Running to Stand Still: The Long Wait for Iran's Refugee Journalists
by NOAH ARJOMAND
23 Mar 2011 20:04
Forced from work in their homeland, asylum seekers spend months, years, in Turkey awaiting resettlement.
[ dispatch ] Nima biked to Turkey. He'd been in and out of the Iranian prison system on political charges for the past decade. He was sure he was on the no-fly list and the police were monitoring buses and trains leaving the capital, so he rode his bicycle more than 500 miles from Tehran to Tabriz in eastern Iran. From there, he got on a train to Van on the Turkish side of the border, bribing his way through customs with what money he'd been able to bring with him. From Van he biked almost 900 miles to Ankara to register for refugee status with the United Nations.
He had little money while he waited for the U.N. to assign him an interview date and town of residence. "The first few days I lived in a park, the park within the Parliament building complex. I pitched a tent." He grinned and shook his head. He stayed there for about ten days, evicted occasionally by guards whose language he didn't speak, before the U.N. told him to report to the police station in Kütahya, 185 miles or so to the west. Nima packed up his tent and biked over.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an NGO founded by American foreign correspondents to advocate for press freedom and aid reporters in trouble, sent me to Turkey to meet with a few of the dozens of Iranian journalists who had fled their country. Turkey is the most stable of Iran's neighbors, and since Iranian citizens are allowed to cross the border without visas, it's a gateway for Iranian refugees hoping to resettle in Europe or North America.
Most left Iran after the controversial 2009 presidential election, when popular opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's widely disputed reelection exploded and was met with state violence and a crackdown on the press that continues to this day.
Ali is a little man with a receding hairline who smiles a lot. Mina is pretty and very quiet, a decade younger than her husband. I visited them in their apartment in Ankara, where they were waiting to hear back from the U.N. and the American embassy.
Ali had been living in Ankara for almost two years now and Mina had joined him a year ago, but they still hadn't unpacked their old lives from a couple of suitcases sitting in the corner of the living room. Mina fished around in one and pulled out a worn plastic bag filled with a thick stack of newspapers and magazines. Ali had edited or written in all of them; he'd worked for more than 40 newspapers and weekly and monthly magazines.
The extraordinary length of Ali's resume -- even considering his prolificacy -- was due to the fact that the reformist and opposition publications he worked for were constantly being shut down by court order. At one point, Ali had changed six newspapers in the space of a month as the government shuttered them in succession. He worked for Sobh-e Emrooz for a single day before it was closed down, then moved on to Mosharakat, which lasted another two days. As he flipped through the old issues, he listed former colleagues from each who'd been jailed or fled Iran. There were a lot.
In the Persian year 1380 (2001-2002), after the arrest of four journalists working for one of his publications, and after Ali himself was brought before both a regular court and the Special Tribunal for the Clergy (his father is a cleric), where he was warned about continuing dissident journalism, Ali decided to switch from political reporting to the sports, society, and arts beats. But the move failed to shield him from persecution. Four years later, not long after Ahmadinejad's rise to the presidency, the Intelligence Ministry raided Ali's office and began calling him in for round after round of interrogations. For two months straight, he was hauled in for questioning from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon.
They had a stack of his phone records from the preceding nine years with suspicious contacts highlighted, along with clippings of articles he'd published, likewise highlighted with colored markers. They accused him of insulting the Supreme Leader, attempting to overthrow the state, and "cultural invasion" -- promoting decadent Western cultural norms, for example, by featuring stylish photo spreads of music groups.
Some days they played good cop, reminding him that he was from a pious family, that he was one of them, and that he should just start printing "the truth" in his magazines. Other times, they yelled and insulted and threatened his family. "This psychological pressure was so heavy that after two months I really came to the brink of suicide," Ali told me, "like a boxer who gets pushed to the corner of the ring and keeps getting hit until he's dazed and can't think any more." After two months and another court date, however, the pressure subsided. From then on he was taken in for interrogations only once a week.
