“Asylum seeking is hard, but I have been through worse,” Sina says. “The hardest time of my life was the seven months I spent on a death row ward in Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad.
“That place drove me crazy. There was an execution every two weeks. There was a 26-year-old man who always had a smile on his face. One day they called his name and hanged him at 2pm.”
He breaks down in tears. Life for the 35-year-old Iranian refugee has not been easy. He has now been stuck in Greece for two and a half years, after spending two years in Turkey.
“I have decided to stay here to wait for my permits, as I cannot risk my life any further,” he says. “I am an impatient man, but being here has made me patient. An asylum-seeking life changes you.”
Illness and Debt
I first meet Sina in the middle of the night in the Exarchia neighborhood of Athens, near Omonoia Square. This is the home of the anarchists, and doors and walls everywhere are plastered with graffiti.
Having walked through a series of narrow alleyways, I arrive at the epicenter of the district: a park full of refugees from around the world. Sina is one of them.
We strike up a conversation and he tells me he joined the anarchists after spending a year and a half on the streets.
“It’s not that bad around here,” he says. “But when I get my documents, I can finally start to live properly.”
Iranian refugees say the anarchists are the only ones offering them shelter. In return for free rent, they join them in street protests against the police and Fascists
Sina’s life used to be very different. His father was a truck driver, and he was brought up in a comfortable middle-class household in Mashhad. Then, in a flash, everything changed.
“My sister was diagnosed with cancer,” he tells me. “We had to move to Tehran and pay huge amounts for medical expenses. We had to sell everything.”
After two and a half years, the doctors informed them there was nothing more they could do for the young girl. The family decided to move back to their hometown, but they could no longer afford to live in their old neighborhood.
“We were enormously in debt,” Sina says. “We were under zero.”
Sina dropped out of high school after a year to become a trader. With his father’s connections, he bought 10 tons of rice and a tiny store in the bazaar to start his business.
The store changed his life. He was 24 when he met his wife-to-be, a 13-year-old girl from a well-connected family who frequently visited him during the day. She asked him out on a date, and a year later they were married.
Her parents, who did not give their consent to the match, were furious. They launched a lawsuit against him, and two years later he was arrested.
“My father-in-law took my car and store and threatened to kill me,” Sina says. “I was in prison for 20 days because I didn’t want a divorce. I never found out why she chose to divorce me. She just told me to ask my friends [to remind him what he had done].
“Her father had many police friends, and I think they placed drugs or something in my stuff and showed her. After 29 days, I signed the divorce papers.
“They had already taken everything they could from me. She came to get the signature she needed and I never saw her again.”
Sina pauses and lights a cigarette. “I lost five years of my life. Money is not important, as you can work more and make it again. But my spirit was badly damaged.”
“A Slow Death”
Soon after the divorce, Sina began selling illegal meth made by his friend.
“Drug money was good. We spent a lot of money every day. There was one girl I gave free drugs to so she wouldn’t go out and sell her body for a few grams.
“I wasn’t a bad person. I was making good money for myself while helping others out as well.”
In 2012, Sina was caught and jailed for three years. He was in prison when his father was shot and killed. The attack happened outside of Iran’s borders, and Sina’s family never found out who murdered him or why.
The funeral, he says, was the worst day of his life. “I couldn’t be with my family and I had to have two armed guards. Until that day, nobody knew where I was, but then everyone found out. It ruined my life.”
Prison life was very tough, he says. When he was arrested, the guards tied his hands to a pipe and beat him with hard objects. After that, the beatings continued as a “routine” every day.
But living in a ward with criminals on death row was the worst form of torture.
“The atmosphere in this ward was different from any other place in the prison. There were some people praying for their life 24/7 and some with no care at all. It was a terrible place: a place with no exit.”
Vakilabad Prison was a haven of drugs, he adds. “The guards gave opioid pills to everyone to control them. The prisoners loved it, but it was nothing but a slow death. They got addicted, so even if they got out, they would go back on the drugs and be arrested again.”
On the death row ward, drugs were even more widespread. “Everything was allowed. There was no curfew, no rules. Prisoners would pay people from outside to bring them drugs. They could do whatever they pleased.”
