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Setareh's Journey: Surviving Iran and Escaping to Freedom Part I

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

- A Powerful Story of resilience & strength

It was not a decision to leave. They forced me to escape

As a portrait photographer, my focus is on women's photography. During my career I have met a lot of women I photographed and each single one had a story to tell.

I usually like the close-up look, the view into their eyes as the eyes are the gates to our souls.

Today, I want to share Setareh's story, the story of a woman, mother and human being who conquered unimaginable fears, and hardships to protect and secure a future for herself and her family. As I began my portrait session, the conviction in her eyes became the primary essence that I aimed to capture. The session wasn’t easy; often I could see glimpses of painful past haunting the expressive canvass of her face. Not everybody has a story to tell like Setareh (we changed her name for safety reasons). This story serves as an emblem of the fortitude and resilience that we often forget exist among the countless lives in distant places across the globe, from us in the West. Setareh’s life was etched with an unshakeable resolution, of sorrow, endurance, hope and most importantly resilience.

And even though this sounds dramatic, and it is for every “normal” human being who grew up in our Western world, almost unknown, these stories exist. The stories of conquering your biggest fear, the stories of defying an oppressive government where women are “persona non grata”, where women are not supposed to have a voice and women’s rights are almost non-existent.

I personally have a close connection to Iran, which is the birthplace of my husband and therefore 50 percent of my family are from Iran, and so is Setareh. A country most of us only know as a terrorist breeding country with only little knowledge that there is so much more to that country. Most of us don’t know that this country produces some of the smartest people in the world, who are gladly recruited by other countries to work in research and science. The only way to survive and/or leave Iran is education, but it is also dangerous, as educated people are questioning the system. Iran is a country whose people are warm-hearted, and welcoming and a country with one of the richest histories. A country, that doesn’t have its origin in Islam but rather in Zoaristrism, the mother of all religions. A country in which women have relentlessly fought for their rights since the fall of Sha Reza in 1979. They fought for each little inch of freedom and education we in our Western world tend to take for granted. Over the last 50 years, since the fall of the Shah, they certainly regained certain rights as this oppressive theocratic government at least understood that a country only can prosper when women are educated as well.

But I digress and do not want to speak about Iran. I want to introduce Setareh, whom I met in Heraklion, where I moved to last year. By chance, we were introduced to each other and once I learned that Setareh is from Iran, she had my full attention. Not that I don’t give any less attention to other women, but I felt connected of course. Then little by little I learned about Setareh’s harrowing story of survival. Despite her battles and fight for survival Setareh displays an unequivocal optimism and an unquivering thirst for a better life to come. Where others would have surrendered to drugs and alcohol or suicide, Setareh only grew stronger.

Please come with me on this journey to learn about Setareh’s story, while showing a series of portraits of her, we took here in Crete. These are not the typical styled beauty portraits. These portraits are life portraits of a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend— of a woman with a voice. After our photography session, Setareh and I sat down for an interview and as our conversation flowed, the brave account of her past began unfolding before me. The unthinkable trials she faced, and her indomitable spirit painted a perspective of Iran that not many of us are privy to. So today, I bring forth to you, Setareh’s story through the series of portraits I captured of her.

Because you force me to cover my face, you cannot cover my spirit and my eyes that still see beauty

Because you broke my bones, you cannot break my will to live

Because you force me to cover my mouth you cannot mute my voice

Because you hurt my body and my soul, you cannot hurt the strength in me

Part I

“If you have to survive you have more power in you than people who do not have to fight for survival.” -Setareh-

When I had to leave Iran, many things happened. You have to make a decision immediately, without any pausing—just boom! Otherwise, you waste your time and miss the moment to escape. This government comes to disturb you, to bother you and irritate you. Often you have to ignore it in a way because you won’t be able to survive or go through daily life.

I was forced to escape from the country I grew up in; the country where I had a happy childhood, loving parents and siblings. My parents taught us to be strong women. I also found this in my mother, a mother of 6 children, kind and generous, always hard working. I always say that she is not only a woman, she is both, a man and a woman. Just like many Iranian women. The circumstances made us to be like that.

