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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; to 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 demanded 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 many 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, cooling down to room temperature. We could feel the heaviness of the moment though. 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 odd piece of this Universal puzzle, asked.
“ Anything, but! We were dropped off 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 we were from. Fear is a strange feeling but I could not let it paralyze me.”
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.
I could hardly wait to meet Mitra again to hear the rest of her story. We finally caught up on an easy Sunday afternoon. One of those monsoon summer days when you just want to curl up with a cup of tea, get lost in a good book and hear the pouring rain hit hard on the tin roof of the screened porch. I was equally delighted to get lost in her story though. Even if it was not a physical book that I could hold in my hands, it still stirred the same sense of excitement and anticipation in me. Her story was not yet one that was shaped on paper, however, it was a book that was writing itself in my heart and soul through her words. I didn’t have to make any effort. Presence was the key.
We picked a quiet corner of the coffeeshop and settled in. The space that held our conversation lit up as soon as we sat down. “ Are you comfortable?” I asked, making sure she feels safe and relaxed. After all, remembering and re-living, being smuggled across several borders through obscure paths was not an easy journey one would voluntarily make.
“ Oh yea. Thank you.” She said. “ I’m ready to jump right in.”
“ Tell me. How did you step into this road of a thousand miles?” I was ready to dive in as well.
“ More than a thousand miles actually.“ She chuckled and went on, “ I have to back up a little bit. I think last time we spoke, I rushed into our landing in Sarajevo. Sorry. It's hard to just say it without jumping around. Let me start from leaving Iran! I had to sell everything. Everything from my clothes and books to my vehicle. There was no point in keeping any of my belongings since I was stepping into the path of no return. It was a very emotional process. It was as if every piece that I separated myself from, reminded me of the things I had to let go; my history, my memories, my soul. Every piece I sold made my chance of coming back narrower and narrower. It gave shape to my decision of leaving for good, leaving for ever. All there was left for me were my parents. How could I let go of them? How could I say goodbye knowing that we may never meet? It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. You see, even though we were middle class my parents never let me down. They supported me in pursuing all my dreams. They covered all my education costs and now they were giving me their financial support for my big escape. The fund I had raised from selling my life was certainly not enough. I needed a good chunk of change to pay to my handler.”
“ Handler?” I asked.
“ Yes. The guy who was supposed to receive me in Sarajevo and deliver me to the border. He was my handler. He was managing all the transportation and accommodation. All the places I needed to stay at, while running away from each country’s local police. And believe me, there was no shortage of them. At that point I didn’t know if it will be just me or will I be accompanied by other runaways. As I came to discover later, I was not the only person choosing the path of illegal immigration. I was not the only one who was risking her life for freedom. It ended up being about 20 of us. Ah! I am going ahead of myself! Let me back up!” She took a gentle sip of her cold drink to calm her uprising anxiety and continued. “ Remember, we didn’t know anything. None of us in the group. We didn’t know where we are going, what route we are taking, what places we will be staying at, who we will be accompanied by. We didn’t know ANYTHING. We were simply stepping into the dark. “
“ I see. So your handler never gave you the details? “
“ Oh no. We were not allowed to have any information in case we were arrested. They didn’t want to risk their identity or their routes. Neither were we supposed to talk to anyone. Many of the people that were in my flight from Tehran to Istanbul ended up being in the Sarajevo airport waiting to meet their handlers. At that point we all realized that we will be keeping each other company for a while.”
“ I am curious about your handlers. What were they like? I can’t imagine what it takes to have such risky way of living! Were they just doing this to make money? Was this their job?” I interrupted her as much as I didn’t want to.
