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The Vicious Circle of Iranian Emigration

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

22 Apr 2011 21:04Comments
1d2ab65877376e615fd133ae2fee364c.jpgBrain drain reduces chances for change.

[ dispatch ] In the job market of a rapidly developing country like Iran, 27-year-old Sami R., a freshly graduated engineer, should be a desirable commodity. After earning a master's degree in business and engineering from King's College in London, he recently returned to Tehran to spend time with his family, who have not seen him in two years. But he doesn't plan on staying for too long. "Being bright, capable, and useful is not the only thing you need to prove yourself in Iran," he says. "You have to either be related to someone or be with the government to do something. So you kind of have to sell your soul."

In the next two months, Sami intends to make a permanent move to Alberta, Canada. His chief objective isn't to find a lucrative job in his career field, but to obtain a foreign passport that would cement his chances of living abroad. "Iran is not very open to the rest of the world," he explains. "Getting out is not easy, so having a foreign passport is almost a must for all Iranians." This mentality, a direct result of the state's inability to offer socioeconomic security to its young population, is pervasive among students in Iran and the main culprit behind the country's notorious brain drain problem.

Disenchanted by lack of career opportunities and social freedom, Iran's educated elite have been emigrating en masse for the past three decades, and only intensified their exodus since the 2009 presidential election. Despite government efforts to reverse the trend, the country's tight, state-controlled economy is able to employ only around 27 percent of those who graduate from national universities, prompting about 200,000 fresh graduates to emigrate each year, according to official statistics. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund describe this phenomenon as potentially catastrophic for Iran's long-term prospects.

Behind these statistics is a general atmosphere of disillusionment that is palpable at every turn. Visas, foreign connections, language proficiency tests, and college application processes are a frequent topic of conversation for those under 30. Paper marriages are increasingly common, and in this reporter's experience, it is not unusual for a Westerner to be approached on the street by a stranger seeking to arrange such a union. "You need several things for emigration," says Marjan R., an illustrator who plans on studying in Germany. "You need money, you need to know a foreign language, and you need to be completely desperate."

For those wishing to leave, financing their foreign education tends to pose the biggest challenge. The trend of studying abroad is by no means limited to the wealthier classes, and many families saddle themselves with considerable financial burdens. Marjan, for example, needs to have 8,000 euros in her bank account to prove she can sustain her studies in Germany -- not a trifling amount in a country where the average monthly wage is around $500. Those who cannot afford such sums must compete in the limited pool of international scholarships. At times, entire families emigrate after paying for their child's expenses. "My parents spent about 80,000 pounds for my education, which is kind of a fortune," Sami admits. "But they see it as a kind of investment into their own future. They expect me to look after them in Canada after I get my citizenship."

Gaining financial independence and experiencing the world outside Iran is a common motivation for emigration. In Tehran, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $600-700. As prices rise and wages stagnate, many young people seeking employment here must either struggle to make ends meet or remain financially dependent on their families. "If you are a working young person in Tehran, you either have to sacrifice your life standards and lead a very hard life, or rely on your parents for at least the next decade, until you get into a position so you can survive on your own," Sami says.

Anywhere but here?

The prospect of gaining independence via emigration is even more appealing to young women, many of whom feel bound by Iran's traditional values. For Marjan, the chance of "even just living fearlessly" is enough of a reason to leave. "Here, if you are my age and not in the process of getting married, you should come up with some sort of an excuse. Even in relationships, you are not free," says the 29-year-old. "If I want to invite my boyfriend over to my house, I have to introduce him to my father as a study partner from my language class. This kind of convention forces you to lie continuously, and you become far from being honest and healthy in your life."

Intense competition for seats in state universities also plays a key role: in Iran's state-subsidized education system, only about 11 percent of approximately 1.5 million exam takers are accepted into a university each year, and competition for graduate programs is even tighter. However, studying abroad is typically seen more as a means than an end. Marjan, who holds a master's in visual art from a private university in Tehran, admits that she is currently applying for a bachelor's degree program because "the application situation is better and it allows you to stay longer." Later in the conversation, she confesses that she plans on marrying a man, possibly a virtual stranger with a European Union passport, to secure her chances of staying in Europe.

Determined though they are to emigrate at any cost, the prospects of freedom and opportunity are rarely enough to satisfy these young émigrés. Of those who leave, most live with intense homesickness. "I miss my family and friends, I miss my city and my country. It was an important experience to live far from those things, but in certain situations -- especially during that coup d'état two years ago -- I really wanted to be back home and couldn't be," says Amirhossein B., a 29-year-old master's student in Milan. "When you came out of Iran, out of your country, especially when you are 25 or 26, you cannot connect with your cultural level in the new society, because you are alien. My biggest problem in Italy is that I don't feel I'm living in a society I love and want to be a part of."

In six months, Amirhossein intends to move back to Tehran and try his hand at improving modern culture in his native society. But he is one of very few -- an overwhelming percentage of those who leave Iran never return. "If I have my passport and conditions get better, I will definitely come back," says Sami. "But I don't see this move as a temporary thing, because I really don't think the conditions will get better. I suppose it's partly because all of the people who can make a difference in Iran are leaving it, which just perpetuates the situation."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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