It was not a decision to leave. They forced me to escape; otherwise, I wouldn’t be alive anymore. I had a political opinion about this government, and like many, many Iranian women, I voiced my opinion and paid a high price for it. I lost everything I had built in my life up to that moment. I lost my family, my life as I knew it, my entire money. I lost my profession I worked hard for, everything, but more so I lost my personality and they took my body.

I was caught and put into prison because I had an opinion. They took everything away from me, but I didn’t let them take my life. They wanted to break me, but I didn’t let them succeed. I had a family to fight for and to survive for. I had a life to survive for. Iranian prisons are notorious for the atrocities that happen there. Many women and men are incarcerated because of their political views, and their wish to live a normal life. Many people will not leave those prisons alive and have not left those prisons alive. Torture is a daily ritual for them. I just couldn’t let this happen to me. And whenever I felt total despair and prayed for help, help appeared. I do not believe in one god, but I believe there is something, someone, the universe and that someone heard me in my darkest hours. I do not want to remember those times. I was very lucky to receive help and to survive. With this help, I was released from prison. I just want to leave it as that. I cannot talk about it in detail, as I would put those people in danger who chose to help me.

Within two hours we decided that I had to leave the country. Nobody knew, not even my two children, who I had to leave behind.

A friend of ours helped us to find a human smuggler who would take me out of the country. We were quickly borrowing a lot of money from various friends in order to pay that person. My husband was paying it back in small installments over the last two years. The price/fee depends on how lucky you are. If this person likes you, you might get a discount; they are pretending some kindness towards you. However, even if they like you, as a woman, there is usually something else behind it. They want to do other things with you. You are never safe as a woman. Nobody will protect you. You are in constant danger and of course fear of being raped, molested, beaten or even killed. Nothing is granted, nothing is safe.

My husband took me to Khoy in Iran, the closest city to the Turkish border. I escaped with 100 dollars in my pocket, a backpack with a t-shirt, a pair of pants, and one pair of underwear. That was it. The first smuggler and I hiked through the mountains for several days. At that time I was too heavy and in no shape for a hike like that. I was depressed; I experienced too many horrible things and that was reflected in my eating. I stuffed myself with sugary things and put a lot of weight on.

The hike was really difficult for me. It was at the end of the summer and it started getting cold in the mountains. We had rain and snow most of the time. I was freezing. I had no feelings in my hands and my feet. We took shelter in a shed in the mountains. Again, you are never safe not even from the trafficker. He was trying to molest me too. Then another trafficker picked me up from the mountains to get me across the border. From there yet another one took me to Turkey. There is a large border fence and the guy literally picked me up and dropped me over the fence. When I landed, I sprained my ankle and almost wasn’t able to walk. It was very painful. We stayed in an abandoned house overnight. It was the first time in 5 days that I took off my shoes. When taking my shoes off I pulled three toenails off as well. I was tired, in pain and scared.

The day after we arrived, we went to the bus station to take a bus to Istanbul. I received a fake ID which was all part of the payment. He took me to Istanbul. It’s about 13 to 14 hours by bus. Those smugglers are all illegal immigrants and mostly from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Kurdish. I stayed at his home for 4 weeks together with some other people who wanted to escape. For the smugglers or traffickers, it’s a game. They actually call it a game. They have to make plans and work out where it’s best to smuggle people across.

Then they sent me to another place where I met up with yet another smuggler who was supposed to take me from Turkey to Greece. I went from Istanbul to Edirne which is another 4 hours drive. Edirne is on the river Maritsa parting Greece from Turkey. The next city in Greece is called Didymoteicho. We had to cross the river at night as we had to look for cover in order not to get detected. They used small inflatable boats that were only for 4-5 people but they filled those boats with up to ten people plus luggage. Some parts of the river are wider and therefore it’s not easy to cross the river. It was very dangerous and I was really scared because I cannot swim. It was at night, maybe 2 a.m. in the morning and it was extremely cold. At the first attempt, I fell into the river. Nobody in the boat helped me. They left me behind. I drifted down the river and caught on to a root from a tree to stay afloat. Then one guy pulled me out of the water. I think he was Afghan.

Part II in my following blog

I am not a persona non grata. I am Satareh

After almost three years Setareh is reunited with her children

Hours of despair turned into a life full of hopes
A veil will not silence us

A mother finally able to kiss and hug her children again.

This journey didn't destroy me. It made me stronger

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