Iranian Refugees: 3 of 50 of 4 000

2010/09/05

Published in German weekly “Die Zeit” on 5 September 2010
Source (German): http://www.zeit.de/2010/36/WOS-Iranische-Fluechtlinge
English translation kindly provided by Joul

4 000 Iranians have fled to Turkey last year. 50 of them were now granted asylum in Germany. We spoke to 3 of them.

By Vera Gaserow

Sepehr Atefi, Ali Kantouri and Hesam Misaghi in Berlin (photo: Tobias Kruse)

The apartment in the center of Berlin is hired. Ali gets the biggest room. Sepehr takes the brightest one. Hesam is happy with the smallest one that is overlooking the courtyard. In return he wants the corner of the corridor, because “that’s where the bar will be” – “No, that’s the place to meditate”, Sepehr jokes.

The three men take possession of their new home, they mark their territories – typical flat sharing rituals. While Hesam is opening the window he says: „When the Iranian intelligence shows up we can escape over the balustrade.“ All three of them start laughing – now that they are safe. They have started coming back to live after months of fear and uncertainty. They made it to Germany.

In summer of 2009, a controversial presidential election took place in Iran. The opposition movement is calling it a fraud. Powerful protests started in the streets of Tehran, until the government at last managed to crush the Green revolution movement. Activists were persecuted. 4 000 Iranians fled to Turkey where they now live in miserable conditions.

The UN refugee agency suggested to allocate them to other countries – but their proposal has virtually evoked no response. At first, the German federal government announced it would accept only 20 human rights activists, journalists, bloggers and students. By now, after all, the number has been increased to 50. Ali Kantouri, Sepehr Atefi and Hesam Misaghi are among the first refugees who arrived in Germany.

Hesam Misaghi still remembers the day when he arrived in Berlin. It was the 29th of July 2010. „I had a feeling of freedom that I never knew in Iran. It is the first time I can start to think of my own life and future again.“

At that time Hesam – a lanky student of Anglistics, whose dark glasses seem to dominate his appearance – had already gone through an odyssey for months. In his hometown, he had worked with the Committee of Human Rights Reporters. Sepehr Atefi, his friend, a high-school graduate, was active there as well. They were aware that it was dangerous to report about human rights abuses in Iran on their website.

When several of their combatants disappeared behind prison walls after the presidential election last summer, the two friends went into hiding. For a high amount of money, bootleggers helped them to cross the border to Turkey in winter, on impassable mountain trails. “Turkey was hell”, said Hesam Misaghi. They were five in a small apartment in the suburb of a satellite town, jobless and always in fear of the Iranian intelligence service.

The fear of being discovered – Ali Kantouri does not want to talk about it. The 29 year old prefers to talk about politics, about the lack of rights of Iranian workers, about the suppression of women. Hesitantly, he describes what he has lived through in the past years. “They did to me what they did to all of them.” The past makes him unable to breathe, causes him headaches, deprives him of his sleep.

Two and a half years ago, before the Green revolution movement came to life, the Iranian intelligence services had incarcerated him in the notorious section 209 of Tehran’s Evin prison, because he was a political and human rights activist. He was interrogated for several days and nights, blindfolded, beaten and humiliated by five men. They singed the genitals of his friends in front of his eyes. They forced his little brother to listen to his cries of pain on the phone.

Ali Kantouri talks about his sudden asthma attacks, and mentions that he has lost 15 kg of weight; he was dangerously ill. Only after his family paid 150.000 US dollar on bail he was finally released. His parents registered their entire estate as a guarantee for him. Now his family might lose everything, because he has fled from his 18 year imprisonment to which he was sentenced by the court for the charge of rioting.

His knees start moving restlessly under the table. It visibly exhausts him to talk about what he has been through. “Enough for now”, he says. Apart from that, it’s no big deal, he says. “I’m fine.” He now undergoes therapy at the center for treatment of torture victims in Berlin.

Ali Kantouri was lucky, and he knows it. He enjoys “this atmosphere of profound freedom” in his exile. “I am glad to be here in Germany, but it makes me sad that there are thousands of others who do not have this chance.”

That’s why every Friday evening he and his friends set off to the Brandenburger Tor where the Berlin Vigil for Iran has been demonstrating solidarity with the Green Revolution movement throughout the past year. One of their demands is to admit more Iranian refugees to Germany. The activists read out a list of names: “Missing in Iran since 8th of August 2010” – “Detained and tortured in Iran for fifteen months”.

Ali Kantouri, Hesam Misaghi and Sepehr Atefi are no longer on the list. They can make plans for their future now. Hesam Misaghi wants to study social sciences or “something related to films”. Ali Kantouri, who used to be a successful karate fighter, is going to resume practice for the first time in years. Sepehr Atefi wants to study and be a writer. They all dream of returning to Iran, one day.

Now they have to get acquainted with life in Berlin. “Wohnberechtigungsschein”, “Job Center” – these are their first bits of German officialese. German bureaucracy seems to be impermeable, but German and Iranian friends help them to cope with it. Moreover, they have a letter of recommendation from the Berlin senate. They were granted a special residence permit that allows them to work and study. And now, they even have an apartment.

Two weeks ago, the job center of the employment agency granted them an amount of money to be used to furnish their flat – “for a good start in Germany”, as the helpful lady at the job center said.

And what about the language? Sepehr Atefi learned that food in Germany tastes “lecker” [delicious]. Ali Kantouri likes the word “romantisch” [romantic]. Hesam Misaghi added a new phrase to his vocabulary this summer which his two friends know too: “Ich bin optimistisch” [“I feel optimistic”].

Edited by @germantoenglish

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