Fleeing Iran: Accross the border to the West
Published in “Der Spiegel” on November 30, 2009
By Ulrike Putz, Beirut
They flee accross the green line of the theocratic state, in permanent fear that their relatives at home might have to answer for it. Since after the elections, thousands of progressive Iranians have gone into exile. In Berlin, Paris and London they try to make a new start; their future is uncertain.
Mirta went into exile on labyrinthine paths. In cold nights, she walked accross the mountains to reach the Iranian-Turkish border. From there, smugglers took her to Turkey on a horse. Hiding behind the load of a truck she reached Istanbul, where she got herself a forged passport. With this passport, the 23 year-old Iranian traveled to Germany where she applied for political asylum. How long she will be able to stay is uncertain. The only thing the journalist knows for sure is that there is no going back to Iran, probably for a very long time.
Following the disputed election of 12. June and the birth of the new Iranian protest movement against the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a wave of migration to the West. In the past months thousands of progressive, reformist Iranians emigrated for political reasons, more or less of their own will, either by airplane or, like Mirta, on secret paths. Others who happened to be abroad during the elections did not even return home for fear of reprisal. Thus, a new generation of Iranian exiles has come into being that is now trying to settle down in Berlin and Paris, in London and in the major cities of the USA.
Most of those who venture to try to make a new start are young and well educated. Students, journalists, political activists: Iran is losing its best brains due to the tense political situation. According to “Reporters without borders”, more than 100 Iranian journalists have reached Europe after the elections, many others have fled to Turkey or Iraq where they are now waiting to get a visa for a Western country. In Paris alone, one of the traditional strongholds of Iranian exile, hundreds of new Iranian exiles were registered since last summer, says a Western diplomat. More or less the same is true for Berlin.
Mirta left her country because she was threatened. She was one of 293 Iranian journalists who signed an appeal in mid August to protest against the crackdown on the election protests in Iran. After the appeal was published, most of the signatories were summoned by the intelligence service, among them was Mirta. “I did not go, and then the threatening phone calls started”, she said during a conversation in a northern German reception camp for asylum seekers. One after the other, the signatories of the appeal were detained. The wave of arrests is still continuing – last Sunday they came to arrest the journalist Sasan Aghai – he too had signed the appeal.
Family, boy friend, social life – all this now belongs to the past
For fear of also being imprisoned Mirta did not sleep at home for two weeks, until friends made contact with a smuggler. “I had to leave behind my family, my friends, my beloved Tehran. I had to flee my own country with just a backpack and my memories of 23 years.” Mirta could not even tell her parents about her plans, for fear of causing difficulties for them. Only after she reached Germany, where she has a brother, she called home. “I don’t know when I will see my parents again”, says the journalist. She had to pay 10.000 dollars for her escape.
The new exiles are supported in making their new start by Iranians who left Iran a long time ago. One of them is Sohrab Mokhtari, a contact person for newcomers in Berlin. Mokhtari, 24, has been living in Germany since 2003. His family name is known to almost everyone arriving here these days. Sohrab’s father Mohammad was a well-known Iranian writer. He was abducted in December 1998, his body was found one week later. He was a victim of the so-called chain murders, supposedly committed by state security forces. The family made efforts to have the case investigated and was under permanent observation. For a couple of years they managed to withstand the pressure, however, eventually they left Iran.
One day after the disputed elections in Iran, Mokthari and his Iranian friends in Berlin founded the “Network of young Iranians in Berlin”. “We wanted to show our support for the protest movement at home”, the student explains. For many supporters it was not an easy decision to join the group, for it meant to burn their bridges. If members of the network return to Iran, they face the risk of being arrested on their arrival at the airport.
“When I arrived in Germany I was not able to feel any happiness”
“Many of my Iranian friends in Berlin have become expat Iranians over night”, says Mokhtari. Even in Berlin the activists can feel the effects of having fallen from grace with the regime in Tehran. “Almost all of them receive phone calls from strangers who immediately hang up.” The mother of one member of the network in Berlin was called and threatened.
The “old” and the “new” expat Iranians assume that every phone call with the family in Iran is being eavesdropped, every e-mail is being read. It is impossible to talk openly about how the children abroad or the parents back home get along. “That’s hard”, says Mokhtari.
“I always loved traveling”, says Mirta, who will still have to deal with all the routine errands a newcomer has to go through. Looking for flat, first shopping tours at Ikea, later the language class at the “Volkshochschule” [evening classes for adults]. Before she can begin her life in Germany, she must be released from the reception camp first, her [residence permit] status needs to be clarified. “None of us who left Iran after the elections hoped to find a better job in Europe”, she says. She and all the others were forced to save their own lives – otherwise they would have stayed. “When I arrived in Germany I was not able to feel any happiness”, she explains. She says it feels like someone locked her memories up in a box, “and then took the key away from me”.