In June of 2009, Iranians surged into the streets of Tehran in protest of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection as president. His landslide victory insinuated fraud and left outraged citizens demanding, Where is my vote? As protests escalated, the opposition massacred these crowds. Citizens were randomly and methodically killed or captured. Nasrin was living in Tehran while the violence overwhelmed her city. What’s more, she was involved.
“I knew they were going to come for me,” she said, and so she and her ten-year-old son abandoned their home and fled to a relative’s house. When they did go looking for her, all they found in her house was her husband. They took him. “He spent months in jail,” Nasrin said, “for what I did.” She knew she was not safe in Iran, so with her husband in jail, she took her son and left the country. But where were they to go?
Over a year earlier, Nasrin’s sister had tried to flee to Canada and had paid a man in Iran to smuggle her there. The man took her as far as Santander, Spain before he abandoned her. She found herself in a city where she didn’t have anything: not a single person, not a euro, not a word of the language. So when Nasrin fled, she fled to her sister.
The two sisters faced different situations because of the time that elapsed between their arrivals. Nasrin’s sister had been able to work with a lawyer and had been granted asylum. Nasrin went to an immigration to ask for asylum, but all she received were pursed-lipped sorrys.
So she went to Germany. Nasrin knew of Iranians living in asylum there. But the European Union had a rule she didn’t know about: in short, if Mom says no, you can’t go ask Dad; and if Spain says no, you can’t go ask Germany. Once again denied asylum, she returned to Santander.
There is one way out of her situation: if she can get a job offer—a signed piece of paper by an established employer—she can apply for residency. But in her three-and-a-half years in Spain, Nasrin has not been able to find a job.
One time an agency helped her get an interview. The woman who was to be her employer was offering 350 euros a month for 13-hour work days, Monday to Friday. “What do you think I am?” Nasrin asked.
“You need a job, don’t you?”
“I need a job,” she said to me, “but I’m not an animal. I’m a human.”
Nasrin lived off her savings for a while, and now receives money from her husband, who is out of jail and back at work while on probation. But a job, beyond sustaining her here, is the only chance at escape—for both her and her son.
Kamran, Nasrin’s fourteen-year-old son, is Nasrin’s biggest concern. As far as she can see, his happiness and his future don’t exist here. As a child, he was fortunate to learn Spanish within months of arrival; however, it didn’t help him fit in. At school he faces unbeatable racism. His first year, a boy posted a picture of Kamran on Twitter with the caption “Bin Laden’s son”. Nasrin showed up at school the next day to talk to his teacher.
“You need to do something about this,” she insisted, but his teacher just looked at her sadly and told her she couldn’t control what went on the internet. Another time Kamran came home with a handprint on his cheek, and again Nasrin marched to the school. Only after one girl spoke up that she had seen Kamran get hit did his teacher acknowledge that it had happened. This time she shrugged. “Kids will be kids,” she said with dismissal. In yet another incident, Kamran had been running through a doorway when a group of boys on the other side quickly closed the glass door, sending Kamran slamming through the glass.
Nasrin has taken him to the hospital four times for injuries related to bullying.
One day a boy from school called the house was Kamran was out. When he returned, Nasrin told him his friend had called. He said, “I don’t have friends here, mom.”
“It’s extremely difficult to be an immigrant,” Nasrin said. “Until you have papers you can’t have a credit card, open a bank account, use the post office, buy a plane ticket, go to the doctor…” The worst for her is not being able to give her son a better life. He begs her just to get a job offer so they can get residency and get out.
In Tehran she was an electrical engineer for 20 years. She knows not to expect work from that—not while even highly qualified Spaniards are suffering in that respect—but in her empty time she has acquired various skills from cooking to designing clothes. Maybe they will lead her to work, but, as she said, “If I can’t work, I might as well learn keep learning.”
In Nasrin’s eyes, the problem is the people who don’t understand her situation; they see someone without papers and don’t want to get involved because of fear. They don’t understand what she needs from them, what is and isn’t at risk, and they would rather just keep their hands clean. Spain is in a crisis and the last thing they need is her crisis too. For Nasrin, this lack of understanding is the crisis. Eventual improvement will only come if people on both ends realize their responsibilities, their rights, and their capabilities.