Saturday, January 28, 2017

on refuge.

I flew today, hyperaware that as I walked, I breezed passed possible death sentences and passed machinery that would preclude my existence.

If you don’t think you know the victims, you do. There’s a family being torn apart down the block, there’s a mother who’s weeping on a call with her exiled children, there’s another fate sealed for a water-logged baby ready to wash ashore for you, for your security, for your comfort.

There’s a child with severed limbs under the rubble, that were it not for today, might’ve been your friend. My existence once safely slipped through holes punched by the sympathy of strangers. This is an excerpt from an unpublished story written by a member of my family:

When we landed at JFK, it was around ten at night. Tired and hungry, I stayed in line for nearly an hour as the immigration officers separated those who had a US passport from those of us who just had visas, then separated those who had Iranian passports from the rest of the passengers. We all knew something wasn’t right. After another hour of waiting, an immigration officer appeared looking angry and very unhappy. In no time, I witnessed what it meant to be discriminated against and what it means to be a refugee. Almost all of us got yelled at and passports were stamped with refused entry, visas were cancelled, and people were escorted to unknown places. I saw with my own two eyes grown men crying and women begging for some explanation. The officer kept telling them they had no legal rights in this country and to go back to where they came from. All of them who went to her station were in less than five minutes escorted out, disappearing into thin air. Then it was my turn. I have never seen so much resentment in someone’s eyes as I saw in that lady’s that night. She looked at me, then looked at my passport and screamed, “What are you doing in this country? Why don’t you go back to your Mullah Khomeini?”

I just froze for a second. I couldn’t move any part of my body, yet alone answer her question. Then I got a hold of myself and told her I couldn’t go back. Everybody was looking to see my reaction; it was humiliating beyond words. She then asked why it was that I couldn’t go back, so I told her I had worked for the government of the Shah, and also the prime minister, who had been executed. She asked me if I could prove it and I told her I had pictures with the executed prime minister and other officials who were executed by the same people who took the hostages. She then ordered me to go and stand in the corner of that waiting room until the airport police brought my suitcase. For half an hour, I was on pins and needles until my suitcase arrived. That lady officer, right in the middle of the airport, in front of everybody, took my suitcase by its handle and shook it in the air. When it was opened, all my belongings were scattered on the floor. I just looked at her for any sign of humanity, but I didn’t find any. She then ordered me to go find the pictures in the middle of that mess and give them to her. For some reason, I could not cry or show any sign of objection, so I obeyed her orders and wondered what the difference was between her misusing her power and those thugs in my own country that the West considered barbaric and inhumane.

While she was doing all this, one of the airport staff felt so sorry for me that he came and whispered in my ear, “You should ask for political asylum.” I had never heard such a word and didn’t understand its meaning. When the immigration officer found out that man had told me to apply for asylum, she became angrier and ordered him to follow her to a higher authority. All of us could hear her screaming at him. She came back with an airport police officer and told me I was being deported and that the police had to accompany me until the next flight going to England. I asked her if it was possible that I could get ticket to go to France instead and she said yes. I gave her close to $200 to buy me a ticket to France. She took the money, but paid for my ticket to England instead without telling me.

The police officer held my ticket and said he was giving it to me when I entered the plane. He was put in charge of me until then, and he sat by me awaiting the flight at 6 a.m. the next morning. I asked him if I could use the ladies’ room. He told me since he couldn’t go to the ladies’ room, it was not possible. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In about an hour, he asked me to follow him to a designated area of the airport that had rooms with bars as doors. He put me in one of the rooms and locked the door and I suddenly realized what a dangerous situation I was in and it was a lot more serious than I could ever imagine. No one knew where I was or what had happened to me. I was someone without a country, without legal rights or legal representation. I had no one to turn to and was totally at the mercy of strangers who were disgusted with the savagery of the hostage crisis in Iran. To them I was part of that uncivil, chaotic, and lawless country. None of my family knew where I was, assuming I was in England; in England, they were assuming I was in the US. I burst into tears. I was hungry, tired, humiliated, and needed so badly to go to the ladies’ room. I had no idea what was going to happen to me. The airport staff felt badly for me but no one could do anything. Eventually one of the lady officers in that designated area of airport staff accompanied me to the ladies’ room and then put me back in the detention room again.