Ali wasn't clear on what exactly prompted the sudden change, but about a year later friends suddenly started telling him he needed to flee, that the authorities were investigating him and this time it would be different, that they might not even bother with the courts. His father, who has high-up connections as a cleric, told him the same. Ali packed up his life in the space of three days and left, first for Dubai and then Turkey.
Mina, herself a journalist who wrote on culture, sports, and the economy, didn't find out for a couple of weeks that Ali had fled the country. They weren't married yet; they had been engaged for over a year but decided to wait until Ali's legal troubles cleared up. Once Ali got settled abroad they were in contact, but still afraid to speak by phone in case Mina's line was tapped.
It was public knowledge that she was Ali Vahid's fiancée, and when he disappeared the authorities began to lean on her as a proxy. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance sent letters warning that her writings ran contrary to Iranian values and religion. To defend herself from such criticism, she would often cite religious texts as justification for her views, writing that a certain idea of hers could be traced back to such-and-such verse of the Qur'an, but to no effect. Editors told Mina that she no longer had permission to work, and she was fired or pressured to resign from one publication after another.
She followed Ali to Turkey, applying separately for refugee status. Two months later they married. Wary of bringing anyone else under the eye of the Iranian government, they didn't invite their families to the wedding.
Kambiz Shabankare's experience with the Iranian authorities was even less pleasant. I met Kambiz in Niğde, a little town where a tall skinny Iranian with long reddish-brown hair and oversized white headphones connected to an MP3 player holstered in the belt of cargo pants didn't blend in one bit. He spoke a funny, often obscene brand of English he'd picked up watching South Park and from drunken American expats in the nightclubs of Dushanbe. He had been in the country for a little over a month.
A journalist and liberal nationalist political activist, Kambiz had in a way come of age in July 1999, when a student protest movement sparked by the closure of a reformist newspaper was crushed by force. Kambiz was arrested in the crackdown and spent his first and longest stint in prison. He was beaten and forced to drink urine. "I was kept in a small place and a dark place for 20 days.... I don't really want to return to that time," Kambiz said through a cigarette. Later, as we sat at one of the plasticky tea gardens that constituted the mainstay of Niğde's nightlife, he mentioned that he'd tried to kill himself not long after that first time in prison, sticking his head in a gas oven, but a friend had stopped by his apartment just in time.
That same friend, an indie filmmaker, then commissioned Kambiz to write a comedic screenplay. They both knew the filmmaker didn't actually have any money to produce the movie or any real intention to do so, but Kambiz went ahead anyway. He said it was the best therapy he'd ever gotten.
And this was the big reason he hated Niğde, which he regretted choosing as his city of residence instead of Ankara. Keeping busy was the best way to avoid depression and bad memories, and in Niğde there was nothing, no work and no fun. He lived in a dumpy rented room in a pansiyon with a clogged toilet down the hall. The Internet was his only lifeline.
A note on Turkish refugee law:
Refugees and asylum seekers are required to sign in, usually twice a week, at the police station in the town to which they have been assigned by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and are supposed to request permission from the police to leave the town. They are not legally permitted to work while in Turkey. For every month they stay in Turkey, they are required to pay a residency fee equivalent to about $200 (depending on the province) and are refused permission to exit the country for permanent resettlement until they have paid the fee in full.
Those expenses and fees add up over the months or even years that Iranians stay in Turkey. Those who are able to bring money with them, or who have family living abroad who can support them, are better off. Some journalists continue to work quietly for low- or non-paying news websites, others get jobs washing dishes at restaurants or doing construction work. There is talk of women forced into prostitution to pay for living expenses and residency fees.
The question of money aside, for journalists -- accustomed to a life of constant deadlines and travel and making a difference -- this inactivity is deadening. If there was one refrain I heard from every refugee I talked to, it was that they wanted to get back to work.
