“I crossed the border illegally with the smugglers. It took us about eight days going from a north western city near the Iranian border to get to Ankara. We crossed rivers, went through snow, ice, over mountains. And the smugglers were so violent.”
Human rights activist Kouhyar Goodarzi, recalled for euronews his long journey into exile from Iran.
One of the country’s best-known bloggers, Goodarzi had been imprisoned six times. He decided to leave after a nine month stretch in jail last year, which included several weeks of solitary confinement and torture.
He has been a refugee since the winter, and is waiting for his request for asylum, lodged with the UN High Commission for Refugees, to be accepted.
Euronews spoke with him in southern Turkey.
“I’m trying to make the places I’m in, places I want to be in. Prison, outside, everywhere. When I was in prison, I wrote a poem on the walls of all the cells I was in. It’s by (Chilean poet, diplomat and politician) Pablo Neruda: ‘Take the bread away from me if you wish, take the air away, but do not take your laughter from me’.”
Following this last time time in jail, Goodarzi was released on bail, but still faces up to five years imprisonment in Iran for “propaganda against the system” and “endangering national security”.
Hossein Salmanzadeh took the first pictures of his friend Kouhyar Goodarzi upon his arrival in Ankara.
A former photographer for the national Iranian news agency, Fars, Salmanzadeh fled four years ago, after being accused of selling photographs of post-electoral events in 2009 to foreign media.
“The government can punish me, or maybe kill me. Because the government said you are a spy, a Mossad spy, a CIA spy. Because you send pictures to other agencies. Sometimes I get a message ‘you can come back. You will only, have to go to jail for one week, do an interview on TV then you can have a good and enjoyable life’. I can’t do it!”
Salmanzadeh was a refugee once in the United States, but he could not find work. Having returned to Turkey, he hopes to be given asylum in Europe.
Turkey only provides temporary refugee status to non-European asylum seekers, relying on the UNHCR to organise their transit to a third country.
Some 200 kilometres west of Ankara is the town of Eskisehir.
There we met Saied, a student, also arrested for participating in the protest movements against the Iranian regime.
He took us to see Hamid Mafi, whose cause Kouhyar had championed in Iran.
Mafi, a journalist for reformist media in Iran, was arrested several times, interrogated repeatedly and was convicted twice.
Choosing exile, rather than prison, he has been in Turkey for over a year waiting for his asylum application to Germany to be granted.
The uncertainty makes life difficult, and he holds out no hope the situation in Iran will change after the next election: “Civil society, social networks no longer exist, they were crushed by repression. What remains of civil society exists only in a clandestine manner. I do not think [change] will occur in the next elections. When Rasfanjani’s candidacy was rejected, there were no protests. So it would surprise me if there are any protests following the election, regardless of the how result is arrived at.”
This pessimistic feeling is shared by the younger Iranians we met in Eskisehir.
Life is not always easy here for refugees who do not have the right to work, however they say their only choice is to stay and try to get asylum status.
Navid, another rights blogger and activist, left Iran two years ago, after three months in prison. He was then 18. He told us: “Five months ago they killed a blogger, Yes, they killed a blogger in prison. I hoped the reformist candidates would free the political atmosphere, and maybe we could return to our country. But now, I don’t think so.”
Back in Southern Turkey, we met Saghi, a feminist activist who arrived in Adana with her family a few months ago.
She says laws passed in the Iranian parliament in recent years have worsened the position of women: “There are set quotas for the number of women in universities. The legal amount of working hours for women were reduced. As a result nobody wanted to give jobs to women anymore. So they were forced to stay at home. And, I want to mention the legal emphasis on encouraging polygamy in Iran. Everything we had in the last eight years, and especially in the last four years, was anti women”.
Despite being arrested several times and losing her job, Saghi still took part in a mission to help victims of the earthquake that struck northwestern Iran last year.
The presence of volunteers in the region, was considered a crime against national security. Many were arrested and jailed.
Saghi managed to escape that fate, but she says she and her husband had to leave everything behind: “After arriving here, I wrote a poem that begins like this: ‘There was an earthquake, and I was a bird, [but] the wind blew away my nest’.”
Kouhyar intends to rebuild his nest in the United States after his asylum application has been accepted.
Expelled from university in Tehran where he was studying aeronautics, he wants to continue his studies and, while pursuing his professional activities, keep up his activism.
He said that is a necessary preparation to facilitate a successful return to Iran: “After being accepted for asylum, I’m going to get some education. And on the back of that I’m going to be active. After finishing I think… Now, I want after that, to go back to Iran. To be in a society that I am working on. I will be more useful there, at that time.”
Once he has attained more education and experience, he believes he will be ready to pay the price of returning to his homeland: “Maybe we should get back to reality, the reality of today. Maybe we’ve been involved in a dream too much. It may be a beautiful dream, or goal but it’s not real. The dream is on the internet, in the virtual world. For practical purposes, we need to be more realistic, to do things not just talk about them. Also, it’s important to know that the more people there are doing things, which have a cost, the less is the individual price. And as a result, there will be more people who are prepared to pay the price for what they are doing.”