The next morning at 5 a.m., the airport police accompanied me to the security checkpoint. Everybody was looking at me and wondering why I was escorted by the police. I looked anything but a criminal, yet I was being treated worse than one. After the search, they handed me my purse and the officer walked me onto the plane and handed me over to the air hostess. Eventually I got to my seat and assumed I was going to Paris. The flight attendant came to ask me if I wanted anything and I asked her the time of our arrival time in Paris. She looked at me surprised and told me we were going to London and not Paris. I was about to scream, but there was no use so after she left, I opened my purse to get a tissue when I noticed that all my cash had been stolen and I was left with close to $5 dollars! There are no words to describe my miserable situation. I was going to my death sentence. I totally understood how those people felt going to the electric chair. I cried and cried almost all the way back to London.

When we landed, my heart was pounding as though it was escaping my chest. The immigration officer looked at my passport and asked me why I came back so soon. I told him what happened and then he did the same and said by international law he too was going to deport me back to Iran on the next flight at 6 p.m. It was close to noon; I had only six hours left to live. They put me with a lot of other deported people from Iran, Pakistan, and India into a very small room that smelled so bad and the air was so thick you could touch it. It was nearly two days that I had nothing to eat and no sleep. I asked the police guard if I could make a call. He felt so bad for me, he told me if I could make it quickly and not tell anyone, I could.

I got some change from him and called that wealthy English girlfriend of mine. When she picked up the phone, as quickly as I could I explained my situation and begged her to do something or to find that young architect to tell him what was about to happen to me. Later, they told me what they really did for me. She immediately called her husband, explaining to him that I was going to be deported to Iran. He, knowing the situation in Iran, immediately called his lawyer in London and told him to represent me and to tell the British authorities that money was no object and he was ready to support me financially and they should not send me back to Iran, for if they did I would be killed or sent to prison. His lawyer called immigration explaining my situation and telling them that if I was sent back to Iran, there was a great chance that I would be executed and that they had to wait until the next day and he would come personally to London to get me. I don’t know if anybody can in any way explain why that man did such a charitable act of love for an unknown woman from another culture, but without a blink of his eye, he so generously offered all he could to save my life.

The immigration officer came to tell me personally that they would not send me back to Iran until the next day and that my fiancé was on his way to see me. I was so relieved I was not going back to Iran. By late in the afternoon, they put all the thirty of us in a bus and drove us to a building like a detention center. I couldn’t sleep in the room they gave me, which had two bunkbeds with four other women sleeping on them. I sat on a chair waiting for the morning to come. One of the guards felt sorry for me and gave me a glass of milk; he then took me to a private room to sleep in. In the morning, they put us all on the bus again to go back to the airport. In that bus, I was thinking of all the people who had no one to help them and who were going to get deported to the very country they were escaping. In the airport, they put us back into that small room again. I waited for three hours until my name was called. This time, they were more attentive and took me to a private room where I saw that young architect waiting for me. When I saw him, I just lost it and cried my heart out; he comforted me and then said that everything was set for me to apply for political asylum, explaining what that word really meant. In a very short time, three officials came to take me with them. That young architect asked if he could come with me to help me with my English, but they refused. It took nearly fourteen hours to be interviewed by those people from Scotland Yard. They eventually released me and told me I would hear from them sometime soon.

That young architect took me to a hotel and fed me after nearly three days of hunger. I collapsed on the hotel bed and passed out. I was not supposed to do anything or go anywhere and I had to stay under that young architect’s direct supervision until the authorities notified me as to whether I was granted political asylum. They even held my suitcase with all the documents that I’d ever possessed. That young architect took me under his care when I had no country, no identity, no money, no clothes, no means of support, no legal status anywhere in the whole world, and no other place to go but to his house. After we arrived in Newcastle, the next day that young architect’s brother gave me couple pairs of jeans and shirts to wear. His family were nice to me but in that town almost everyone knew about my situation, especially about that rich gentleman who got me the lawyer and told them that money was no object. They were all waiting anxiously to hear about my destiny. It took nearly four months until I got the call. I was granted political asylum and could stay in England as long as I lived! God had given me another country and I could feel safe and protected at last.