Following asylum seekers and their stories, I ended up in Turkey, Iran’s neighbor. An Iranian family who was hosting me told me about a woman called Naghmeh Shahsavandi: “If you want a lady to tell you her story, you should definitely meet her.”
I heard about Naghmeh many years ago on Facebook. She was among the eight Facebook activists who had been arrested and imprisoned in 2013. I found out she was living in the city Kiri Kale, and headed over to meet her. She lives in a luxurious building, very different to my perception of how an asylum seeker might live. Her story, as the mother of two children, is different too.
In 2013, Naghmeh Shahsavandi was arrested and charged with “propaganda against the regime” and “insulting Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei,” the former and current Supreme Leaders. Judge Moghiseh sentenced her to seven years and 91 days in prison, which was upheld by the appeals court. When she was released on bail, she decided to pack up her life and leave the country with her daughters.
I entered the high-end building. She already had guests, but welcomed me very warmly. We went into the kitchen, where I saw a tall and handsome Turkish man making a salad behind the counter. Later she told me that he was the landlord. He left the room and Naghmeh invited me to sit, serving me tea and sweets. She picked up a cigarette and began her asylum-seeking story by telling me that she might marry this man.
“Why would a refugee decide to ruin herself physically and mentally? Being a refugee is very painful. I’m not marrying this man because I love him; love flows like a river, you can’t plan it out. I’m a mother with two children and no support in this country, and I need to provide for them. Under such circumstances you agree to do things that you don’t really like. A refugee lives with constant fear – fear for and of the future.”
When she found herself facing a jail sentence, Naghmeh knew she couldn’t leave her two daughters behind, so decided to emigrate with them. Soon enough she found out that she was banned from leaving the country, but one of her relatives who worked at an airline company managed to find a way for her to pay a US$25,000 bribe so that she could travel.
When she entered Turkey she thought she would be processed quickly and reach her final destination because of her strong and well-known case. But it’s been years since she arrived in the country and she is still waiting for an answer in response to her application for refugee status. “There’s a horrible feeling of suspense. Every day is full of fear and anxiety. I feel like everyone who tells me to carry on has no idea what asylum-seeking life really is like.”
I met with various Iranians across Turkey who have been waiting for years to hear good news regarding their status. Some of them have been in this country for more than 10 years and are still hopeful for a call from the the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The situation has become even worse; Turkey’s government is in now in charge of refugee affairs and the UNHCR only plays an advisory role. Apparently, the processing time for asylum seekers – especially for political cases – is getting longer and longer. New refugees say that their registration interviews have been postponed for more than a year. And now that President Trump’s administration is unwilling to process Iranians anymore, many, like Naghmeh – who was set to go to the US – will have to find another country to accept their case.
Sexual Harassment and the Struggles of a Strange Country
Naghmeh started working for Turkish restaurants in Ankara and Kiri Kale for 50 Turkish lira per day ($9 at the time of publishing), which falls sharply below the expenses of a mother with two children. Because of the remorse she feels as a consequence of being an asylum seeker with two children, she decided to marry.
“How men look at you in this country feels like sexual harassment, especially as an asylum-seeking single mother. Everyone treats you like a whore, from taxi drivers to employers. But, if you marry, it feels like you are selling yourself for a large-sum check, not piece by piece. I’ll be his and he’ll take care of my children and me.”
She continued telling her story in tears, and in her eyes I could see the struggle of what it meant to be a mother who was seeking asylum. “I took my children away from their home, from a place that they have friends and playmates, a family, and a father – who although would never even call them, was in their life. Now it’s only me and two daughters, aged seven and 11, in a fascist country where mothers ban their children from playing with mine. A few days ago, I saved a Turkish boy from a stranger who was about to kidnap the kid and take him away. How on the earth I can guarantee my daughters’ safety under such conditions?”
Her daughters were not able to enroll in Turkish schools until this year. Every now and then they ask: “Mom, why are we here? Why won’t other mothers let their children play with us? Mom, why did you take our home away?” These are questions for which Naghmeh has no answers. She is an exhausted asylum seeker who is sick of this life and of the sexual harassment she has had to endure. She is the pillar of this family of three, and is totally sacrificing herself for the family.
“I blame myself that I took their comfort away. One time, our neighbors in an apartment building gathered outside our door and asked us to leave. Suspense is not the only hardship of an asylum-seeking life. Am I able to provide for my children with food and warm clothes? I feel like I made a mistake. I should have stayed back in Iran and served my time in prison. Most likely I would be tortured again, but at least my kids were safe. They could see me in the visiting times and had their friends and playmates.”
She then recalls her court session, quoting the judge, who told her: “Do you think the Islamic Republic of Iran is so arbitrary that you can do whatever you want?” She compares her kids’ questions with the judge’s words, and concludes that she is a woman with no country.