After the 1999 protests, arrests and interrogations became a routine occurrence in Kambiz's life, though he was never convicted or even brought to court for any crime.
"I had no apartment for two years, because I knew if I rented a place to live I would have problems with the police. They would knock on my door, tap tap tap." So when Kambiz wasn't staying with friends in Tehran, he was at his parents' home in Bandar-e Anzali. He worked as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker for a long list of venues, covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and volunteered as a graphic designer for reformist political campaigns.
In December 2009, after months in the thick of the presidential election campaign and its violent aftermath and then a trip to Tajikistan to work on a documentary for the Red Crescent Society, Kambiz was on his way to stay with his parents in Bandar-e Anzali when he got word that the police were after him.
He decided that he wasn't going back to jail. He'd heard from friends who had been swept up in the wave of arrests after the election about the torture they'd undergone, had seen the show trials of more than a hundred reformist politicians, student activists, and journalists broadcast on Iranian state TV, which featured obviously staged confessions of collusion in conspiracy to overthrow the regime at the behest of foreign governments. Kambiz shook his head. "I didn't have any desire to go in front of the television camera, the television that I worked on for years," and recite a confession that would make him ashamed to walk down the street or talk to his friends again.
"What's stupid about this story is that I didn't have a run-in with anyone, but...my court summons was for assault and battery and making threats." This, Kambiz told me, was a commonly used tactic of the government to delegitimize political and student activists and journalists, and to quietly crack down at low political cost. Prosecuting a journalist for an article critical of the Supreme Leader would likely draw condemnation from abroad and contempt for the authorities within the country. But it was much more difficult for the international community to condemn an arrest on assault or drug possession or prostitution charges of someone who just happened to be a journalist.
So Kambiz fled, first to Tajikistan for four months and then briefly to India. He'd loved Tajikistan: he worked for a TV station providing training to local journalists, found drinking buddies among the American expats in town. Kambiz stayed until he received word from a friend who worked with the Iranian embassy that intelligence agents had received word that a dissident journalist was in town. Fearing that Iran's outsized influence in Persian-speaking Tajikistan (during a January 2010 visit to Dushanbe, Ahmadinejad had described the two countries as "one soul in two bodies") would result in his deportation back to the Islamic Republic, Kambiz decided it was time to move on.
By Kambiz's account, the European embassies and U.N. offices he'd petitioned in Tajikistan and India seemed to have little idea what to do with an Iranian political asylum seeker -- most cases in Tajikistan were Afghan war refugees, and in India the vast majority were from Afghanistan or Myanmar. A German consular officer he dealt with was outright hostile.
Turkey was, as Iran's most stable neighbor and one of the few countries that allowed its citizens in without a visa, the global hub for Iranian asylum seekers. And so it was, Kambiz told me, "the last path...even though my friends had previously told me that Turkey is very dangerous and conditions in Turkey wouldn't be good at all, I had no alternative but to come to Turkey."
Rumors abounded of spies infiltrating the Iranian community in Turkey, of asylum seekers deported at the Iranian government's behest, of snatch-and-grab operations in which Iranian intelligence agents brought persons of interest back across the border with them in the trunks of their cars. There were credible news reports of Iranian asylum seekers being attacked by Persian-speaking assailants.
The Turkish government seemed to be doing its best just to keep the issue quiet, caught as it was between the United States and its European allies, on the one hand, and an increasingly amicable relationship with the Islamic Republic on the other.
I accompanied another refugee journalist, Leila Saadati, and her father as he departed from the Kayseri train station back to Iran after visiting her in Turkey. As far as I could tell, with the exception of two Europeans with blond hair and big backpacks, every single passenger in the terminal was from Iran, speaking Persian or Iranian-dialect Azeri. Many, it appeared, were refugees or their relatives.