“ Of course! This was, I think, one of the biggest lessons I learned from the trip. Every one of the handlers we came across, whether in Sarajevo, Croatia, Zagreb or in Slovenia, were simple human beings. Men and women who were affected by war, poverty, oppression. None of them struck me as mean, lost souls that wanted to take advantage of us. Yes, we were robbed off of our negligible belongings but that was not by our handlers. Our handlers were simply guides. Good people. Probably born at a wrong time, in a wrong place. None of them dreamt of choosing a career of smuggling humans across mountains at night. They didn’t enjoy walking in those woods barely lit by moonlight. Crawling through mountains and forests cultivated with landmines was not their first choice for a career. We were prowling on landmines in dark. Any step we took could have been our last step. Any step could have blown the whole group up. They were not bad people. They were hungry, war stricken common folk that needed to feed their families. The trip, more than anything, opened my eyes to humanity. It opened my heart to how connected we all are and that at each turn of the road, every eye contact we make, we have the power, the choice, to judge or to have compassion. The driver transporting us at the back of his van, asking us to be quiet and not to move, could have been my father, my uncle, anyone close to me. When smiling becomes so difficult of a task, when you have been robbed off of every sparkle of hope and joy, waking up to bomb attacks, piercing sound of automatic weapons or watching your daughters and sisters being raped, what could be left of you? What would you do?”
She was over-taken by emotions and there was no point in trying to stop this avalanche. It seemed to me, this was a long, long past due expression. Some eighteen-years- held-back of a glass castle shattered by reality of living a resilient life. There was no harnessing of the out pour of memories.
“We become so oblivion to our luxurious lives versus the lives humans are struggling to hang on to, that we get drowned in blaming and judging. We close our eyes and hearts as if we are blind. They didn’t choose this life. If anyone was to be blamed it was me, perhaps. Us. The people who chose to take the route of illegal immigration. But then, we really didn’t have a choice either. We could stay and become one of those “ handlers” or take the leap of faith and hope for a better life. Isn’t this the simplest human right? To ask for safety and security? To dream of a better life for one’s child?”
“ True. I can certainly learn from this experience of yours.”
She spoke as if talking to herself,” I used to feel a lot of pity for myself and my fellow countrymen. I used to victimize Iran and Iranians, thinking that the war and the revolution took away everything from us. But after seeing the reality of life in Eastern Europe and what those people went through…. I think we still had it good in Iran. And now, I am certainly much more compassionate and open to the rest of the world. Learning more and more about the history of colonizations, slavery, civil wars in different parts of the world constantly fills my heart with forgiveness. Forgiveness for all the wrongs we have done as a race.“
“ Whoever you are, wherever you are from, if you are still alive enough to take the step and make a change in your life, if you can still dream of a better day, you must be respected and fully embraced. At least you still believe. You still trust. At least you still have faith in humanity. At times I am not sure if I do.”
My meet ups with this survivor went beyond merely meeting to hear her story and write the rest of my blog. They opened doors to a silent connection of resilient hearts. True, I hadn’t walked the Balkan Route or experienced the type of hardships she experienced for immigration. However, I proved to be a survivor in my own way. It was, after all, my own resiliency that brought these unique individuals to my path and bonded us with invisible ties of understanding and friendship. We could spot each other in a crowd and see through the difficulties that shaped us.
“ Believe me, I know a two page blog can not do justice to your story. Especially that, this journey is not just yours. It’s a story that hundreds of thousands have lived. A life story many survivors are hiding from their loved ones. Imagine the burden they are carrying by not sharing their struggles and the lessons they can be teaching through them. Imagine how we could all become more compassionate, could we hear their voices.” I said as we were strolling along the shaded path that took us around the lake.
“ Yes, That’s how I feel. I locked up my memories for 18 years. Didn’t even think of sharing them. But now, it’s as if I can’t live without them any more. I see it as my mission now, my purpose in life. The more I am reading about the Balkan Route and what is happening there the more grateful I am.” She continued with intention, “ And the more I believe in having my voice heard.”
