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'Please let my mummy come home'

With her British mother, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, jailed in Iran and her father, Richard Ratcliffe, fighting to reunite his family, Gabriella Ratcliffe is growing up without her parents. Rosamund Urwin hears the tale of a childhood interrupted

Mummy, remember when I used to visit you in that other place?" Gabriella Ratcliffe asked her mother, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, last week as they were sitting in Tehran's Evin prison. "Should we go there again?" Nazanin was aghast. Gabriella, who is three, meant the wing of the jail where Nazanin was once held in solitary confinement.

Since Nazanin's arrest 19 months ago, Gabriella - a British citizen - has been stranded in Iran. She lives with Nazanin's parents and has spent two of her three birthdays away from her father and with her mother behind bars.

Her first language is now Farsi: the only English she knows is "I love you" and "See you tomorrow" (which she thinks means "goodbye").

Gabriella's life has changed radically. In London, she went to nursery on Carlton Hill in St John's Wood. At the weekend, her parents would take her to the West Hampstead toy library, or for ice-cream at Oddono's, her favourite shop.

Now her nursery is in Tehran. She can't remember her past life - London seems like a parallel universe. "It's like Harry Potter: another world of strange languages and sudden packages in the post", says her father, Richard Ratcliffe. "She asks what clothes she has in London, what toys, what her bedroom is like."

When Nazanin was first detained, Gabriella was traumatised both at being separated from her mother and then at seeing her in prison (the guards put a sack over Gabriella's head when she first visited to disguise where her mother was being held).

Gabriella would sleep only with her grandmother next to her and would wake in the night, screaming. She eventually adapted, though, and would say: "Be strong, mummy" at the end of visits.

At the weekend, Gabriella's visit with her mother was truncated and she became clingy - she knew she was being short-changed. She is too young to comprehend what is happening, but she picks up the moods of those around her.

After seeing her mother on Iranian state television last week, after a gaffe by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was seized upon by the Iranian authorities, who took Johnson's incorrect comments as a confession that Nazanin was plotting against the Iranian government, Gabriella saw her grandparents were distraught.

"When she sees her grandmother is upset, she gets upset herself and demands cuddles. She doesn't let granny suffer in silence," says Richard.

He adds that Gabriella knows she is different from other children, but not quite why. She has realised that people react badly when you say, "My mummy is in jail", though. Some months ago, Gabriella was in the park when a woman asked where her mother was. Gabriella replied proudly: "In prison."

Her grandparents were mortified. They hadn't told her that was where Nazanin was. Gabriella picked up on their reaction and the next time - when her kindergarten teacher asked - she said: "I live with my grandmummy and mummy lives somewhere else."

At her nursery, Gabriella realised the other children lived with their mothers and fathers. So, she started calling her grandmother, "Maman", which broke Nazanin's heart. Realising Nazanin was upset, she switched to calling her "Mamon", but it weighs heavily on Nazanin that her mother is Gabriella's primary carer.

The family's nightmare began in April 2016, when Nazanin and Gabriella, then aged 22 months, were due to fly back from Tehran to London. They had been on holiday, visiting Nazanin's family.

Nazanin, who had grown up in Iran and is a dual national, had already travelled four times to Iran with Gabriella. "Nazanin had Gabriella in London, so she went roughly every six months since the birth to show Gabriella to her parents", says Monique Villa, the chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charity for which Nazanin works. "She wanted her parents to know their granddaughter."

Richard and Nazanin had even discussed living in Iran when Gabriella and any siblings were older, so they could learn Farsi.

But this time, as Zaghari-Ratcliffe checked in, Iran's Revolutionary Guard were waiting. They took Nazanin away for questioning and she had to hand Gabriella to her parents. Eventually Nazanin was accused of plotting against the regime. Gabriella's passport was confiscated and returned only this summer. Under Iranian law, Gabriella can leave the country only if accompanied by a parent.

For the first 38 days of Nazanin's imprisonment, she was kept apart from her daughter. When they were finally allowed to see each other, they clutched each other for 15 minutes without speaking. On this first visit, guards gave Gabriella a doll. They told her family: "We're not doing this for Nazanin; we're doing it for Gabriella, because she has not done anything wrong."

Nazanin was eventually moved to a part of Evin jail where other women are held. Her cell there is covered in pictures Gabriella has drawn for her and the pair paint together when Gabriella visits.

"She loves doing craftwork with her mother," says Richard. "It has been important for Nazanin to do something special with Gabriella on visits. At the weekend she made play dough so they could make shapes with that." An arts and crafts instructor comes to the prison to teach the women, and inmates can make presents for their families. Nazanin knitted a cardigan for Gabriella and made a Peppa Pig carving for her for Iranian New Year.

A more recent carving - for Richard on Father's Day - shows the three of them with Nazanin's hair wrapped around Gabriella like a hug to protect her: "That is the most special thing in my house."

Nazanin's fellow inmates have made presents for Gabriella, including a wooden elephant, and fuss over her when she visits: "She is the smallest child that comes, so is very popular."

Gabriella has learnt to dance in Iran, copying pop videos "with a wonderfully serious face", says Richard. "Nazanin recently said to her, 'When we get back to London, we could do a dance class together' and Gabriella replied, 'I don't need to - I know how to dance, but you might want to'. The wonderful confidence of a three-year-old."

Richard has been unable to obtain a visa for Iran, so is able only to be a "Skype parent" to Gabriella. In his absence, Nazanin's brother has become a surrogate father: "He lets Gabriella climb on him and pretends to be a monster - the things I can't do," Richard says, his voice cracking.

Fighting for Nazanin's release has consumed him: "I am good at being campaigning dad, but it's real dad - nurturing dad - where I am squeezed."

The past 10 days have been especially tough on Gabriella. On Tuesday, Johnson - who has since apologised for his blunder - met Mr Ratcliffe and promised "no stone would be left unturned" to help Nazanin.

Language is a barrier between father and daughter. "Gabriella wrote a letter to me with her mum and Nazanin asked what she wanted to say. She said 'I love you' and then got stuck. Because I don't speak Farsi, she didn't know that I could understand anything else she could say. She didn't understand that Nazanin could translate her Farsi into English."

Two birthdays and a Christmas have passed for Gabriella in Iran. When she turned two, family and friends in London sang Happy Birthday over Skype and left a card and balloons at the Iranian embassy. On her third birthday in June, Gabriella was able to see her mother, who had baked her a cherry cake in the prison oven.

Christmas last year was painful and Richard is desperate for the family to be reunited before December 25. Nazanin has been making gift tags in preparation and Gabriella has decorated them with her finger prints.

"That's win, win, win from her perspective - its Christmassy, it's messy, and it's a special thing Gabriella can do with Mummy," Richard says. "It's also Nazanin giving Gabriella a sense they will be home for Christmas."

Gabriella, in turn, told her mother what she would like: "She wants to invite everyone to London with us - all her friends from nursery and mummy's friends from prison."

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