As we waited, an overweight man with an unkempt graying mustache, ragged coat too thick for the weather, and luggage held together with colorful string sidled up next to Leila on a row of benches and began talking to her in friendly, conspiratorial tones with the accent of a country bumpkin. Leila looked straight ahead and answered with polite, noncommittal responses. He gave up after a few minutes and then went and tried to strike up a conversation with another passenger, and then another.
I beckoned Leila outside and asked what it had all been about. Leila suspected that he was an Iranian spy. He had badmouthed the Islamic Republic --- it seemed in an effort to gain her confidence and encourage her to do the same -- while prying into who she and her father were, why they were in Turkey. When the train finally arrived and Leila said goodbye to her father, I saw the man rushing back and forth frantically with his ramshackle luggage, glancing occasionally at his ticket as though he couldn't find the correct car. I lost track of him in the crowd of hugs and group photos, and never saw whether or not he actually boarded the train.
Kambiz had for his part received online threats twice since arriving in the country, which he assumed were sent at the behest of the Iranian intelligence community. The first, a comment on his blog, was from a poster claiming to represent the "Cyber Army of the Revolutionary Guards." They knew exactly where he was, the comment said. He should be careful.
A second threat, which someone with the profile name "The Sword of Islamic Governance" sent Kambiz via Facebook, was less diplomatic:
You whose mother takes a donkey [****] in her cavernous [****] every night and has raised you on the bread of whoring, keep silent or else I'll do something so bad that you and your whore-mongering father will come and beg me to stick my [****] in your mouth; understand, you bastard? Come drag over your [*******] that so many elephant [*****] have left gaping and suck my [****] like your mother does.
It went on from there.
Perhaps the most remarkable story I heard about government threats was from Nima Ezatpour, the photographer who biked from Tehran to Ankara.
"One thing that was very weird for me was that I had arrived in Ankara maybe three days earlier and I bought a Turkish [cell phone] SIM card. You don't buy this kind of SIM card with your own name; it's just a normal SIM card you go and buy. The first call I had was from the government of Iran. The second call I got was from the government of Turkey. The first call from the government of Iran: 'We know where you went. We know what you're doing. Your family is here and we'll bring you back one way or another.' Luckily I'm still here. The safety of my family, I think, isn't assured."
Nima grinned strangely through his oversized mustache as he told the story. He wore the same smile at all the worst parts in his stories, ironic but so genuine and convivial that I had to struggle not to grin back.
"And my second call was from the government of Turkey. A man called who spoke Persian, but had a Turkish accent, and said, 'We know your family history and we know your father and don't try to establish communication with any group or any Kurd or any party. If you do, we'll deport you.' And I was forced to comply."
Nima is half Kurdish. His father, Abdollah, was a prominent politician in the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan under Adbul Rahman Qassemlou, a Kurdish leader who broke with the Islamic government shortly after the 1979 Revolution and was assassinated by Iranian agents in Vienna a decade later. Nima's father had followed Qassemlou into exile, leaving behind his pregnant wife to resettle and start a new family in Hamburg.
Nima had never even met his father, had little interest in the Kurdish nationalist cause, didn't even speak Kurdish. But his family name still earned him the enmity of authorities in Iran and now in Turkey, which has its own repressed Kurdish minority.
And so in his assigned town of Kütahya, Nima told me, "I had a roommate who reported all of my words and everything I did to the police. He was of course also a prisoner of his misfortune. It wasn't that he was a bad person. He was also a refugee who wanted to leave this place and they forced him to do it."
When the roommate left, "there was always a policeman who was following me around the city. Or, for example, if I went out of the house late at night to buy bread, to do something ordinary, I would see that they were watching the house."
One time, "I found a friend who was Kurdish. I didn't even know he was Kurdish. But the police very quickly called me in and asked, 'Why are you friends with this man?'"
They told Nima to break off contact with him.
When a friend studying in Italy called Nima's cell phone, the police in Kütahya asked so many questions that Nima emailed the friend saying not to call by phone any more, it wasn't worth the trouble.
