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Series | Cold Refuge: An Iranian Protestor's Two Years in Turkey

by ASHLEY CLEEK

19 Apr 2012 20:23Comments
DSC_0105.jpgDSC_0104.jpgBeginning the story of Kaveh Sanjabi and his long journey from home.

[ series ] Overnight, the temperature in Nevsehir has dropped to 15 below zero Celsius. Waves of snow have crashed and frozen against buildings, and the small alley sloping down to the street is a solid bank of snow and ice.

Kaveh Sanjabi points to where the path should be. He has warned me that walking will be difficult, but I have insisted that we go outside. We sidestep down sheets of translucent ice; the alley is lined with concrete shells of buildings. In this poor neighborhood, the facades of former apartments have long since fallen away; trash piles up in the corners and graffiti crisscrosses the remaining walls. We are almost at the bottom of the hill when Kaveh's foot slips and he falls flat on his back. This is why he says he doesn't go out much.

Kaveh Sanjabi is 24 years old. This is his second -- and, he hopes, last -- winter in Nevsehir, a small, conservative town almost in the dead center of Turkey. Nevsehir is the second-largest resettlement city for Iranian refugees in Turkey. Kaveh arrived as a refugee here almost two years ago, and, like the other 800 or so Iranian refugees living in Nevsehir, he is just waiting to get out.

In 2010, Kaveh left Iran after he was handed a prison sentence for taking part in protests following the disputed 2009 election. "I didn't do anything illegal," he says with a frustrated smile. "I was just in the street chanting. That fact aside, I used to write something in a journal in my university. It was for my classmates and nothing more." Kaveh was arrested and spent 17 days in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. After he was released, a judge sentenced Kaveh to two years in prison. To avoid jail, Kaveh's family paid a smuggler to take him to Turkey.

Kaveh traveled by foot and donkey across the mountains that run along the Turkish-Iranian border to the city of Van in eastern Turkey. In Van, he took 100 dollars and the address of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees he had hidden in his underwear and paid a cab to take him to the UNHCR. After a brief meeting, the U.N. assured Kaveh he was safe in Turkey but told him he had to go to another city, Nevsehir, to wait for further interviews. So Kaveh took a 17-hour bus ride into central Anatolia, to Nevsehir, where he has lived ever since.

The UNHCR reports that there are 5,488 Iranian refugees now living in Turkey. Iranians flee to Turkey for a number of reasons, but the most often cited are persecution on religious grounds -- particularly against Bahai's, who form a large percentage of refugees in Turkey -- political grounds, and against homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people.

Kaveh rents a small house for 300 Turkish lira with two other refugees, Mohsen and a doctor who did not want to give his name. The house is large and clean; two sets of secondhand sofas line the walls of the living room, and the tables are set with bowls of fruit and chocolate. But the house has no heat, so the men rotate two large space heaters from the living room to the bedrooms when they go to sleep. In winter, the neighborhood often loses power, sometimes just for an hour, sometimes overnight. Sitting in the dark, with no Internet or heat, Kaveh says those are the moments when he really feels frustrated.

Mohsen, Kaveh, and the doctor live in an easy symbiosis. The doctor and Mohsen cook, while Kaveh does the grocery shopping and the dishes. During my stay, we eat large breakfasts every day, but normally they say they wake up late, around noon, and make only lunch or dinner. Most days, Kaveh says, they pass the time playing cards or backgammon; sometimes they talk about Iran or their cases. There are two pizza places in Nevsehir, and a mall on the other side of town has a few coffee shops and a food court, but mostly, their days are filled with waiting.

There is no certain wait time for Iranian refugees in Turkey. Refugees claim that the cases of Baha'is and refugees fleeing persecution due to sexual orientation are processed the quickest. Baha'is' cases take around 18 months. The head volunteer at the Baha'i center in Nevsehir says sometimes refugees will come in claiming to be Baha'i or asking to convert, in hopes that their case will proceed faster. The center, in cooperation with the U.N., performs extensive background checks. On average, political cases take from 18 to 24 months, though some refugees have been waiting for upward of four years.

Refugees are expressly forbidden from working or studying while they are in Turkey. While some work illegally in shops or as tour guides, they can face deportation if they are caught by local police. Kaveh translates various documents from Persian to English for money. "But it isn't enough," Kaveh admits, and he has had to ask his parents to support him while he waits for his case to be completed.

