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Features

From Iranian Slave to Austrian Asylum-Seeker

July 17, 2019
Aida Ghajar
12 min read
From Iranian Slave to Austrian Asylum-Seeker

For many refugees, Austria is viewed as little more than a prison. They fear getting caught and fingerprinted there because it means losing their chance to go to the United Kingdom, France, or Germany. 

Yet for Amin, a 21-year-old former child slave, arriving in Austria felt like “heaven.” After a lifetime of servitude in Iran, the country symbolized a new era of hope and opportunity.

“Here is 10 times better,” he told me over a cup of tea at his refugee camp near Salzburg. “Both this camp and this country. Life in Iran was really hard. Very, very hard.”

Amin’s troubles began when he was just nine years old. He had never met his mother, an Afghan immigrant, and lived with his drug-addict father. 

They never had any money, as everything they had was spent on drugs. Eventually, out of desperation, his father chose to do the unthinkable.

“My father sold me when he had no more furniture in the house left to sell,” Amin said, taking a long, slow drag on his cigarette. “A man named Fathollah Pahlavani came to our place and took me away.”

Amin did not know how much money his father received, but said that no amount would make up for the childhood he lost. If only his mother had been around, he believed his life would have turned out very differently.

“I don’t know how true it is, but my dad said that my mom left after giving birth to me. I always think that if I’d had a mother, I could have had a better a life.”

 

I Thought I’d Die as a Slave

Amin worked as an unpaid child laborer from the age of nine until he was 19. Every morning, he would wake up and immediately begin loading trucks. He had to load five trucks a day. 

After work, the four children who worked with him would go home, but his home comprised just a small room in the factory.

After loading the trucks, he had to clean Pahlavani’s office every day. He was not allowed to talk to the other children. 

Pahlavani usually forgot to feed him and would not even provide him with clothes — instead, the other children gave Amin clothes. If he got sick, there was no chance of seeing a doctor.

The only “medication” he received was opium. “Pahlavani always had guests at nights in that semi-fancy office. They were all police officers who went there to smoke opium.”

The men were not friendly towards Amin. Occasionally, they would beat him up and pass him around “like a basketball.” 

“Pahlavani always used to beat me up as well. I had no hope. I thought my whole life would pass by in that factory. I thought I’d die there.”

 

Torture in the Sewage Hole

Amin worked in the same place until he was 19. His life was a “complete waste,” he said, and he felt “retarded” and “illiterate.”

Two escape attempts failed, resulting in severe beatings by Pahlavani. 

“I couldn’t tolerate his assaults anymore,” Amin said. “One day, I snuck out and hitchhiked to a nearby city. I found some cardboard and slept in a corner of a square.

“The next morning, the police caught me and asked for ID. I told them I had no ID and explained my story. They took me back to the factory and handed me over to Pahlavani. 

“My head was about to explode. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Shouldn’t the police have helped me in such a situation?”

According to Amin, Pahlavani owned other factories in nearby cities too. There was also a construction company belonging to the Revolutionary Guards where he used to send him to work without pay.

“I was entirely his slave. He knew everybody. When police took me back, he beat me up again, threw me in the sewage hole, and covered the top. 

“He kept me there tied up until the morning. I was in complete despair. The situation was driving me crazy.”

After five months, he tried his luck again. This time he made it to Tehran, though he couldn’t read the traffic signs and was unsure where to go. 

Police found him again and returned him to Pahlavani, who repeated the torture with the sewage hole. “Next time it would be worse,” he said, and Amin feared he would be killed. 

 

A Guardian Angel 

Amin’s hellish life continued for a decade. By then, he had lost all hope of anyone helping him and had accepted that he would serve Pahlavani for the rest of his life.

After the failed escape attempts, Amin began working hard to gain Pahlavani’s trust and secure a little free time for himself. He was given Fridays off, and on those days he would go to a small park down the road.

“I looked so horrible in those days, and people used to avoid me since they thought I was crazy or had mental health problems.”

Then, one Friday, he met a woman who was to change his life. 

Fateme was a wealthy, middle-aged woman who was curious about Amin’s situation. Over several weeks, she sat with him and listened to his story. 

Finally, she told him she could arrange a human trafficker to help him flee the country. 

“I thought for five minutes. Outside of Iran? Then Pahlavani could never reach me. I told her I had no money or clothes. She said she would pay for everything.

“I asked where I should go. She told me to go to Germany. I thought that sounded good. It was far away from Pahlavani.”

 

A Perilous Journey

One Friday, Amin left the factory as usual — but this time, rather than going to the park, he followed Fateme to Azadi Square. She gave him US$150, put him in a taxi, and told him: “the trafficker will take care of the rest.”

“The trafficker took us to Maku. Then he loaded us in a sedan and drove as fast as he could. There were nine of us: three in the trunk, four in the back seat, and two in the passenger seat.

“No police stopped us, and we arrived at a place where he gave us dinner and we spent the night. There were 30 to 40 other Afghan and Iranian refugees there too.” 

The next morning, the trafficker loaded everyone in a pick-up truck and drove them to the Turkish border. “It was horrible,” said Amin. “I felt like I was about to die. I was trapped in a corner and everyone was falling over me. 

“At one point, the bottled water exploded in my backpack and I thought it was my spine cracking.” 

They crossed the border on foot, and on the other side a small truck took them to the trafficker’s house. They stayed there for two days. 

“The trafficker provided us with food, which meant a lot to me: bread, cucumber, cheese, and sometimes rice. He also sold us SIM cards. But he wasn’t very nice to people. 

