Growing Up in Iran: Interview with Undocumented Ethnic Afghan

By Firouzeh Ramezanzadeh

Fatemeh M. and her family are among the 3 million Afghan nationals living in Iran. The government’s anti-immigration policy has denied most ethnic Afghans legal status and residence permits, forcing them to live on the fringes of Iranian society.

Fatemeh is 30 and lives with her elderly mother and younger sister in a village in the western part of the northern province of Gilan, one of the many regions in the country where Afghan refugees may not live legally.

“I have a confession to make,” Fatemeh told Kayhan Life. “Only a few people know that my parents emigrated from Afghanistan to Iran before the [Islamic] Revolution. We always lied about our ethnic origin. We told everyone we were Turkmens.”



FILE PHOTO: An Afghan Girl in Iran. Source: KAYHAN LONDON

“My siblings and I were only eight or nine years old when we started working,” she added. “We entered the real world at an early age. As children of undocumented Afghan immigrants, we didn’t have the same rights as Iranian citizens. We couldn’t go to school, pursue our dreams, and build a life for ourselves in this society. Our unique concerns, challenges, and problems have placed severe limitations on us and our ability to lead normal and fulfilling lives.”

Fatemeh’s parents settled in Gilan shortly after emigrating to Iran 45 years ago.

“I have five brothers and one sister. Through a contact at the registrar’s office in Rasht [capital of Gilan province], my father bought birth certificates for himself and three of my brothers,” Fatemeh explained. “There were a few problems with the documents, so my father never went to any government offices for fear of being arrested and deported. My three brothers, however, used the fake birth certificates to go to school, serve in the army, and marry.”

Fatemeh added: “Before my sister and I could get our birth certificates, the Revolution happened. My father died in a car accident a few years later. My parents were young and inexperienced. Being undocumented immigrants scared them and prevented them from finding a legal solution to their problem. My parents told me that the conditions were better in Iran before the Revolution. Afghan nationals could go to school and work. Shortly after the Revolution, however, they held all Afghan women, deported the men, and abandon the children, many of whom died of hunger during this period.”

Asked how she has been supporting herself given she is undocumented, Fatemeh said: “My siblings and I have been working since we were eight or nine years old. However, not having proper Afghan or Iranian documents has been very problematic. Thank God we have survived. Nowadays, one needs to be computer literate and have language skills to get a job. I don’t have either. So I work as a childminder, a carer for the elderly, a seamstress, and a housecleaner. That’s how I make a living and survive. My youngest brother married an Iranian woman 25 years older. He works as a security guard at the private residence of a doctor in Rasht.”

Fatemeh said: “I am not from a well-off family. My mother is 77 years old. She broke both her wrists while ago, but still works as a housecleaner. She has a heart problem and severe arthritis. She has deformed joints and crooked fingers.”

Like most Afghan nationals, Fatemeh is being exploited by employers who pay their undocumented workers far less than the minimum wage set by the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare.

Fatemeh noted: “We are tired of being humiliated and disparaged. I recently worked at a place for a week from 8 o’clock in the morning until 9 at night. They provided meals to other workers but not me. They didn’t give me breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Employers know that no one works as hard as Afghan laborers. They always select us for jobs but don’t pay us as much as others.”

She explained: “We work long hours for little money. There have been some instances when an employer has reported the undocumented workers to the authorities because he didn’t want to pay them the hundreds of dollars, he owed them. The authorities deport those people to Afghanistan. I witnessed a few instances when young girls and boys were sexually abused and forced to work for free.”

According to Fatemeh, authorities consider helping Afghan refugees a political offense punishable by imprisonment.

She said: “Undocumented Afghan nationals and those who live in places forbidden by law cannot get driver licenses or buy SIM cards for their mobile phones. They cannot even move to another town. Authorities regard helping undocumented Afghans a political crime. For instance, police imprisoned a Baha’i woman who was providing financial aid to one of our relatives in northern Iran. They charged her with helping illegal immigrants, which is now a political crime.”


FILE PHOTO: An Afghan refugee poses with her child at the Bardsir settlement for Afghan refugees in Kerman province, Iran, October 22, 2016. Picture taken October 22, 2016. REUTERS/Gabriela Baczynska

“People in our village think we are Turkmen, and so they don’t harass us. However, we would get into trouble if they discovered that we were Afghans,” Fatemeh explained. “My sister, who has been in poor health for a while, went to Tehran to see a specialist. She told me that the other patients at the doctor’s office were very abusive towards her, calling her ‘filthy Afghan.’ Irrespective of their immigration status, all Afghan nationals living in Iran work under challenging conditions. They don’t have health insurance, pensions, unemployment benefits, or educational opportunities. I sometimes think we are a cursed minority.”

Asked about her formal education, Fatemeh broke into tears and said: “I wanted to go to school but never did. I dreamed of becoming a doctor and thought I would have made a good heart or a brain surgeon. I was only 10 years old when I thought of becoming a doctor, so I could provide free medical care to everyone. My sister and I are home-schooled, so to speak. I have a good general knowledge and also have a basic understanding of English. My father’s death turned my world upside down. One of my brothers died from a drug overdose. He was only 20 years old and suffered from severe depression. My sister and I had to stop our home studies after the death of our father and brother. We have endured so many tragedies and hardships.”

Speaking about her younger sister’s accident, Fatemeh said: “My sister is 29 years old. She was in a car accident exactly three years ago, which caused her serious injuries. She has been struggling with various health issues ever since, which have made our lives even more challenging. Our family resembles a tree which has been poisoned at its roots and is dying slowly. My sister started working at a hair salon ten years ago. However, the work turned into forced labor because the owner didn’t pay my sister, so she got fed up and left. She was tired of being exploited and thought of opening a shop in the village we lived in. She worked very hard and went through a difficult period.”

Wiping tears off her face, Fatemeh added: “Our family held a small birthday party for me three years ago. It wasn’t a big celebration: only my mother, sister and me. I don’t know why, but I felt uneasy that night. When my sister hugged me, I had a strange feeling I would never see her again. At around ten o’clock the next morning, a Kia Pride going 180 kilometers an hour hit her near a major highway. The driver was a 20-year-old man.”

Fatemeh paused for a few minutes and then continued: “My mother and I were at work and didn’t find out until later that afternoon. I still get upset when I think about that day. My sister has been in constant pain for the past three years. She is on anti-seizure medication. She is also blind in her left eye and gradually losing vision in the right eye. She has three herniated discs in her neck, a torn tendon in one hand and damaged sciatic nerve which causes her legs to bend and turn outward.”

Fatemeh added: “My sister-in-law recommended a doctor and also gave us her daughter’s documents so we could take my sister to see him. He charged us $143 because we didn’t have a health card and injected a drug into my sister’s spine. A few days later, my sister told us her pain had gotten worse. We suspected that she had fluid in her lungs. She complained to the doctor about the severe pain in her body. However, the doctor had yelled at her with other patients sitting in the waiting room, saying that her problem was psychological and not physical.”

“I went to the doctor’s office the next day and asked him why he had humiliated my sister in front of all the other patients. He threw some insults at me. I told him I would file a formal complaint against him to which he responded ‘go-ahead,’ knowing fully well that as an undocumented Afghan I couldn’t go to the authorities,” She said crying.

Fatemeh added: “Try to imagine three Afghan women living all by themselves and with no support in a country like Iran. It is very hard. We have to pay for everything. We don’t receive any help from the [Imam Khomeini] Relief Foundation. We don’t have national cards or health insurance. Our lives have been plagued with hardships, tragedies, and misfortunes, but we have endured and survived many adversities and have become only stronger.”

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]