I'm no infidel
By Bita Binazeer
During the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Shah and his family fled the
country for destinations unknown. In 1975 my father too had left Iran,
but he had done so of his own will, and he knew that he would be
planting roots in the United States for his family. In October 1977 my
mother, brothers and I joined my father in suburban Virginia, where he
had already established a business and prepared foundations with which
his children could go to college. Little did any of us realize that
difficult times were around the corner.
As the Iranian government changed hands in 1979 and the American
embassy personnel spent 444 days in the hands of Iranian students, the
country that had welcomed my investor father with open arms a few short
years before, and quickly handed him extra green cards for his family,
soon turned hostile. Strong anti-Iranian sentiments pervaded throughout
American society, thanks to Ted Koppel's nightly reports on the hostage
crisis and Ayatollah Khomeini's stubborn hatred for satanic Westerners
and godless Soviets.
It seems to me that my parents had chosen one of the worst possible
places to purchase a new house at that time. They had moved from an
affluent Washington suburb to a more rural area in Virginia, where the
community was less traveled and more intolerant. Bumper stickers
screaming obscenities at Iran and the Ayatollah were visible in high
numbers in our new town. To make matters worse, I had just begun the
7th grade, a time in life when most children tend to act insensitively
toward a few of their peers.
I had not quiet mastered English at that point. This coupled with the
political climate of the day lead to hateful and threatening notes stuck
on my locker such as: "Let our people go or have your country nuked
off the face of the earth!"; endless teasing on the school bus
about my "grandfather" the Ayatollah, and ultimately a humiliating
beating by the class bully (who weighed at least twice as much as I) at
the bus stop, before a busload of my schoolmates. I won't discuss what
fate my brothers suffered on the playground.
The hostages returned home to yellow ribbons tied around the old oak
tree, but Iran's reputation failed to improve. In fact, the oppressive
regime in Iran and its eight year war with Iraq precipitated the mass
exodus of intellectuals, political dissidents, religious minorities and
others. (Later, after the end of the war with Iraq, the "brain drain"
left the Iranian government begging Iranian students in Western
universities to return -- with lofty promises of a comfortable life back
Iran's largest minority religious group, the Baha'is were now an
"infidel" group, unprotected in the new constitution. This
essentially meant that they did not have, and still do not have, any
civil rights. They were persecuted so severely that the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that any Iranian who
could prove that he or she practiced the Baha'i faith had a prima
facie case for refugee status. This declaration made resettlement,
to third countries, for Baha'is who had escaped to Iran's neighboring
Both my parents' families were active Baha'is in Tehran and other
northern regions of Iran. Needless to say, the vast majority of my
relatives fled Iran throughout the 1980s. Most had suffered some form
of persecution, and two of my cousins were executed by the Iranian
authorities. My parents' immediate families fled to Turkey and Pakistan,
and with the help of the UNHCR resettled throughout Europe, the United
States and Canada.
My very large family (my mother's four sisters and three brothers,
some of my father's brothers outside of Iran) began to trickle into the
United States, beginning in the mid 1980s. But while awaiting
resettlement in Turkey and Pakistan all of them had experiences ranging
from uncomfortable to terrifying. They shared some of these experiences
with us when we were able to reach them via telephone, but we were told
the entire story only after they arrived in the United States.
For example, my mother's youngest brother had been betrayed by a
smuggler to whom he had paid thousands of dollars to take him and a
cousin, on foot, across the border into Pakistan. Both men were Baha'is
and barely in their twenties and thus prime candidates for the front
lines in the war against Iraq. En route they both contracted malaria.
Once they arrived in Pakistan, they were left in an abandoned
apartment by the smuggler who had told them to wait there for medical
help. The following day, instead of doctors, the Pakistani authorities
arrived, led to the apartment by the smuggler. They arrested my relatives
and transported them back across the border.
Upon arrival, Iranian authorities charged both men with evading the
draft and imprisoned them immediately. News of this incident reached my
parents quickly. I watched my mother age years in just a few days, as
she was sure that her brother's execution was eminent. Fortunately, the
prison officials at this particular site were easily bribed and my
relatives were freed.
Later, my uncle successfully escaped into Turkey and obtained UNHCR
refugee status. Interviewed by the United States government, he was
extended an invitation to join us in this country sometime later. My
uncle is now a lawyer practicing in the U.S.
Another incident that involved my father's younger brother and his
family took place in Turkey. Although Turkey is a signatory to the
1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it
has limited its obligations under this convention to refugees from
European countries only. Still, by Turkey's own estimates, over a
million Iranians have fled to that country.
It was only through the good offices of the UNHCR in Turkey that
Iranians and other non-Europeans refugees received substantial help.
In fact, the Turkish authorities were notorious for abusing desperate
Iranians in various ways.
For a short time in the late 1980s - early 1990s, for example, there
were numerous reports of Iranian refugees rounded up by the bus load,
who were returned to the Iranian side of the border, lined up in plain
view of the Turkish authorities and some were randomly shot by the
Iranian authorities. This would constitute a clear violation of the
non-refoulment requirement of Article 33 of the 1951 Convention, but
the Turkish government argued that because Iranians are not considered
refugees in that country, Ankara had no obligation toward them as such.
What happened to my relatives was a common occurrence in Turkey
during those days. One night while the family (my uncle, his wife, two
young daughters and my grandmother) were sleeping, the Turkish police
broke into their one-room apartment, gathered everyone and took them
to the police station. No charges were filed. Because some of the
police officers were drunk, my uncle feared for the safety of his family.
Fortunately, after a few hours of interrogation at the police
station, my uncle was made to pay a "fine" for being in the country
without proper papers, and the family was allowed to return home without
The same uncle told us that on another occasion, while waiting in
line at the UNHCR offices in Ankara, he saw an Iranian man emerge from
an office where interviews for refugee status were conducted. The man,
his application apparently denied, began shouting that he would rather
die than return to Iran. He then set himself on fire.
According to my uncle, the U.N. guard posted nearby would not allow
anyone to help the man. It was only after several minutes of shouting
and carrying on that a UN official finally emerged from inside his
office and ordered the guard to step out of the way, so that the fire
could be extinguished and the man taken to the hospital.
Although these are just a few of the incidents described to me, they
represent what many vulnerable refugees suffer around the world. Many
similar incidents were reported from credible organizations that had
investigated the plight of refugees. Frustrated by the situation I
decided to spend some time in detention centers on the Texas-Mexico
border, helping asylum seekers to fill out their asylum applications,
as a part of the 1990 Amnesty International Refugee Campaign.
Upon my return, I began to realize that the Iranian expatriate
community lacked a non-partisan refugee advocacy group. There were many
organizations that aided Iranian Jews, Baha'is, the left, the Mojahedin
and so on. When a friend suggested that we organize to aid all Iranian
refugees (and later Iranian immigrants) regardless of race, religion,
political affiliation, etc., I helped to begin an organization to
provide humanitarian assistance to Iranian refugees in 1991. The group
engaged in and is still actively advocating for the rights of individual
refugees as well as whole groups of Iranians in need.
My work with the group and childhood experiences were instrumental in
bringing me to the realization that, although finding and implementing
a practical remedy for the root causes of refugee outflow is not
achievable in the near future, the amelioration of the situation for all
refugees and immigrants would be affected most efficiently through legal
avenues. I began law school in 1994 with hopes to obtain a position where
I could directly affect international asylum and refugee law upon
©Copyright 1997, Abadan Publishing Co.
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