I asked her if she ever thought about contacting human traffickers. She stared back into my eyes and replied: “When I first came here, passing over the borders was way easier. It was really easy to go to Europe, but I’m thankful that I didn’t. Even thinking about going with human traffickers terrifies me, [especially] thinking about the possibility of losing my children. I’m scared of all the rumors and stories I’ve heard about female travelers being raped. Getting on a boat illegally with two little girls is not a reasonable thing to do. People go through a lot to make it, if they do. I had a close friend who did it and had nothing but pain to speak of.”
At this point of the story, her two kids, exhausted from playing outside, ran into the kitchen. Naghmeh made them a couple of sandwiches and sent them to their room so that she could continue with her story.
“When I look at my children’s situation, I feel like I was selfish. They have gone through a lot in this asylum-seeking life. I blame myself because they have no idea about politics, but were thrown into it. The biggest shock for them was when 20 agents raided our home to arrest me. Even now if I leave for a little while they call me 10 times and ask where I am. I’m tired of being the pillar of this family, but have no other option. One of my daughters wants to be a model and hangs her pictures all over the house. I applied to some places for her, but our Turkish friends advised about the dangers of sexual abuse in these areas and [this has] made me not answer the calls and emails from modeling agencies anymore. But I don’t know how to answer my daughter [when she asks me why]. What should I tell her?”
During all the years in Turkey, Naghmeh has attended therapy sessions with an United Nations-recommended therapist. She takes 25 pills per day for various ailments.
“I can’t sleep at all. I stay awake the whole night and might go to sleep in the mornings for an hour or two. Being an asylum seeker is worse than having cancer, and people responsible for it are first the dictators and then ourselves. We made a mistake seeking asylum . . . I am the cost [of seeking asylum]. I am no one now. Seeking asylum makes your heart turn into a piece of rock; but can you even live without love? I lost everything in seeking asylum . . . [Now I am] nobody . . . nobody . . . the only thing that was important was my political activism. I should have stayed and continued my activism until the day I died. There was a meaning to my life then. But when you leave, everything goes away. You never should give up a fight, [but] seeking asylum means giving up.”
Tears ran down her face again. After a moment of silence, she continued telling me her story and shared with me her thought process when she decided to leave Iran. “At first I thought I might lose my children if I stayed, and that emigrating from the country could be the solution. But it wasn’t; I just made the decision emotionally. I was tired of intimidation, court hearings, phone calls and interrogations, and just wanted it to end. On one hand my family did not support me anymore, and on the other hand the government was persecuting me. I made this choice when I was completely desperate and hopeless.”
When she was released on bail, the others who had also been arrested with her were sentenced to many years in prison. Amir Golestani was sentenced to 20 years and one day; Masoud Ghasemkhani to 19 years and 91 days; Fariborz Kardarfar to 18 years and 91 days; Amin Akramipour to 13 years; Mehdi Rayshahri to 11 years; and Roya Saberinejad to 20 years and a day in prison. Masoud Seyed-Talebi was initially sentenced to 15 years and a day, but five more years were added to his sentence. Naghmeh herself was sentenced to seven years in prison, but she was released on bail.
“It wasn’t within my control. I endured so many insults in prison, only because I was a woman. They talked to me like [I was] a whore. On the other hand, people thought that I was a snitch, since I was released on bail. There are still people in Turkey who think I’m an IRGC snitch, [despite the fact that] my whole family are political dissidents and were harassed by the Islamic Republic and the IRGC. My family does not support me anymore, and say, ‘This is what you did, and you need to make it right yourself.’”
She started to cry again, and her voice shook as she spoke, as if she was going through all the pain all over again by telling me her story. “Even men can’t endure the asylum-seeking life. Now imagine: everything is 10 times worse when you are a woman. You have no support or any shelter in which to take refuge. Now I’m thinking that I will stay here with my children and raise them in this country. I have had enough.”
Naghmeh briefly shared stories of her encounters with other Iranian activists residing in Turkey. “Now I have a long blacklist of people who I don’t want to see anymore in my life. Very well-known public figures; no one knows about their true, evil identities. When they encounter a single, refugee woman who is in need, one can see their true identity. This is why I did not want to take part in activism on social media anymore. Once I had a disturbing experience with a prominent Iranian human rights activist who resides in Paris; when I asked him for help, he began complimenting my eyes. I have done so many hard, labor-intensive jobs in Turkey that Turkish people won’t do themselves, but the pain I endured from Iranians was way more hurtful.”
She then pressed the stop button on the voice recorder and told me some names of the people she was talking about. She wept, naming individuals who had tried to take advantage of her sexually when she asked for help. She was exhausted and could not hide it.
I asked her if she likes who she is, this current Naghmeh, when she looks at herself in the mirror. “I don’t look at the mirror anymore . . . No, this is not Naghmeh.”
“If you want to write about asylum seeking, mention that it’s a mistake. I lost my identity here; none of us has an identity anymore. We [live in] the worst economic and sociopolitical conditions. If you are in your country, you at least have an identity. Write that I think [that only] the most stupid people in the world would say, ‘Go and seek asylum.’”