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“The world is now a smaller place for Iranian refugees"

February 1, 2017
Shima Shahrabi
6 min read
“The world is now a smaller place for Iranian refugees"

They have been repeatedly arrested, interrogated and threatened in retaliation for their work, and some of them have been banned from leaving Iran. When the pressure made their lives unbearable, they packed what they could in suitcases and fled. Many of them arrived outside the offices of the United Nations in Turkey, hoping to find an escape from their native land, somewhere far away from the prospect of prison, persecution and harassment. These are the exiled journalists of Iran, and many of them have already been waiting a long time, some of them years. 

Now that President Donald Trump’s executive order to suspend admission of refugees for 120 days is in place, the wait will be even longer. 

Sharagim Zand enjoyed success as a blogger and satirist for 10 years in Iran, writing under his own name and enjoying a substantial following on Facebook and other social networks. “I published my social and political opinions with disregard for the government’s red lines,” he told IranWire. “In those 10 years I wrote about everything. Some of the writing was satirical and some of it voiced harsh criticism of the government or even religion. I published on my blogs and later on Facebook. But eventually I was banned from leaving the country and was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence for my writing.”

Two years and seven months ago, Zand submitted his request for asylum to the UN office in Turkey. “The crackdown on internet users was widespread and there was no guarantee that I would remain free if I responded to the summons,” he said. “So I decided to cross the border illegally into Turkey and in early summer of 2014 I submitted my request for asylum to the UN.”

Zand is now waiting for the asylum process to go forward, but it has never been clear how long it will take. “Eight months passed before I was given an interview,” he said. “Even then they only asked me the introductory questions and opened a case for me. It took another year for my main interview and around eight months ago I was informed that the UN had accepted my request for asylum. But I am still waiting to be told about the country that will be my final destination.”

Zand says one of the most frustrating parts of applying for asylum is the complete lack of transparency of the process, which he describes as “tormenting.” 

“If you enter Turkey and ask for asylum you don’t know whether you will have to wait for two years or four years or more,” he said. Although he has not been told where he will go, Zand’s mother lives in the United States, so that has been his preferred choice. Now Trump’s recent executive order is likely to have an impact on that outcome.

Suspense Prolonged 

“To be honest, at this moment I don’t care what country I  end up in,” he said. “The biggest torment for me and many refugees is that our lives are on hold. Up to now the US had accepted a large number of refugees from Turkey. But even that required a year or two of waiting to go through the admission process — from International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) interviews to security checks, and so on. Now that this process has been interrupted, people like me will have to wait in Turkey longer.”

Zand said Trump’s order has frustrated and dismayed many Iranian refugees. “Many asylum seekers are frightened and desperate. The only thought that calms a real refugee is that even though he has lost his mother country, the world is a big place and he can start a new life somewhere else. But the world is now a smaller place for Iranian refugees."

Only recently, Maryam and her husband were just one step away from their final destination, the United States. “After four years we were finally on the verge of a medical test,” she said. “The US had accepted us as refugees and this was the final phase before our flight.”

The couple are both journalists. Maryam was the technical director of the internet service provider Pars Online and a freelance contributor to various newspapers and publications. Javad had been arrested two times and had appealed to the UN for asylum four years ago, before he married Maryam. When they married, the asylum process was delayed. As it progressed, they discovered the United States was one of the only countries that accepted Iranian refugees, so they applied for asylum there. 

“When you apply to the US, the process is even longer,” Maryam told IranWire. “In addition to the UN interview, American officials conduct a series of interviews.” The process has dragged on so long that twice they requested for a change of country. “If a request for cancellation is accepted, then the case goes back to the UN and another country is selected. But we were told that the process was in its final phases and could not be cancelled.”

The UN has interviewed both Maryam and Javad twice. Javad has also had interviews with the ICMC and US officials. They were so close, but now they are frustrated and miserable. “Our final interview with an American officer was scheduled for February 15, but yesterday they called and told us that the interview had been cancelled because of Donald Trump’s order. Being a refugee is difficult enough. This kind of interruption empties you out. We only hope that it won’t get any more difficult than this.”

“Will we See our Family ever Again?”

Some Iranian journalists have been granted Green Cards, which in previous times meant they could live in the United States as a resident and would no longer be considered a refugee. But Trump’s executive order has affected these people too. “They say that Green Card holders are interrogated only in exceptional cases,” one journalist who lives in Washington DC told IranWire. “But the anxiety is there. We are also worried about the future. Are we going to lose the chance to see our family members in the US forever?”

Before being admitted to the US, this particular journalist had refugee status in Turkey for four years. “The UN part lasted a year but the American part took about three,” he said. “I had friends whose situation was similar to mine but since they were going to Europe they were able to go quickly after the UN accepted them. But seeking asylum in the US is a different story. Beside the UN interview, you have to have two interviews [with people working in] the American asylum system. And then comes the long process of security checks.” 

He recalled the interview questions. “Some questions were similar to those the UN asked, like why I did I leave Iran and what would happen if I returned. But then there were some questions that sounded strange to me, like ‘Have you ever committed acts of terrorism?’ or ‘Have you ever cooperated with Communists?’”

The Washington DC-journalist waited two years for these security checks to be completed. He said he believes that, following on from Trump’s executive order, when the ban is lifted in 120 days, the process for refugees who want to come to the US will take even longer. He said he hopes Trump administration will decide to cut the ban short so that life for people like him will return to some sort of normalcy soon. 



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