Even when he was in Ankara, he often got the feeling he was being followed. And not just by plainclothes Turkish police. Sometimes he heard men speaking Persian as they walked behind him or sat nearby him, and got suspicious.
I wasn't sure to what extent these menaces were real, and to what extent they were paranoia bred by years under the eye of the Iranian authorities. Neither was Nima. Every day he got a look or had an encounter that he didn't know how to interpret. When this happened.... Nima paused and spoke slowly, "Should we see it as an ordinary event? Should we see it as a strange event? Should we see it as a dangerous event?"
Nima stayed in Ankara as much as the frequent sign-ins at the Kütahya police station would allow. A grey-haired Turkish restaurateur named Fatin Kanat who was shooting a documentary on Iranian refugees in his spare time gave Nima a place to sleep. We did our interview in the upstairs office of the restaurant, the sound of laughter and folksy violin playing below us. Nima insisted on buying me dinner afterwards. By now rain was pouring outside and we ran together to the taxi stand on the corner. Water sloshed up to my ankles as I jumped in the back seat and gave directions to my hotel. Nima stood watching me go, his T-shirt already soaked through, trying to light a cigarette and to all appearances oblivious to the downpour.
Prison beatings had damaged Nima's and Kambiz's minds. Kambiz talked about it more. His long term memory was perfect: of childhood, of college, of prison. After that, though, things got fuzzy, and he complained often about short-term memory loss, getting frustrated and smacking his skull with a palm when he couldn't remember an English word I'd just said or the name of that director.
He couldn't remember faces. One time, Kambiz went to meet his girlfriend in front of the Vanak Square drug store, the rendezvous spot of choice in north Tehran. Kambiz saw someone he thought was his girlfriend, went up and said hi, and it wasn't until Kambiz was confronted by the large boyfriend whom he hadn't noticed was standing next to her that he realized his mistake. And then there was his girlfriend, asking why he'd walked right past her to friendly up to that woman.
Nima was 26. He had been 15 the first time he was tortured in prison. He told me that he sometimes would go out to buy cigarettes from the nearby convenience store, exit the shop, and then be unable to remember where he was supposed to go. He would stand and struggle for a few minutes and then it would come back to him that he was going home, to his little room in Fatin's restaurant just down the street.
Like Kambiz, Nima couldn't sleep more than a few hours a night. Like Kambiz, he had recurring nightmares of prison and torture. Like Kambiz, he stayed up most nights talking on Skype, wasting time on the Internet.
But Kambiz also had a more serious, or at least more obvious, case of survivor's guilt.
"I have problems with myself," Kambiz told me, "Because I ran away like a coward." He told me about a political protest in the days after the 2009 election. Kambiz was standing near a boy, maybe 15 or 16 years old, who was shot from a rooftop by a member of the Basij militia. Kambiz was sure the Basiji had aimed at him, felt it would have been fairer for him to have been the one killed.
Kambiz turned 37 in July, and posted a photo gallery on Facebook entitled "my uneventful birthday" with a picture of himself in front of a cake, candles burning, with a cigarette in his left hand and the cake knife in his right hand held to his throat.
After we became friends, Kambiz confessed with the smile of a kid caught being naughty that he'd almost returned to Iran the previous week. He knew people; they could have gotten him across the border with no problem. I asked him what he would do from there, whether he wanted to get thrown back in prison. At least from prison he could join his imprisoned friends going on hunger strikes, he replied. That would be something.
Kambiz oscillated from panic to paralyzing depression to manic excitement with little provocation. He called my cell phone the day before his big interview with the U.N., speaking fast in English broken from agitation. From what I could gather there were a few mistakes of dates and places in a letter of support that CPJ had sent for him to show the U.N. and he'd called CPJ's New York office but Sheryl wasn't answering and the post office with the only accessible fax machine would close soon and he was freaking out.
If we weren't going to help him we should just tell him. It was no problem, we should just tell him that we weren't going to help him. He kept panicking and repeating himself, fast and incoherent, and didn't seem to hear or understand a word I said. It took me a couple minutes to calm him down a bit and convince him that I was on his side, I did want to help him, I would call Sheryl and have things sorted out.
Kambiz called me back an hour later apologizing profusely. He'd gotten the letter; everything was alright; he shouldn't have yelled at me. "I'm not a bad guy, you know?" He just had problems sometimes with his brain.
Accounts of interactions with the U.N. varied wildly. Some said that everyone had been respectful and helpful; the only problem was the pace of the bureaucracy. Others said they had been insulted or called liars during their interviews, that the U.N. was completely under the thumb of a Turkish government that cared far more about diplomatic relations with Iran than about their well-being.
But the consensus among journalists I interviewed was that the U.N. really did need to be skeptical of many cases. Some "refugees" just wanted to migrate and weren't actually facing persecution back home. Some had heard that if you went and told stories about trouble with the government over political views or religion or sexual orientation and endured a few months in Turkey, you could move to Europe or America. Some would say they were journalists and even manage to finagle letters of support from organizations like CPJ.
To try to weed out the charlatans, the U.N. would ask for documentation to back up claims, for example of prison time without due process based on political activism. The Iranian government was of course not in the habit of providing receipts for extrajudicial detention or torture sessions, but apparently enough asylum seekers faked such documents that the U.N. had come to expect them.
It had been a long time since Kambiz had seen his friend Hossein, an erstwhile Fars news photographer who'd ended up an asylum seeker in Ankara. Kambiz hadn't even realized Hossein was in the country until he saw a photo of him that I was editing on my computer screen. Kambiz also knew Hossein's roommates Ali and Mina from back in Iran. What a small world.
I tagged along for the reunion, stopping with Kambiz at a grocery store beforehand to buy a bottle of questionable wine for the occasion.
"I like him so much and after about eight years I'm so happy that I can see him...for the first time, and maybe for the last time," Kambiz told me, peppering his happiness with fatalism, as always.
A big hug and then they immediately picked up where they'd left off eight years ago, punching and joshing each other -- their kal kal, they called it. Hossein had grown a big droopy mustache and gotten earrings since they last met. Kambiz was more or less the same: hard-smoking and hyperbolic.
Even at an agency like Fars news, which since its creation in 2003 had close ties with the government and an editorial line that earned it the label "semi-official" from the likes of CNN and Reuters, there used to be a strong sense of professionalism and room for objective criticism. "But with the coming to power of the Ahmadinejad administration," Hossein Salmanzadeh told me, "censorship became more strict, and taken more into consideration [by the editors].... I was in the photo department and felt this up close. A lot of photos were censored. A lot of news was censored."
Hossein, along with fellow Fars news photographer Javad Moghimi, had fled to Turkey in the summer of 2009 after falling under suspicion for sending photos of opposition protests to foreign news agencies. He now shared an apartment with Ali and Mina while he waited his last few weeks for the paperwork to go through for his resettlement in California.
As hardline governmental influence increased at Fars, with former Revolutionary Guard officers taking seats on the agency's editorial board, Hossein and the professional long-termers found themselves increasingly marginalized. In the spring of 2009 things came to a head.
Fars "opened a center called the 'Tavana Club,' and those who worked [and studied] there or their fathers were employed by the Revolutionary Guards, or their families were members of the Basij. And they started to train them as journalists and photographers and gradually injected them into the agency. Naturally this had an effect on a lot of the longtime journalists who might not have been in line ideologically with the agency, and with the coming of this young cohort who were very close ideologically to the agency's management and the government, those elements were being eliminated."
It was part of a deliberate strategy of "cultural investment" to shore up the power base through control of the media. "I think that not only at Fars, but in many places this was happening," Hossein told me.
Another asylum-seeking reporter I interviewed described the change in the Iranian media more bluntly: "Anyone still working as a journalist in Iran is either crazy or works in the sports section.... Or they're regime loyalists."
