabriella was with her mother when she was arrested at Tehran’s airport in 2016. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in jail after being accused of spying, which she vehemently denies.
Her fight for freedom has seen her endure hunger strikes and solitary confinement, amid a major diplomatic row.
In July, more than 200 MPs called for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to use his powers to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s safe release from Iran.
In a much-criticised error, Johnson said in 2017 that she was in Iran “teaching people journalism” – despite her family’s insistence that she was there to visit relatives.
The couple had spent a long time preparing their daughter to come back to the UK – but they hoped she would do so together with her mother, such was their faith that she would be released.
Ratcliffe said: “We spent a long time explaining to her that she was going to come home with mummy and that she should be ready for that, and now that’s not happened. Now something else is going to happen.
“So she was confused when that was first broken to her, and I think she’s a bit daunted about what will happen. She’s still asking ‘Is mummy going to come with us? Can granny come and visit? When can my cousins come?’
“So she’s looking forward to seeing her cousins here, and she’s looking forward to going to the toyshop and so on. But it’s all sort of abstract for her.”
Ratcliffe also pointed out that the move will see Gabriella go from being brought up in a largely gender-segregated society to being raised solely by her father.
“She’s still at that age where she’s definitely a girl, and boys are smelly,” Ratcliffe said. “It will need baby steps. I think in some ways it will be very traumatic for her. It will take time to adjust to it.”
The family has applied for an exit visa for Gabriella to leave the country, and if all goes well she should be back in the UK in time for Christmas.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s grief over these developments is palpable in her letter. “In the near future, my baby will leave me to go to her father and start school in the UK. It will be a daunting trip for her travelling and me left behind,” she wrote.
“And the authorities who hold me will watch on, unmoved at the injustice of separation. That first day at school is not for me.”
Ratcliffe is concerned about the effect the separation will have on his wife.
He said: “She’s sad, and she’s not hiding it… We’ll only know how sad, and how long she’s sad for, when it happens, and there really are risks. Certainly I’m worried, certainly her family are worried. We will see what happens.”
Ratcliffe hopes bringing Gabriella to the UK will be a smooth process, but admitted: “Until it’s happened it hasn’t happened… It may be bumpy until it’s sorted. It would be a big call for them to block her, but you don’t know until you try.”