From Prison Cell to Prison Cell
After he was released from prison, Sina tried to start a new life for himself in the countryside. However, his criminal record prevented him from finding a job.
Eventually, he decided to sell what he could and leave Iran.
In Turkey, he made reasonable money working in construction. He was able to buy a car and start building a life for himself. But then he was cheated by a friend who claimed he could help him reach Europe.
“He told me his brother was also a refugee and could help me reach Germany directly. He convinced me. I sold my car and gave him €500 (US$570).
“He sent me to Greece, but I got arrested on the border and never heard from him again. I know he bought meth with my money, as he also got arrested and is now in prison with his wife.”
Sina was in prison for 40 days. “It was horrible. People were suffering from thousands of skin diseases. There was no fresh air and we all were cramped together in a room with 50 metal beds.
“The guards had nothing to do but insult us.”
After he left prison, he received his refugee documents and was free to go wherever he wished in Greece. But he had no money so was forced to live on the street.
“People want to go to Europe to get the benefits, but I just want to work and make my own money,” he says. “I would stay here if I could get a job, but the only thing you can find here is washing dishes for 12 hours a day for €20 (US$23).
“I haven’t even learned the language, as it was difficult to do that on the street. Everything was difficult. It was hot during the day and cold at night. We had no idea what to wear. I needed to wash, but nobody helped me out.
“Usually I slept in a park north of Exarchia. There was an abandoned store with broken windows that sheltered me during rain and snow.
“To find food, I would go to fast food restaurants at night to collect their leftovers. I still know so many people who get their food that way.”
Fighting Against the System
One of the reasons Sina joined the anarchists was to help other immigrants, he says.
“I did not want anybody else to go through what I did. I like the idea of freedom the anarchists promote, and I love the fact they are fighting against the system.
Refugees join in anarchists' protests against the police and Fascists
“They are not silent in the face of injustice, and they are not looking for power or money. They are fighting for their ideals.”
At night, the anarchists would go out and destroy cars, burn ATMs and stir up violence. Sina does not want to be a criminal anymore, but in his position he feels illegal activity is very difficult to avoid.
“Not everyone can bear this kind of life, but many people do. I don’t want to go back. I’ll continue waiting until I can leave Greece legally.
“I don’t want to be a criminal, but you can see how in this situation it can make everything easier.”
We return to the park and Sina introduces me to everyone. One man is sitting in a wheelchair. He was paralyzed by one of the mafia bosses, he explains, because he wanted to work with another gang. But then the boss forgave him and let him remain in the park.
We are sitting together talking when a gang of anti-immigrant protesters enter the park wearing triangle hats that reveal their identities. They catch everyone’s attention.
Sina tells me not to take out my camera. “It will cause a fight. No one around here wants to be caught on camera.”
Sometimes the fights result in people being killed, Sina says. “But no one even talks about them.”
Belief in a Borderless World
The park feels like a kind of Purgatory. Everyone is sitting around just killing time. The odor of marijuana is everywhere. Brawls break out regularly.
“I’ve been stuck in Exarchia for three years,” one of the refugees who is dealing drugs tells me. “I wish they’d just let me know when my documents will be ready. We go to the immigration office every week without finding anything new.”
Another young man who wishes to go to Belgium says he has been here for two years. “All my friends are there, and they told me there are amazing music festivals in Belgium. But I am stuck here.”
The men say the anarchists are the only ones offering them shelter. In return for free rent, the refugees join in anarchist street protests against the police and Fascists.
A 15-year-old boy joins us who seems hungry and agitated. He is given a sandwich by the refugees and he speaks to me while he eats. “My whole family have made it to Germany, but I’ve been living in Exarchia for three years. Nobody answers my questions or lets me leave.
“I’m underage, but nobody provides me with shelter, food or money. I have nothing.”
I ask Sina if he feels he deserves refugee status, as he was a criminal in Iran and his life was not in danger.
“It’s true that when I left the country no danger was facing me,” he replies. “But I was tired of that life. I think every human being should be able to choose where to live. The world should have no borders.
“If the system doesn’t allow us to be free, we should try to become citizens of the Earth. In this way, we can gain our freedom back.”
Read other articles in the series: