Distress Geography

It is September 2012.

and after spending two long days in the dingy confines of the smuggler’s abode, he finally drove us out of the village in his beat-up car. Atop a desolate hill, where other individuals were present. The majority of these persons hailed from Afghanistan and Pakistan, numbering perhaps fifty or more. In the corner, patient horses and mules awaited, as if aware of their role in this clandestine operation. The entire scene had a surreal quality to it, leaving me to wonder: could it really be this easy to cross the border with this ragtag band of travelers? Pregnant women, the elderly, and children among them, it seemed like a recipe for disaster. Yet, with a hint of trepidation, we had to admit that it was possible.

I attempted to speak less or to speak with a Dari dialect when necessary. It feared that the smuggler would be suspicious. There is no way to say for certain that he doesn’t collaborate with the police. He definitely pays them to let us cross the border. Any incident should have been avoided. The smuggler even tried to take my photo in the name of selling fake ID but I refused. When he saw that I was behaving like the others, he stopped coming to me.

Paying good money, especially on the Iranian side, will make the border regiment blind! These people have paid up 150-200 dollars to cross the border. Due to the economic crisis and sanctions at that time, the dollar had become very expensive in Iran. It took me about 6 months to finance the trip. And, if someone wanted the trip to be easier, it could cost them up to 500-700 dollars. A smuggler can drive them by car all the way in an hour! In a country where, according to official authorities, the ports and airports are controlled by smugglers, Ahmadinejad was calling them “Dear smuggler brothers!” We all knows he means IRGC. So, yes, it is easy to cross the border like this.

…I wouldn’t look behind. Ahmad fascinated by the sunrise: “Look, how beautiful it is.” Indeed, it was. However, my mind was busy. Still thinking. Behind those mountains, were my family, my love, my friends. Everything was there, left behind those mountains. I thought that beginning tomorrow, I will wake up all alone, somewhere unfamiliar.

These hours are associated with fear and anxiety. The group goes slowly but steadily. We pass through plains and mountains. During the route, we passed a few times the nomads’ living quarters. They move between Iran and Turkey. After more than 12 hours, there was a small gorge with a flowing stream where we entered. While we were resting, our guide showed us a wall and said when he gave the sign, we must run towards it. “When you jump behind the wall, cross the road and the river. That is the border. Don’t stop. Just run fast. There is a track over the river. He is waiting for you.”

There are various tasks, positions and actors that function together to facilitate a journey like this. When you coordinate with the smuggler, he put you in contact with someone that will pick you up at a certain point in the city. Then he will take you to another area/house/apartment in order to finish his collection of potential migrants. And later, another person will take you to the main gathering hot spot. Guides from there take the responsibility until zero point, where they transfer their role to their counterpart on the other side of the border.

Ahmad would take care of his nephew. She was 4 years old, and Qasem would help his wife. The two sons of Qasem, 12 and 7 years old were handed over to me. I would help them jump over the wall and cross the river. This was the 21st of September 2012, about 5 p.m.

Ahmad left Iran with his brother Qasem’s family to Turkey. At the house of the smuggler, I met them. I entered a small room with worried but patient eyes who were looking at me. I entered the space with a greeting. The smuggler said: “These are your companions.” I sat down next to Ahmed, who was younger and appeared the same age as me. Our journey ended in Ankara after a few days.

Qasem told me two months ago they were deported to Afghanistan after living in Iran for nearly 40 years. He was born and raised in Arak, where he got married and his kids were born. He was a professional welder. But he and his family lived all these years without any documents.

“On a Friday, the police came to our house.” Qasem said: “They arrested us. I begged them my children are going to school. I have been living here for many years. My life is here. My wife was begging them a lot.” But the police officer was saying: “We cannot host you anymore. There is no Taliban anymore. You are all illegal and need to leave.” After a few days, they took them to Mashhad city and from there to the border. Qasem said: “I found myself in Afghanistan. I knew nothing about this country. I even never had traveled there before. Two months have hardly passed. We had nothing. I sold everything I had in Iran to pay for this trip.” My depression goes deeper by hearing his family’s story. Now we are on a same road.

Looking up at the hill, we waited for a sign. Following our guide’s hand-wave we all ran towards the wall. I helped the boys to jump on the wall and I pulled myself up. As we ran towards the road, I grabbed both of their hands. To make sure Qasem was on this side of the wall, I looked back. The boys’ parents were behind us.

Suddenly, someone started shouting in the middle of the road: “Don’t go, don’t go, the soldiers are there.” Someone shouted, “No, he says go.” I looked to the other side of the hill and saw a soldier waving. The soldier, sometimes subtly at other moments actively, intended to show us that we should run faster. We continued to run to the other side of the road. Qasem’s younger son started crying as soon as we entered the river. I hugged him and Ahmad shouted: “We are all here, run!” I saw him carrying a 4-year-old girl on his shoulder and crossing the river.

