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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 again! 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. 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 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 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 human 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.”
“ To be continued”