In the winter, Kaveh ventures outside only twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday, when he is required to sign in the police station, about a half a mile away. The Turkish police require all refugees to sign in twice weekly and to ask for permission to leave Neveshir. Refugees complain that the police are cold and unhelpful. Kaveh attempted to make a documentary about the lives of refugees in Nevsehir, but when he tried to film refugees checking in at the station with a small handheld camera, the police caught him. They confiscated his camera and warned him that if he was caught again, he could be deported.

Kaveh's roommate Mohsen spends most of his time -- he estimates about ten hours a day -- on his computer, learning English. His bookmarks bar is full of English instruction sites and Facebook language groups. Mohsen didn't speak any English before he came to Turkey, and the hours and hours of study are paying off. But mostly, Mohsen is bored. He wants to work, and 17 months of waiting has drained all his savings. His family has sent him a little money, but as he continues to wait, he worries that this too may run out. In Iran, Mohsen was a lawyer and taught human rights at two universities near Shiraz. It's a life that Mohsen finds hard to imagine and explain now.

"I remember I went [to] buy something, some vegetable and fruit and I couldn't speak Turkish well, and when I asked for something, the man said, 'Where are you from?' I said, 'Iran.' And he said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'I can't explain, but I'm a refugee here. I had some problem in Iran and I had to leave my country and I'm here.' And he asked me, 'What do you do, what's your job?' And I said, 'I'm a lawyer.' And he laughed and said, 'You?' I thought if I want to explain it, maybe it's so weird for him and maybe he didn't believe me. They thought I'm a liar, that I said a lie to him."

Kaveh spends most of his time in his room reading and watching movies. His room is small; thin paraffin cutouts cover the windows for privacy. A guitar leans untouched in the corner (Kaveh says he hasn't been in the mood to play), and a poster of Che Guevara hangs on the wall above a narrow bed. Books crowd a high shelf. Persian and English volumes lean against each other -- Susan Sontag is nestled against a Persian version of Nietzsche; there's Camus and Samuel Beckett. Kaveh wasn't able to bring anything out of Iran, but slowly, visiting friends have brought him books.

One night, Kaveh plays me his new favorite movie, François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, based on the book by Ray Bradbury. We sit on the sofa, his laptop on the table angled toward us. Kaveh has watched the 1966 film several times, and as it plays he looks over at me to gauge my reaction: Do I understand it like he does? "This was my situation," Kaveh says, "this is Iran now."

In comparison to other refugees, Kaveh's case has moved quickly, and he hasn't experienced any lengthy delays. He shows me the UNHCR website. He puts in his name and case number and a page comes up with "Kaveh Sanjabi," "Refugee Approved," and "Canada" all in bold. "Right now I check it every month, but there was a time that I used to check it every week, because it is updated every week, not any sooner," Kaveh explains. "But right now, I don't care. I can wait."

After dinner one night, Kaveh, Mohsen, and I sit playing cards, passing the time before I have to get on the bus to go home. We shuffle through a few games of hokum, when suddenly the power goes out. Kaveh sighs heavily and we all sit quietly. The lights flicker on twice; it is only a moment, but enough to spark hope that the electricity won't be out till morning. But it's a false hope. After an hour, Kaveh helps me collect my bag. He insists on walking me to the bus stop. We walk quickly and quietly down the empty boulevard. Kaveh is noticeably frustrated and worried that it will be a long, cold night. We say goodbye at the bus stop, and I get into an overly heated bus, wrap myself in a blanket, and sleep through the 11-hour trip back to Istanbul.

In the morning, I get a text from Kaveh: "Power finally came back on, but I am glad you were not here."

Since I visited Nevsehir a month ago, some things have changed. The snow has melted, and it is officially spring. Mohsen received confirmation that he will be able to go to the United States, and Kaveh's wait is getting shorter and shorter. Now he just has to wait for the Canadian embassy to issue his visa and his flight to be scheduled out of Istanbul. He'll probably be in British Columbia by summer.

Kaveh says he doesn't much care where he is. He doesn't feel allegiance to any country or any government. Once he is in Canada, Kaveh says, he plans to forget the two years he spent in Nevsehir. "You know," he says, "we are a refugee as long as we are here. So if someone asks me [about being a refugee], I will deny it; you know, no one needs to know and it's not pleasant. Most people are ignorant, with all due respect, and they have these closed-minded theories of refugees and Iran. So I will not tell anyone about this story. I'm sure no one would be interested either."

Homepage photo of Nevsehir sky via Flickr.

related reading | Running to Stand Still: The Long Wait for Iran's Refugee Journalists

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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