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TURKEY: Iranian political refugee scrapes out a life after political unrest at home

December 24, 2010 |  9:59 am


Ismail is 38, but with his cropped gray hair and deep wrinkles, he looks closer to 58. He is the busboy at a patisserie in a Turkish town, but he may be the only busboy there who can quote 17th century poets. Ismail is a political refugee from Iran.

He was working on Kurban Bayram, however, the Islamic holiday celebrating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son (a holiday known in Arabic as Eid al-Adha and Persian as Eid Ghorban). In Turkey, and especially in the city of Afyon, the holiday is usually observed by families eating together and going to their grandparents' house.

So it is strange when someone is idling on the street, drinking tea alone with no family to be found.

“They're all in Tehran,” he said.

The flood of Iranians coming westward, according to many refugees, includes spies and Revolutionary Guard informants. Even in Afyon, the refugees rarely talk to each other, not knowing who to trust and who to avoid. This is why, on one of the most important and family-centric holidays on the Islamic calendar, a lonely Iranian can find himself singing Ghazals, a form of Persian poetry, to anyone who will listen. 

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) works with Turkey to provide homes and assistance to Iranians who fled to Turkey. There were 1,198 Turkey-bound refugees in 2009, according to the Iranian Refugees' Alliance. The individuals are spread throughout the country, predominantly in the backwaters and dusty transit points.

Ismail claims he was held and tortured in an Iranian prison for months after his arrest amid the protests that followed the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. Although the images of young Iranians in the streets and the violent death of Neda Agha-Soltan struck a chord with American audiences that summer, Ismail was disappointed.

“We didn't change anything,” he grumbled. “It's not just Ahmedinejad. It's [Ali] Khamenei as well,” referring to the Supreme Leader of Iran, “and even though we didn't want to say it, [opposition leader Mir-Hossein] Mousavi is together with them.”

Ismail said he was serious about fostering political change in his country, and his alignment to Mousavi, the symbol of the nascent "Green" opposition, was more out of desperation than a belief that the former prime minister was a revelatory figure.

The complex Iranian political system and the vague powers of the Supreme Leader made Ismail give up on change in his lifetime. He grumbles about the British- and U.S.-led coup of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953, but dreams of a coup knocking Khamenei and Ahmedinejad out of power.

Ismail is fortunate compared with most refugees in Turkey. He's an Azeri, a member of a Turkic-speaking group that comprises between 16% and 25% of Iran's 74 million people.

Azeris speak a language closely related to Turkish and are often greeted as fellow Turks, especially in Afyon, the home of the ultra-nationalist and pan-Turkic Grey Wolves. Moreover, Ismail studied literature at Istanbul University in the 1990s and knew people whom he could rely on in the country.

Although he must check in with the Afyon police twice a week and is forbidden from most housing, his language skills give him opportunities his fellow refugees rarely have, even if he doesn't have much use for his Urdu or smattering of Hebrew, let alone his mellifluous Persian.

Ismail hasn't spoken to his family since leaving prison, and said he couldn't bear to talk about the kids he left behind. He cannot work legally or find his own place to live, let alone make use of his academic background to find work in a school or university. He cannot leave Afyon until the UNHCR has assessed his case, a process that can take up to three years. He cannot take up any sort of residence or begin a life in Turkey, which does not accept refugees but only processes them.

This doesn't even take into account the effects of prison abuse he suffered. His stutter, shivers and tendency to look off in a blank stare win him few friends. The college student working at the patisserie with Ismail laughs at him behind his back, and winks conspiratorially at customers, calling Ismail crazy.

Whether he can stay in Turkey or is moved to a new country (South Africa, for example, hosts 222,000 Iranian refugees) is out of his control, as is his opportunity to see his family again or to receive medical care. Without his family or his degree, he's just a serial number, a statistic in an understaffed Geneva office.

-- Asher Kohn in Afyon, Turkey

Photo: A scene from downtown Afyon, Turkey. Credit: Asher Kohn