“ I still wake up in the middle of the night, thinking that I am in front of that wired fence on the border of Italy. We had to hide in dark for a long time till the area cleared so that we could jump. Later I met a Syrian mother of two young children who’d cut her hand open on that wire. I met a wife whose husband was left behind the wire. I got to take care of a Somalian baby whose mother carried her over the wire. She wanted to cool off in the lake on a hot day at the camp but had no one to trust her baby with. I am still haunted by the memory of the Afghan sisters who were arrested while jumping the fence. The shame the Iranian teenage boys lived through since they had to color their hair blonde to look European. I often wonder, how much of that shame, that fear, how much of that suffering are we carrying in our flesh and blood, in our memory. How much f it do we bring to every relationship we are in.”
“ You jumped the fence in Italy. Now, these days hundreds and hundreds of people are walking that path. Syrians, Kurds, Pakistanis, East Europeans. Helpless humans striving for a better life. Still alive with hope. That chapter is not closed yet.” I interrupted her.
She added, “ That’s very true. After I started sharing my story with you, I became curious about all the locations I travelled through. I found them all. The research led me to heart wrenching videos of the current day Balkan Route. Not much has changed. It has just got worse and more populated.”
“ Was the jump over the fence the hardest part by the way? I hope it did get easier after that.” I said softly.
She continued, “I wish. At first, I thought hiking those mountains at night and jumping the fence would be the hardest part. I thought running across Paris, my dream city, as a runaway looking for shelter was the most heart-breaking experience. Alas! Living in the refugee camp in Netherlands made me rethink these false impressions. The stories you hear on the refugee camp! The amalgam of people you have to live with. Imagine Market Street in San Francisco but with no income, under tents, day in day out. People from all over the world. Each of them bringing their own culture, faith and habits with them. Getting along under those circumstances is a true measure of one’s acceptance. You live together, eat together, spend the whole day together. And you watch. You witness husbands prostituting their wives for a little cash, you witness families form and families fall apart. You watch people steal from each other. You also experience true compassion. There’s really no end, no conformity to what you can experience there. You observe humanity at its best and at its worst. Both at the same time. I had a relatively easier situation since I had a job at the camp. I spoke French and English and helped in the office with translation. And then, the miracle happened. The unworldly possibility of moving to US.”
“ That was a true miracle. What made it possible?” I asked.
“ One day while I was helping at the refugee office, the lady who I worked with asked me if I would like to move to US. Was that even a question?! She helped me with all the paperwork and interviews. It took about 8 months and I was awarded a visa. I was assigned to settle in Orlando. And that’s where I spread my wings and started living my life.” She took a deep sigh, as if putting down a heavy burden. “ I was determined to grow and prove myself. I wanted to show everyone what an immigrant can achieve. I had to work ten times harder than my peers but it really didn’t bother me. I established myself in my career and moved up faster than expected.”
“ Do you ever go back for a visit?”, I asked.
“ I went back once. It’s a strange feeling. Those who chose the path of least resistance and stayed, tried to make me feel guilty. They praise my luck and blame their troubles on their bad fortune. Luck had little to do with me stepping on that route. It was determination. It was bravery. I was ready to risk for what I wanted my life to look like. Luck? I don’t know!”
Respecting her space, I paused for a while. It was clear that she really needed to get this story off her shoulders. She needed to share. She looked much more at ease suddenly.
“ Just curious, was your family ok with your choice?” I asked after a while.
“ Of course. They were happy just to know that I was safe and would be able to pursue my dreams. Isn’t that all we want for all children? To know that they can live without the anxiety of what’s going to happen tomorrow. They accept me for who I am. They always have.” She said.
We managed to find a bench by the lake where we could soak up the warmth of the Fall Sun by the lake. The surface of the water was shimmering gently in the breeze, creating tiny explosions of light. It kept us mesmerized for a while. We were both thinking the same thought. This is a drop in the ocean. The stories that immigrants have lived throughout human history shape our cultures and our societies every day. There is no end to it and there is no running away from it. We can deny the power of deliberately changing your life situation through immigration, we can kick people away, we can deny them healthcare and education, we can build tall fences to block them but the truth is, this train never stops. As long as hope is a word, as long as we can dream, as long as resilience brings power to our bones again, we stand up again. We move. We immigrate. We suffer hardships. We let go and we rebuild.
That’s what humans do.