‘Becoming a refugee in Turkey is the worst decision you can ever take’

‘Becoming a refugee in Turkey is the worst decision you can ever take’

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve waste my whole life.”

These are the words of Iman Ghaznavian Haghighi, an Iranian Christian who has been living as a refugee in Turkey for nearly a decade now. 

After arriving in 2013 aged 27, Iman now finds himself in his late 30s, still in the same place, and with very little apparent change to his circumstances.

In those nine years, Iman says, it’s as if his life has just been on hold, waiting for a change that has not come to pass. 

First there was hope, after his case was accepted by the UNHCR and forwarded onto the US, that perhaps he might be resettled there. But with the change of approach during the Trump years, this was a hope that was swiftly snuffed out. 

And so it was back to the drawing board for Iman, and countless other Iranian Christians like him, as his case was passed back to the Turkish authorities, who have been known to reject the asylum claims of several Iranian Christians previously accepted by the UN.

Iman’s latest hope is for resettlement to Canada, with his case in the apparent final stages of the process. But for now he’s just waiting on the call, and with every day that passes it’s a wait that takes its toll.

While he waits, Iman has some messages that he wants to share: one for the Turkish authorities, one for fellow Iranian Christians, and one for the wider Church.

To the Turkish authorities, he asks whether, recognising how difficult it must be to host so many refugees – of whom Iranian Christians are only a tiny fraction – at the same time he wonders whether they couldn’t make life just slightly more comfortable for refugees, who have no right to work, nor do they receive any significant help from the government.

There is an unspoken understanding that refugees will work, but that such work will be “off-the-books”, leaving the refugee even more vulnerable to exploitation.

Meanwhile, Iman says they feel entirely without status and, with it, identity.

“The Turkish government, they give you an ID card, but it’s just a piece of paper, and you are even shy to show it to anybody,” Iman says. “You cannot even rent an apartment, you cannot do anything – no bank account, nothing. 

“You have a paper to just stay here and wait to go to the third country that is accepting refugees and can accept you as a citizen. You don’t have any identity. No work. You need to work, but you can only work illegally, and I don’t know how it looks for a Christian to work illegally. 

“It’s not about people looking for a better life. We want to have just basic things. If they accepted us as citizens, for sure we would stay here and we would be happy, because it is a culture near to ours.” 

And meanwhile the sentiment within Turkey continues to grow more and more anti-refugee. It’s clear they are not welcome.

So for Christians like Iman who are still in Iran and may be considering fleeing the country due to the persecution they are experiencing there, Iman’s message is simple: don’t come to Turkey.

“This is the worst decision you ever can take,” he says. “Your children’s lives will destroyed, your life will be destroyed.”

Sometimes, Iman says, he even regrets not taking the path other friends did after leaving Iran and fleeing illegally to other European countries, where some have now been granted the right to remain. 

Finally, Iman has a message for the wider Church. And again, it’s a simple one: please help refugees like him. 

How hard can it be, Iman wonders, for a Church of over 2 billion people around the world to come together to help the relatively small number of Iranian Christian refugees, numbering, he estimates, around 500-600. 

“It’s not difficult for all of the Christians [in the world],” he pleads. “We just need 500 families willing to help 500 people. That’s it!”

It’s a message close to Iman’s heart, and a purpose that drives him, with Iman saying that when, eventually, all being well, he arrives in Canada, this is what he wants to do with his life: to help others like him, who are in his current situation, devoid of hope.

Some have even committed suicide in the years of waiting and hopelessness, he says, when life has just been on hold. 

Does Iman have a wife or girlfriend? 

“No,” he says, adding that he’s even rejected any thought of it, given his situation. 

Life is so tough, he says. Why would he want to add to that? And what kind of life would he be giving his children, to bring them into this struggle? 

For now at least, Iman’s stasis continues. No identity, little support. Just the same hope that he’s held onto since first arriving nine years ago, that one day, hopefully soon, he may be resettled somewhere where he might have a chance to really live.

Will it be Canada? He hopes so, but when?

“No idea,” he replies. “Day by day, I’m waiting and praying that God one day does it.”