It was enough to relieve me from overthinking about the Iranian secret police when I entered Turkey. Arriving had a great impact on my spirits. A year of a secret life, a year of intense fear and anxiety was coming to an end. Just a month ago my last place has been recognized by the secret police.

We were in the mountains with my friend Karo and others climbing. It was the last time I could visit the cave of Karaftu, where I suppose to work years ago as an researcher. T he cave is located somewhere in the north of Kurdistan province. it was prehistorical site whit incredible painting and sign on the cave. Someone called Karo and he turn to me and said: “he told me don’t come back. it is not safe anymore…” for few minutes we were silent.

We immediately decided to go to Sanandaj. We need to talk with the collective. There, the final decision was made. We had to leave the country. We had about two weeks to prepare. I already tried to collect money from some months ago and that was enough for my trip to Turkey. While I moved there, Karo joined the Communist Party of Iran guerrilla unit in Kurdistan (northern Iraq). Along with military training and responsibilities, he started preparing a TV show. ZED in Farsi means against or opposite. He hosted several interviews and made short documentaries about culture, politics, and criticism of religion and nationalism. Today, Karo is living in Germany. The winter of 2019 in Athens was a great time to catch up with each other after seven years.

After crossing the border, I felt light. But this feeling, feeling of safety was soon forgotten. Now the fear of being arrested by the Turkish police was in my heart. We arrived in a small house in a village. I was there for few days until I arrived in Ankara and I found myself on front of the UNHCR office.

…I am trying to apply for asylum. Many people are waiting in the line for days to register themselves and their families. The population of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq is large. What shows itself from the very beginning is the violent and racist treatment of the police present at the scene; “No speak Turkish? Go back!”

An officer yells at a woman. A young man from Iran who has lived in Turkey for a long time translates his words to us: “He is telling you to stay in the line and not in front of the embassy’s building.” The officer means the Uzbekistan Embassy where the UNHCR office is located on the opposite side. This young man accompanies his friend, who has just arrived in Turkey and wants to apply for asylum. “The same disaster that we inflicted on Afghans in Iran for years, is happening to us today,” he said. And it came to my mind: “Us? Who is this Us? Where is my position in this narrative?”

Although my mind is busy with other thoughts, I continue to look around at the desperate and tired people. I find myself near a small window where the registrar sits. As the person in front is called, the window closes without any announcement and the police disperse everyone with aggression, violence, and arrogance. It is past working hours and no one should stand around the UNHCR office until at least 4 a.m.

I spent the night in a park near the UNHCR office, along with hundreds of other refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. In that cold weather, with the help of Ahmed, along with several other families, we prepared some wood and lit a fire to warm ourselves and the kids. Some people had found plastic bags and cardboard boxes and made a small and compact tent with them, in which several people slept. A charity organization also tried to help the refugees in a selective and very limited way, and distributed amenities such as blankets and tea among them.

We sat on a bench and looked at the exchanges between the charitable and our informal association of the damned for a while. You could be warmed even by looking to the steam of a cup of tea.

I do remember… a day in Spring of 2008… I am with a friend who drives for the Tehran municipal bus company. Due to financial reasons, he left university and works on Tehran’s southeast bus line. We talk about history and politics while he drives the bus. After a few stations, some passengers called for a stop. He said “Look,” turning my attention to the other side of the bus. Thousands of Afghans are gathering in front of a stadium and trying to extend their residency. It is a windy noon and dusty in front of the stadium. There is nothing there, no shade, no tree. Dust everywhere. In this scorching heat, cars are speeding. When the wind blows, more dust rises into the air. Many people are sweltering. It is uncomfortably hot at noon. My soul is on fire when Saeed starts driving; “Yes Sia jan.” he said and continued: “Thousands of people in this country live like this. They came from war and Taliban. Now look at the predatory regime that holds them hostage. And we are all Muslim! We have to unite! Supposed to be brothers. Now look how we treat them… We have oil. We have resources. But look how we are living.”

In those years, Afghans and some other foreigners were banned from living, working and studying in almost 20 of Iran’s 31 provinces. Asylum services that they were entitled to were cut off some time ago, and they were forced to pay large amounts of money under the municipal law that gathers utility tolls and taxes to live in Iran. They are compelled to pay for each person’s resident permit about 150,000 Iranian currency; the minimum wage based on labor law was around 170,000. And, of course, as an Afghan, they get paid even less.

The minimum salary couldn’t cover a month’s living expenses. It was already opposed by Iranian labor activists and unionists. Afghan students paid tuition fees to the government for education. Various types of employment were not possible or open to them. Also, where they had a modicum of success, they lost possessions, mortgages, and were compelled to rent.

The government officials started to claim that Afghan immigrants hurt Iran’s labor market and economy. In fact, the government trade union even carried a banner that said the “Afghan workers should be deported” during an International Labor Day demonstration. Afghans become the target everywhere. But at the same time, the Free Union of Iranian Workers, which was an independent organization I was a member, in response to the slogans against foreign workers, described them as “fascist words.” We stressed that “For Iranian workers, Afghan workers are the dearest people and our working-class brothers.”