“He used to beat up the travelers whose payments had not arrived yet. There were people waiting for more than a month for their money to be wired and they were beaten up very badly every day. One of them lost a tooth.” 

 

Scared for my Life

Amin left the house with immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. They were taken in a van to the south coast of Turkey, where a boat was waiting to transport them to a Greek island.

“That was the first moment I was scared,” he said. “People used to talk constantly about capsized boats and dead refugees in those waters.”

The journey took a little over three hours. According to Amin, traffickers would fit as many refugees as possible on top of each other and tell one of them to steer the boat. In return, that passenger’s trip was free of charge. 

“I never regretted my decision,” Amin said. “I was scared a little, though. Everyone was praying in their own language and asking their god to get them safely to the shore. I did not even know a religion.”

They safely reached Greece, and on the beach they began breaking the boat apart as they had been instructed to do. But the Greek police were expecting them. 

Officers arrested them and took them to the city, where they fingerprinted them and provided them with food. Amir was impressed by the Greek people’s hospitality.

“People who passed by threw food at us. I was amazed. They helped the children wash their faces and hands. I really enjoyed seeing that.”

The police took them to a refugee camp to be processed and receive their permits to leave the island. They called Amin’s name four days later, and he was allowed to travel to Athens. 

He spent seven days in Athens until the next trafficker came to take him to Macedonia. They walked halfway to the border and then took a bus. 

“Traffickers had pseudonyms,” he said. “Our trafficker told us that if we got caught, we shouldn’t identify him as the trafficker. Otherwise we would all be in trouble.”

 

Threatened at Gun Point

A van waiting on the border drove them to Serbia, where Amin spent seven days living on the streets before another trafficker picked him up and took him to the Hungarian border. 

“At the border, we walked a long time,” he said. “My shoes were torn apart. It was a dangerous place. The traffickers told us to be careful and not to pick up fruit from trees or drop any trash, so the police couldn’t track us. 

“The path was very important to them and they didn’t want it exposed. There was barbed wire wrapped around the trees and the trafficker said that he would kill us if we damaged the wire. He had a gun on him. 

“He was the same Afghan trafficker who was with us from Serbia to Hungary. We were worried that if we got caught and fingerprinted, we would have to stay in that country forever. 

“Then, somehow, one of the wires got broken.”

The trafficker beat them up violently for the torn wire. “He kicked every one of us,” Amin said, his face expressionless. “He was asking who was responsible, and threatened that if we didn’t say then he wouldn’t take any of us to the border. 

“He said he’d leave us there for the cops to come and arrest us. He pointed his gun at us. We were scared and had no choice but to listen to him. He was our guide. He didn’t discriminate between men and women. 

“Thankfully, he eventually calmed down and we continued the journey until he delivered us to the next van driver.”

 

A Beautiful Paradise

It was at this point that a young woman fainted. According to Amin, her husband said he couldn’t deal with the situation anymore and ran away, so he and another traveler carried her on their shoulders for the rest of the way. 

By now, the Iranians were constantly crossing paths with Syrian refugees. The encounters were often tense and hostile.

“They would throw insults at us, saying that we were the cause of the war in Syria, and that we destroyed their country and made them homeless. They told us that we shouldn’t go to Europe as it wasn’t our place.”

The last stop for Amin was Austria, though he intended to continue to Germany. The journey was very difficult. Twenty people were packed in a van so tightly that breathing was almost impossible. 

“Everyone was crying, even the men. We felt like we were suffocating. We were ready to get arrested by the police in return for some oxygen.”

The driver dropped them off close to the Austrian border and beat them to get them off his van as quickly as possible. As they made their way through the woodland, the Austrian police caught them. 

“I was waiting for the next trafficker, but there was no sign of him or any phone calls from Fateme,” Amin said. “Police took us to a fire station and fingerprinted us. 

“I told them I wanted to go to Germany, but they said that since I was fingerprinted in Austria, I’d be sent back even if I got there. I was confused. Did that mean I could never go to Germany? 

“But then Fateme called and said that Austria was a good country too. I liked it from the beginning as well. It was beautiful and green. I didn’t know countries very well.”

 

A New, Comfortable Home

Amin was in jail for two days in Austria. He was then sent to two refugee camps, where he stayed for five weeks, before finally making it to Salzburg. 

He said he felt happy there and hoped to make it his home. “I won’t go back to Iran even if I die. My country is where I feel comfortable, and I feel comfortable here in Austria. Nobody beats me up or insults me. 

“A country where all the police officers are corrupt and use drugs is not my country.”

The former child laborer is now able to pursue the education he was denied in Iran. He studies the Austrian language, as well as Persian, English, mathematics, and geography. 

For Amin, it is important that others hear his story. “I want to let everyone know what is happening in Iran, how much corruption there is, and how much people suffer. 

“I really suffered in Iran. Austrians don’t believe me when I tell them. But if they visited Iran they would understand. Child workers are everywhere, sleeping on street corners, going hungry, searching in trashcans for food.”

He still thinks about his mother, he said. If he saw her again, he would like to ask her why she left him. 

“Maybe if she had been there, I would have been saved all this misery. I might have gone to school and made something of my life.”

I asked if he would like to introduce himself properly, in case she reads this one day.

He glanced at the ground, then took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. “I, Amin Samandari, was born in our house in the city of Semnan, in the square of Mashaer. This is where I grew up.

“Now I live in Salzburg, Austria. That is my new home.”

 

Also in the series: 

“"The Biggest Torture Was Losing my Identity”

The “Hellhole of Athens”

Asylum Seeking in Turkey: A World Full of Terror and Insecurity

 

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