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Six years on, Christian couple who fled persecution in Iran still stuck in Turkey

Six years on, Christian couple who fled persecution in Iran still stuck in Turkey

It’s now more than six years since Maryam Bateni Nia and her husband Reza Mousavi fled Iran, where Maryam faced a one-year jail sentence for her involvement in house-churches, to seek asylum in Turkey.

And there they remain. Tired, fearful and devoid of hope.

In those six years, Maryam, now 37, and Reza, 39, and their eight-year-old son, Daniel, have been threatened with deportation, rejected for resettlement in the US and have had to travel long distances every two weeks to sign at a police station to prove they are living in their registered city – except that they aren’t. Because they can’t.

Eight months after their arrival, the couple were designated Samsun, a city on Turkey’s north coast, as their city of residence. But by then they had already settled in Istanbul, had found a church, and Reza had found work. 

Unable to find a new job in Samsun, and with no money in the bank, they decided to stay in Istanbul, even though Samsun was a 12-hour drive away.

But a year later, with Reza snowed under at his work in the tourism industry at the time of the Persian New Year, the couple missed three consecutive signings at the police station in Samsun, and the next time they went they discovered they had been served a deportation order.

“We were so frightened,” Maryam recalls. “It was two days after this order that we were called by the UN staff. And usually when they call they have an interpreter, but that day a Turkish woman called, spoke to my husband, and said, ‘Tomorrow, 8 o’clock, you need to be here at the UN office.’ She was very serious. And we were frightened to death. We thought, ‘This is for our deportation. The police have informed them and now they have summoned us to deport us.’”

In fact, the UN had called to tell them that they had been successful with their application to register as refugees. To their relief, they found out this meant they were exempt from any deportation order.

But their joy at this news was only temporary as, one year later, in March 2016, the US rejected their asylum claim.

“It was right at the time when they were blocking entry for new refugees to Europe and the US,” Reza explained. “And from what others who have gone before or after us have said – about how they were treated – it was completely different from our experience.”

Not only were the couple rejected; they were also advised by US officials not to bother appealing the decision, as they had a “one to 99 chance” of success.

And so they were back to square one.

A year later, they successfully applied for their designated city to be reassigned to a city much closer to Istanbul, but still one in which Reza has found it difficult to find work. 

And still every two weeks there is the process of trekking back and forth to the police station to sign-in, which Reza says is an uncomfortable experience in itself.

“The interviewer is a Muslim and not necessarily sympathetic to our situation,” he says. “Their main question is, ‘OK, why did you convert from Islam to Christianity?’ And I have to explain this. And another question is, ‘What was wrong with Islam that you converted?’, which puts us in a really difficult situation. We have to talk negatively about the faith that we held and this guy is a believer in.”

For Maryam, the greatest challenge is the waiting.

“We just want to leave Turkey, really,” she says. “It’s been way too long a wait. Reza is most of the time at work and has to really work hard for us to live here.”

An additional complication is the fact that asylum seekers in Turkey aren’t even legally permitted to work – but Maryam says it is otherwise impossible for them to meet their needs.

“We are torn between abiding by the law or meeting our basic needs,” she says. “In other countries, refugees have support systems. They receive housing or work opportunities, but here we’re denied those and we’re sent to cities where we can’t meet the basic standards of living.”

Reza adds: “For us who fled persecution, we fled without organising a plan. We didn’t have savings to take with us, that we could carry on spending for a couple of years. We didn’t have any plan for learning the language, or work, or anything like that. So we got here, we found ourselves in the middle of all this refugee process. The Turkish government, UN, ASAM [Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants], any of these authorities do not financially help in any way at all. I had to actually sign in my first interview a document saying that I do not have any claim on receiving help or support.

“They don’t offer you any accommodation – somewhere to sleep. Even when you want to rent a house, it will be more expensive for you than a Turkish resident. So this all shows you the basic financial needs asylum seekers have.

“In small cities, any jobs that you may be able to find are very hard labour, and then you’ll be lucky if you will be paid for the work that you do. I have a slipped disk and I can’t do heavy physical labour. That’s personal for me, but maybe others are in a similar situation.”

Reza says he has “no grievance” with either the Turkish or American governments, but wishes there was consistency in the application process.

“We know that there are people around us who have asylum cases based on false claims. So I can understand that they would see me as somebody similar to them,” he says. “But what I would expect, and I think is reasonable, is that they would have an expert eye to look at these cases, to discern the genuine cases of persecution of Christians. What I can’t understand is that a few people would end up being accepted and others would be refused, all with similar circumstances.”

Reza adds that he would like to see a better support network for persecuted Christians, similar to those enjoyed by the LGBT community and Baha’is – also persecuted minorities within Iran.

“I may have seen you [Article18] representing Christians in one of the TV channels, but not many people are involved in this work of supporting persecuted Christians,” he says.

“I wish at least there was a support system for families,” Maryam adds. “Especially those with children.” 

“You know, we and a lot of those who come fleeing persecution in Iran, they have their own lives and livelihood – they may have been doing well, meeting their own needs back in their own home country. Now they have come here and in addition to enduring all that hardship, they feel responsible for what has happened to their children. So somebody like our child comes and now he is at the age that he understands why we are here and what circumstances led to our escape from Iran and he questions, ‘What would happen if we weren’t arrested? Would we be in a similar situation, or not?’

“So I’m not expecting any sort of financial help, but at least something to facilitate a support for these families so that this period of waiting would be shortened for them, or at least somebody to hear them out and understand what they are going through.”

For now, Maryam and Reza sit and wait in the hope that another country – perhaps Canada or Australia – will take on their case. But until that time, all they can do is wait, with no idea of how long it may take.

“For us the timing itself is not an issue,” Reza says. “We’ve been here for too long, but at least if we knew the direction we were heading in, then we could manage the time.”