Even the word “Afghan” became a type of insult that people used for each other. It was also false and baseless to accuse Afghans of being criminal. In light of the large number of Afghan refugees (about 7 million back then), the crime rate among them was very low.

Previously, I expressed solidarity with migrants and refugees who were subject to exploitation, abuse, and falsely criminalized. Here and now, I am one of this caste and outcasts.

Early in the morning at 3 o’clock, I returned in front of the UNHCR. Even at that hour of the morning, there were hundreds of people in line. Later Ahmad’s family joined us. After hours of fatigue and hunger, it was finally my turn around 12 noon. I showed some of my documents to the registrar officer and he asked me to wait. Someone mentioned the names of some cities and asked me which city I would like to go. I was completely confused. I asked him what he meant, and he repeated again, “Where do you want to go among these cities?” I responded “I don’t know. where are they?” He said: “One of them was near the sea and the other one, near the mountains.” I accepted the second one.

I was waiting for the UNHCR registration paper when a man about my age started talking. He was from Syria and his legs were wounded in a military attack. His hands were broken and body was in a bad shape. He had just been discharged from the hospital and wanted try to stay in Ankara. The answer was as follows: “The Turkish government has opened a refugee camp for you at the border and all necessary services will be provided to you there.” He mentioned that he could not even walk. How can he go there? The interpreter shrugged her shoulders and said “You should go back to the camp.”

“Tokat” in Turkish means slap. This was the name of the city I chose. Ahmad’s family also selected the same city. But after a few days they left to another city were Qasem’s wife had some relatives. We all got our tickets and arrived about 6 a.m. We asked people: “Where is the police station?” An old lady showed me and we walked. I think we were more than 100 people. When we arrived, a police officer approached us. Without interpreter he started to talk. Nobody could understand what he was saying. He just directed us to sit somewhere. After a few hours, a young man appears as an interpreter. He said: “Everyone needs to rent a house and bring the lease agreement so they can be registered.” Registration was the important step to receive resident documents.

I had no money. I had no contact with anyone. I had to find a phone first and then call someone from my political party and inform them of my arrival, and later, trying to contact my family…

I spent one month in the city bus station, and almost every day, some police officers kept asking me “Why did you come here? What do you want? What is this life?” How did they want me to answer them? This was every day until two Iranian journalists arrived. Sam and Sogand. They are both in Canada now. I got help from my friends and some my family. Then, we rented an apartment together. We paid a lot for rent and other administrative works. Back at that time it was 75 dollars for a resident permit and 45 dollars for the document itself.

Days and weeks passed. It was a never-ending series of problems. A day about documents. A day about work. A day about salary. During these times, I had to overcome my illness, treatment for depression, and the delusions that I had. Days and weeks passed… To prove your residency, you need to visit the police department twice a week and sign a piece of paper. It was not possible to travel without the permission of the police. I had a hard time finding a job. Sometimes they wouldn’t pay anything after my work was completed. Stopping you on the street for a check, the main question of authorities: “Why don’t you speak Turkish?”

So, disjointed, I ironically formed a wide network of human relationships. One part of my embryonic community naturally formed through family relationships. The other part gradually formed through daily activities such as education, making friends, and employment. All are no longer available to the refugees. Or, at the very least, refugees are threatened with losing a large part of their humanity and viable function and roles in the societies they arrive.

Rebuilding such a network of family, fellowship, and self-reliance in the new place is impossible, possible with great difficulty, or to a very limited extent. Due to their organic nature, kinship relationships cannot be created and sustained virtually, and social relationships are difficult to build due to linguistic and cultural barriers.

Days and weeks have passed. I remember the day when I received the protection from the UNHCR. Almost a year after arriving in Turkey. The UNHCR officer told me: “Congratulations, your asylum application has been accepted!” And asked me: “Which country would you like to go?!” I smiled and asked “What do you mean? Is this an immigration agency?” He didn’t say anything, but he wrote something on his papers. Then he handed me a document which certified that I should not be forcibly returned to Iran where my life and freedom is threatened! This was a time to get lost. Between here and nowhere. In the place where you were born and raised, your life has now been threatened? And a piece of paper confirms this!

A few months later they announced my third country resettlement will be Finland, which never happened. They claimed that there are too many asylum seekers in European countries, and they are not willing to accept refugees from Turkey at the moment. The number of cases that Finland accepted from Turkey every year was less than 50! Now they claimed that this number was too high. So again, I and many others, had to wait!

The result of such a situation is a desperate and naked life. It as if you are a prisoner trying to find a place between “humans” and “animals.” Or that you are in a prison declared “inhumane” only to be sent to another degrading cell block. It is a situation that is characterized by a decline in morals. You will become a target for all kinds of attacks, a miserable entity that begs for basic needs, just a number throughout all levels of government.

It didn’t even cross my mind that, 3 years later, I would have to escape to another country again to ask for asylum.

Photo by myself: Ankara castle – winter 2016.

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