After a year in Turkey, Hossein had passed through the gauntlet of the UNHCR, International Catholic Migration Commission, and U.S. Embassy, and was booked for a flight to San Jose, California. He departed from Istanbul just a few weeks after Kambiz and I met him in Ankara.
Kambiz took a bus all the way from Niğde, ten hours, to see him off.
"Look, Kambiz is crazy. You understand? He's crazy. You don't have to trouble yourself," Hossein told me when I asked if I could come to the airport as well. I went anyway -- the airport was just across town from my house in Istanbul -- and sat with Hossein and Kambiz in a deserted Burger King food court counting down the hours until the 4 a.m. flight. Hossein had been told to get to the airport five hours early to pick up some final official documentation from a U.N. employee without which he couldn't leave the country. We couldn't find our U.N. liaison and Hossein was mildly concerned.
Kambiz -- an expert on American culture as a result of his online TV habit -- advised him on his adoptive country: "You're sitting somewhere, you're in a restaurant, okay? You can go up to another table and say hello. And you're friends with them, that's it.... They're very warm. That's the big difference between Americans and Europeans...." Hossein nodded along with appropriate skepticism.
Hossein's Turkish had gotten quite good and the Turkish girlfriend I didn't know he had called him at least a half dozen times while we waited. He would let out a plaintive moan every time his cell phone rang. "Hello my love, my soul," he would answer.
"My brain says that I need to go and have a plan for life, because here I can't work or have an impact...but having my heart torn from the friends I've found here -- especially one of them...." He sighed, "It's really hard for me. It's really hard for me."
I left at one o'clock; Kambiz stayed. Hossein almost missed his flight because, as it turned out, the U.N. employee was waiting for him with his documentation in the wrong terminal.
Not long after Hossein left, Nima's asylum file was also approved, though once again he found himself stuck under his father's shadow.
Unlike with other applicants, the UNHCR didn't bother to ask Nima where he wanted to apply for resettlement. They just informed him that his case had been approved and he should report to the German embassy the next day. At the embassy, Nima met with a consular official wielding a case file so thick that Nima couldn't imagine what information it contained about him. The official asked him why he wanted to go to Germany. "I said, 'I don't know, the U.N. sent me here. I don't know.... Maybe it's because my father lives there."
That's not a good reason, the officer told him. Nima was at a loss for words.
The Germans accepted Nima anyway, and in August he flew to Hamburg to be with the father who had fled the country before he was born. He visited Istanbul one last time before his departure and we met for lunch. Last time he was in Ankara, Fatin, the restaurant owner/filmmaker, had Nima recreate his first days in Turkey for the documentary on Iranian refugees -- once again, he biked through the streets and pitched a tent in the park next to Parliament.
"It was very weird."
"So," I grinned at him, "you don't seem very excited to be going to Germany."
His answer built up slowly, starting with a laughing reiteration of what he had said to me earlier: until he was actually on the plane he wouldn't believe it. The Turkish police could always do something at the very last minute to screw him over, and he still hadn't gotten his official permission to exit. The police were just sitting back and letting him worry because they could. A number of other resettlement-bound refugees I interviewed experienced the same unexplained delays, holding plane tickets they were afraid they wouldn't be able to use if exit permits didn't come through in time.
Nima claimed to know another Iranian refugee who'd been assigned by the UNHCR to Van, in the country's far east, and the police -- just out of meanness, in Nima's version of the story -- waited until the very last moment to give him his permission to leave Turkey. There were no Van-Istanbul flights that day so the refugee's only option was to spend a fortune taking a taxi all the way across the country to Istanbul to catch his plane out of the country.
But that wasn't even the point. This was shit. This was all shit for him. He didn't want to leave Iran; he didn't come here so he could get to Europe to study or because he just wanted to emigrate. He'd had to pack up his whole life in two hours and run. And now the UNHCR and the Germans and the NGOs expected him to just be a miserable big-eyed poster child full of gratitude for their benevolence. To them he was just a poor helpless refugee who they could point to and say, Look what good people we are, look how we're helping and giving him the good life he always wanted.
