At 1pm on Monday, a family van parked outside the Science Museum in central London. Within two hours, as the family of four including eight-year-old Lucas and his younger sister Emilea returned from the nearby Natural History Museum, they found their windows had been smashed.
There must have been a burglary, they thought; in fact, as they found later, their vehicle had been at the centre of a major security alert involving the bomb squad. Counter-terrorism police had evacuated the museum and closed roads before breaking into the van, suspecting it contained a bomb. Instead, they found dolls and stationery scattered around inside.
Cristian Ivan, the Romanian father, had no idea the big “Iran is Great” sign emblazoned on both sides of his van could cause such a commotion.
Cristian, his French wife, Audrey, and German-born children had arrived a week earlier to participate in a festival in Wales, their first visit to the UK. In the five years since they started to live and travel in their van around the world, visiting museums has become an essential part of the home schooling of their kids. It was during a trip to Iran that they fell in love with the country and later decided to start their own campaign encouraging others to visit.
“Visiting museums is like school for our children,” Cristian said. “We parked the car in front of the Science Museum; when we came out we were confused – why would the police do something like that? We were told it was because of the message written on the van.”
Cristian particularly felt agitated that the police had not left any note behind, explaining what had happened. “I went to the police station and they accused me of provoking the whole thing, they wanted me to feel responsible for expressing my views about this country, Iran.” He has not received an apology.
Later that day at the station, a policewoman told Cristian in an episode that has since been posted online: “We had to block the road, we had to call out the bomb squad, we had to call up supervisors to come down, we had to close everywhere off because your vehicle was parked in a higher security hotspot in London with that written on the sides. That’s the justification, it doesn’t say ‘Spain is Great’, ‘Italy is Great’, whatever.”
A Metropolitan police spokeswoman told the Guardian on Thursday: “There was a security alert in the Kensington area on Monday as a result of a suspicious vehicle.” When pressed if the police has since apologised, the Met said it has not received an official request of such.
“Do I have to beg for an apology?” Cristian complained. “They broke into my private property, they damaged my property, it’s where we live. Our children are frightened, they don’t feel secure, they were so scared they slept in our bed.”
“I’m not blaming the police for what they did, I’m blaming them for what they did not,” he said. “I understand they need to do their job but they could have left a note ‘we damaged your car’, ‘sorry’ or at least saying ‘it was us, please call us’.”
Falling in love with Iran
The Ivan family began their new lifestyle five years ago. Cristian met Audrey in Germany where he was studying economics and then engineering. They made enough money to buy a house in Kassel, Germany, and later decided to rent it out to fund an adventure in their van across the globe. A monthly income of €2,000 has been more than enough.
Their first destination was India but in order to get there overland they had to cross into Iran. They initially hesitated but then decided to go. What they saw there took them by surprise.
“We planned to stay five days; we ended up staying two months,” Cristian said. “During the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad years, Iran had a particularly negative image in Europe. We went there anyway, we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the country and how people treated us; something we had never experienced in any country before and after.”
“We expected thieves, terrorists to attack us, instead we saw people waving at us and welcoming us and giving us gifts and saying how honoured they were that we were visiting their country.”
What happened earlier this week in London was not the first incident involving their van. In 2013, while visiting Iran for the second time, they were actually robbed when staying in the city of Karaj, west of the capital, Tehran. Thieves took all their money and documents, including passports. Without them, they couldn’t leave the country.
“We were in deep trouble, we had to apply for Romanian, French, German passports,” he said. “When thieves took our things we put a sign up saying ‘dear thieves, please at least give us our paper back, we want to go home’, it was so desperate.”
The Iranians, he said, reacted overwhelmingly. “There was a lot of reaction online, there was a hype, many many people knew about our situation when there were meeting us in the metro in Tehran, for example. They would ask us going to their house, they would say ‘can I give you some money?’, ‘please forgive us’, ‘this is not the real Iran’,” he said. “We were already in love with Iran but that showed us that we can do something in return to these people.”
Could he compare that incident in Iran to the trouble in London? “In Iran we had a better experience afterwards. OK, we had a bad moment, but then the reaction of the people and the authorities in Iran was tremendous, overwhelming,” he said. “It was the moment our project was born, it was born in a very desperate moment but it was born of the reaction of Iranians and authorities, the way they treated us. The high ranking officials invited us to their offices, they said sorry for what happened, it’s something I’m still missing from the British authorities.”
Their 2013 trip to Iran was intended for a month but they ended up staying for half a year before their documents were retrieved. “At the end it was the trick for us to discover the real Iran, we stayed longer, we had more interaction with people,” he said. During that say, did they visit an Iranian home? “I would say we accepted a thousand invitations, we can’t count the number of the times we went to people’s houses.” He added in Persian: “This is how I learned Farsi language.”