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A most common phrase heard in an Iranian gathering; the repeated offering of black Persian tea, brewed to perfection to reveal a dark amber color, taken with a crushed cube sugar put in a corner of your mouth. This is an inseparable tradition from any gathering. A testimony to the culture we were raised in and still don’t want to completely let go of. However, our gathering was rather unconventional, diverse in a sense.“ I have Persian tea as well as Indian Chai. Whichever you prefer.” She said with an air of delight and joy. Her simple way of being made it easy to be with her. Even though we had just met, I felt like I have known her all my life. Her authenticity shone through layers of diverse experiences and upbringing.
We were all sitting around the kitchen table. Carrying on the conversation that never seized after dinner. Sharing our life stories that just flowed like a serene river. The river that took us from Iran, to India, to Eastern Europe, to Western US and delivered us where we were, all four of us, gathering under one roof in Southeast United States. At a simple dinner party. No one wanted to move to the comfortable couch for the fear of losing the fluidity of those moments. Comfort was a simple sacrifice compared to the curious stories that were being exchanged. We all felt vulnerable yet willing. We all had stories of immigration. Stories we had mostly locked up in a faraway corner of our hearts. Someone posed the question, “ Seriously, if you were told ten, fifteen years ago that you would be sitting here, on this night with these people, would you believe?” We all laughed. Certainly not. None of us would have even thought of living such adventurous and diverse lives. It was quite fascinating how we were brought together. How simple events and total strangers that magically appeared on our paths brought us here, where we needed to be; around this rectangle kitchen table!
“ So, you mentioned you came to US in 2001 as well. Same year as me. How did you manage to get here? Were you on a Student Visa or H1B ( Work Visa)?” I asked exposing my usual curiosity about immigrants and the ways their lives depended them to make choices. I didn’t know, however, that I was about to unravel the mysteries that many brave souls dedicated to the pages of history when they decided to leave their homeland for the promise of freedom and security through a human Smuggler. Yes! A Human Smuggler.
“ Oh, no. No student visa. It was certainly not that easy.” She claimed rather hesitantly. “ All these years I have really been trying to forget it. It’s not a pleasant memory. But I know I will have to tell it, sooner or later. I know it will be very emotional. I have tried very hard to forget it.”
It felt as if she’s talking to herself. Suddenly being reminded of a pain she had been covering up with that joyful smile for a long time.
“ I would love to hear, if you are willing to share.” I said gently. I didn’t want her to feel cornered or pushed.
“ Well, it all started with being introduced to this lady who claimed that she had taken her family to Netherlands without any trouble. All of her siblings. I was introduced to her since I have been trying to get out of Iran but all my attempts were failing. Some places like NZ or Australia required a lot of money for processing immigration applications and some places just rejected my application. All in all, I was in a desperate mood. I was ready to do anything just to live beyond the borders. I knew my time in Iran had come to an end.“ She said hastily.
I could see excitement building up in her voice. She was being taken over by the avalanche of memories and the emotions accompanying them. She was taking us on the ride with her.
“ Oh, wow! Netherlands?! And how did she manage that?” I asked.
“ She told me it’s very simple. She would collect a fee and my passport and get me the plane ticket to Sarajevo. Then in Sarajevo her husband would pick me up and drive me to Italy where I could catch the train to Netherlands and stay with her a few days before applying for Asylum. She really made it look painless and super easy. She just advised me to have very little to carry. All my cash had to be hidden inside the folds of my clothes and I had to wear comfortable shoes and have a light jacket even though it was mid-summer. I should have guessed what was awaiting me. The future and what I could expect from this trip was disguised behind a thick haze of may unknown variables. I had never been out of Iran. Had never travelled beyond the borders. I had no clue about what to expect. Nothing was to be foreseen. But there was no time to be doubtful.”
I was mesmerized. Astonished. In a panic mode! “ So let me get this straight. You were going to travel all these places without a visa? How? How was it even possible to go across Eastern Europe to Netherlands without visa?” My imagination was failing me.
She added as a matter-of-factly: “ Of course! Who would give me visa? An Iranian girl in her mid twenties? Are you kidding? We were all flying out of the country like bees leaving a smoked hive. None of us had the luxury to be emotional about everything we were leaving behind. Life was tough. It was like being suffocated one breath at a time. I remember once I was forbidden to enter the college campus since I had nail gloss on, not even colored polish. Is that ridiculous or what?! It’s 21st century for heaven’s sake!”
Neither of us paid attention to the cup of tea in front of us getting cold. We could feel the heaviness of the moment. The air in the room was charged with questions, reflections, gasps and wonder. How much could a human being take? How desperate should one become to leave her life, the life of her loved ones in the hands of a smuggler? How far does hope take us? How do we trust the future with such limited knowledge of the moment?
My head was spinning like a twirling dervish, not aware of the surroundings, just falling and falling into this resilient story of yet another brave Iranian woman. As I was wondering loud, “ There’s a reason the Universe brought us together!”
“ I totally agree. You won’t believe, I haven’t told my story to anyone since I came to US.” She said agreeably.
“ So, after all, was the journey as easy and painless as she had promised you?”, Mike, the other piece of this odd Universal puzzle, asked.
“ Anything, but! We were dropped of in Sarajevo and that was the only true part of the promise. They took away our passports and told us to follow the path to the mountains till we get to Italy.”
“ With no Passport? In a foreign country?”, we all interjected.
“ Yes. We were told if we were discovered by any police from any nationality and they found passports on us they would deport us immediately. I gave mine to the man who picked us up in Sarajevo and asked him to mail it to my parents. Some people in our group simply threw theirs away. It was a surreal moment; to destroy your only, I mean ONLY identification, in a country you don’t know anyone and you don’t speak the language. I was numb at that point. If we were all killed right there and then, no one would even know who we were, or where from. Fear is a strange feeling but I could not let it paralyze me at that point.”
Silence…no one spoke a word. The gravity of the moment had captured us all. It was as if we were each given a chance to look back and review our own journey, our own sacrifices, our own moments of doubt, our own fears. We disconnected from that kitchen table for a split second that lasted hours and remembered,” What were some tough choices I made that changed my life? What brought me here? What if I had turned around and decided to be ok with status quo? Where would I be now? Who would I be?”
She broke the silence,” Guys, can you believe what time it is?”
We neither knew nor cared until she announced,” It is 4:30 am!”
“ No way! We have been talking at this kitchen table for 6 hours now and we haven’t even heard what happened to you after Sarajevo.” Mahesh, the Indian charm of this exciting musical quartet chimed in.
“ I walked the Balkan Route…. 10 days and nights in the mountains… Yes, indeed, I survived the Balkan Route.”
She obviously couldn’t continue. The emotional pain was too much to handle. Suddenly she looked like she was beaten up with invisible chains of injustice. The life she chose to lead with intention had not come to her at a cheap price. She was, still is, the survivor of the Balkan Route.
( To be continued)