Nima was going to Germany because he had no choice, not because it was his great aspiration as a poor downtrodden Iranian. Why should he be excited?
"This is shit," Nima repeated. He shook his head, still wearing his usual ironic smile but apologizing, frustrated at himself for failing to express exactly what he was trying to say.
I had to fight him to pay the restaurant bill, and then he insisted on buying me an elaborate fruit smoothie before we said goodbye.
Nima and the others swelled the ranks of thousands of Iranians: Baha'is, Christian converts, and homosexuals who left Iran due to government persecution, even members of leftist political groups who fled a decade or more ago but have found scant welcome in refugee recipient countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are currently 7,800 Iranian refugees or asylum seekers (applicants for refugee status) registered in Turkey, up from 2,100 in 2008.
Frustrating as it was for journalists I interviewed to be stuck in the country for month after month, the sheer volume of refugees to Turkey from Iran -- along with many more who in recent years have fled war and insurgency in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia -- makes the delays entirely understandable. The UNHCR has four offices and a staff of 104 to manage 24,400 cases.
Last time I checked, the Committee to Protect Journalists was working with 57 Iranian cases in Turkey and Reporters Sans Frontières was handling another 15. Back in Iran, another 34 were in prison for doing their jobs, tying it up with China as the number one jailer of journalists worldwide.
Those figures of Iranians registered with the U.N. actually understate the number of escapees in Turkey. Kian (whose name I have changed for his protection) was an experienced reporter and activist with the Iranian Journalists Union, most of whose leadership is now in jail or exile, and a refugee in all but name. Because he spoke excellent Turkish, he was able to obtain a student visa and was studying for a master's degree at a university in Ankara. What he would do when his degree was complete and his visa expired, he didn't know.
Kian wasn't the only Iranian I met who had gone to lengths to avoid the official path to refugee-hood. Well aware that officially registering with the U.N. as asylum seekers would mean months if not years in limbo, most likely in a claustrophobic little town in central Anatolia under close supervision, some Iranians fled to Turkey and then tried applying directly to European embassies for student visas. Or just crossed the border into Syria and then came back every three months (Iranians can stay in Turkey for up to 90 days without a visa).
The last time I saw Kambiz in his Niğde pansiyon, unrefrigerated liters of Fanta and juice on his shelf next to depleted bottles of Scotch and cheap wine, he was in high spirits. He'd just discovered online French- and English-language courses offered by McGill University. And he was taking an online journalism course available through the Radio Zamaneh website, keeping very busy. He would start online German classes soon, too. No, he didn't think he was taking on too much.
The only problem was tuition, but he didn't want CPJ's money. He would manage himself, just skip a few breakfasts. Really CPJ should focus on helping Hossein, who was now in California living in an apartment with a bunch of other Iranian refugees and doing construction work. Kambiz had talked to Hossein on Skype and he seemed lonely, said he missed Turkey.
Hossein is still struggling. He didn't speak much English when he arrived in the United States, and his construction work has left him with little time or energy to improve his language skills. The NGO that had sponsored his resettlement gave him a few hundred dollars to get started, but did little to find him a decent job or housing or English classes. He felt trapped and depressed, more so than he had in Turkey. Sheryl at CPJ pointed him in the direction of some university fellowships for journalists, but those won't begin until fall 2011, if he is even accepted.
A few weeks ago I emailed Hossein in Persian, asking how he was. Hossein replied to me in misspelled Turkish: "I want my looove. I want Turkey. Somtimes I cry like crazy. I want to retarn in Turkey..."
Kambiz is still in Niğde, on track for resettlement in the United States if all goes well. He wants to fly into New York, then take a road trip with me, stopping in Las Vegas on the way to California. He says he'll join Hossein there, help him get back on track.
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