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 home.)
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 countries easier.
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 further incident.
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 graduation.
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