It was the beginning of Mujahedeen’s war in Afghanistan. My father could see that things were getting out of control, a disaster, chaos was on the way, so he decided to take the family to Iran as it was the only possible way to save the family. We grew up as refugees in Iran, but we didn’t feel different until we got to school, and the principal said to my mother “you are Afghan, so you have to wait until we receive a letter from the Ministry of Education”. Since then, it was always like that, sometimes two to three months would pass from the school year before we were allowed to go to school, and the good schools would have gotten full before we were granted permission to join the schools.  Most of the time, bad schools or the schools far from our place were our only options. We had to catch up with the missed lessons by ourselves. The older we got, the more we could see the discrimination.

In Iran, Afghans are only allowed to work in low prestige jobs such as manual labour, cleaners etc. no matter how educated they are. Afghans are not given a driving license to drive a car or ride a motorbike, they are not allowed to open their own business or buy their own house. Therefore, if an Afghan wants to do any of these things, they have to register it in the name of an Iranian. This is how many Afghans lost their property and businesses and had no voice to speak for their rights. There has also been a limitation of movement on us which would just allow us to commute within the city we live in. If Afghans want to travel to other cities or provinces, they have to introduce themselves to the government offices and pay a fee, then they are given two weeks to complete their trips. Indeed, discrimination is legalized, and the Iranian government is the promoter of discrimination against Afghan refugees. If the government is not able to provide jobs and security, the media would introduce refugees as the source of the problem. Afghans are recognized as thieves, murderers, drug dealers, and threats to their jobs. “Afghan” is used as a name among Iranians to insult someone. All these are horrible, but at the same time, we found ourselves helpless to bring any change.

It was a Friday afternoon; my brother had recently come back from working in Tehran after 4 months. He had to commute between his work and home secretly, otherwise, he would have gotten into trouble for not respecting the limitation of movement. He was excited that day and he wanted to share the reason with us. “I have decided to go to Europe,” he said, “nothing here is for us. They hate us and discriminate against us in every possible way. I want to live like other people in the world, I want to enjoy my life, I want to have equal rights and live my life without fear of getting arrested by the police simply because I want to work or travel. I want progress, for myself, for you and my future family”. As soon as he was done, everyone in the family started disagreeing with him. “No, it is very dangerous. you have asthma, there is no pharmacy or doctor on the way. Who will help you if your health condition gets critical?” “What if you get shot by the Iranian border guards? You know that they have killed many Afghans, right?” “There is no guarantee you will reach there safely; you may drown in the sea”. “What if the smuggler takes all your money and leaves you in the middle of the jungle?” I was quiet throughout the discussion, probably because I was the only one who thought my brother was doing the right thing, but I was afraid to disagree with the others. Despite their valid arguments, I thought the only way to get liberation was to leave. It was a risk, but sometimes we have to take risks to free ourselves, to change our lives. Besides, in our condition, we were not really living, we were just alive.

Later that day, while sitting alone in a room deeply buried in my thoughts, someone slowly opened the door; it was my brother. I could see the disappointment in his eyes. “What do you think? Should I stay or leave? He asked. “I think you should leave. This is what you want. It is your money and your life. They will never let us live our lives here. We will be discriminated against and insulted generation after generation, and our rights will never be recognized here. Our only hope is to leave this country” I said. His excitement returned, he smiled and left the room shortly after. Two weeks later, he was able to connect with a smuggler. The plan was to leave Mashhad to Urmia, then Turkey and from there to Greece and Western Europe; but obviously, it was not as easy as it sounded. I don’t remember what day it was, but I remember it was a sad day. He packed some cloth in a small bag, and it was time to leave. Everyone was at the gate; we were all worried. Then while my brother was saying goodbye, he suddenly burst into tears which then made my youngest brother who was eight years old at the time, cry; he ran back inside while crying. My mom and dad were quiet, they had nothing to say; everyone was quiet including me, it was a heavy atmosphere. He kissed my parents’ hands and my dad said, “take care of yourself, hope you reach there successfully”.

We stayed in touch with him through phone calls. He would call us and inform us about how he was and how his journey was going and in spite of the difficulties, he arrived in Turkey. He had walked and climbed the mountains for hours without food or water. Then they were given a boat to go to Greece with from Turkey and the smugglers sent two guides with his group. They were about 30 minutes away from the Greek coast when they realized that there were holes in the boat. The boat capsized and they all fell in the sea, but my brother was able to get himself to the beach. He called to tell us, he was very angry and terrified. “There were women and children, I can’t find any of them, I think they drowned in the sea. These bastards gave us a damaged boat, and the two people they told us were guides were not, they were refugees like us. They just paid less money and let the traffickers introduce them as guides!” I was terrified of even thinking about what would have happened if my brother had not managed to get himself to the beach. I was thinking about those women and children and where they could have been.

My brother continued his journey but was stuck in Greece for months where he ran out of money. He couldn’t afford to rent a room anymore, was sleeping on the streets and hunting pigeons to feed himself. He didn’t talk about all these at the time, he only opened up about it to us years later. He managed to borrow some money from relatives, and after months of effort, he successfully left Greece. He applied for asylum in the Netherlands, but his application was rejected. He was told Iran is safe and that there was no reason for him to come there. The truth was that to a certain extent, his life was also in danger. He didn’t tell any of us this but while he was in Tehran, his Iranian colleague attacked him with a knife when found out that he is Afghan. He was injured in the belly, and the wound was treated at the hospital. The Dutch government most likely had no idea about the lives of refugees in Iran. After the rejection, my brother went to different countries- France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, but his application was rejected there too because he of the rejection from the Netherlands. He was frustrated, really hopeless while facing all these challenges with very little financial support and no emotional support. Eventually, he got himself to Iceland. By that time the political unrests and wars in Afghanistan had intensified due to the first presidential election, and many people were killed by the Taliban and other rebel groups. The Taliban would cut people’s fingers off, the ones that they voted with. It was at that time that my brother was granted asylum status by the Icelandic government. After a few years, he got married to a really nice Icelandic lady and they welcomed their baby boy soon after/ He named his son “Omid” which in Persian means “Hope”. A meaningful name that says a lot about us human beings, and in this specific case, about my brother and all migrants.  A few months ago, he went on a trip to Germany and when he returned to Iceland, he went to a shop at the airport. The shop owner smiled at him and said, “Welcome home!” That really warmed his heart, so he called home and told our family about it saying, “this is what I came this far for”.

Zeinab Noori obtained her Bachelor’s degree from the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh with a major in Politics, Philosophy, Economics and a minor in Development Studies. She is currently a Master’s student in Global and European Politics at Lille Catholic University, France. She wrote this post as a research intern at Ghent University, Belgium with the “Apart Together” research project which studies the impact of Covid-19 on the life of unaccompanied minors across the world. During that time, she also assisted as a translator for the “ChildMove Project” which is focused on the impact of flight experiences on the psychological wellbeing of unaccompanied refugee minors.