top of page

Setareh-Surviving Iran and Escaping to Freedom Part II

As we continued our interview a few days later, it only became more and more apparent how complacent and blissfully unaware our Western world is and how numb we have become towards the refugee crisis. We do live in our bubble, with our own “problems” and do not want to take the inconvenient step to look beyond what the general media is serving us daily. I am as guilty as everybody else is. We like to congregate with our tribes of similar opinions and world views. Slowly Social Media has created a two-camps-theory. A debate is characterized by two opposing groups with two different world views. We once faced this during the Cold War—the division of the world into two ideological camps. Acceptance of the opposite opinion is almost impossible.

On the rise is now unfortunately a right-wing movement that is fed with daily horror news about refugees taking over our Western society, increasing crime rates and loss of jobs. In fact, 1 percent of the world population has been forced to leave their countries due to conflicts or environmental reasons. Even though there are different factors contributing to higher crime rates we are likely to accept the simple solution put forward to us by media. And don’t get me wrong I am not in favour of young men age group 15-25 arriving in Germany for example without education and prone to criminal actions. Not all of them, of course, and I hate to generalize things. I do have Germany as a major example simply because I have noticed the enormous change that took place in our cities. And truly I am not amused if I cannot walk in our city centres in the evening just because the chance that I get robbed, molested or worse is pretty high. Though we have laws in place they are unfortunately not applied. So things have gone out of hand and pretty much opened the doors for an unfortunately reoccurring right-wing movement Germany was suffering under already before. And this is one example of many European countries. Nevertheless, the expansion of the European Union also led to problems within Europe and not only people from the Middle East are migrating to “better grounds” in the West. Eastern Block nationalities are on the move as well trying to find better living conditions. This is a recipe for problems and growing nationalism. What bothers me immensely is that those refugee stories, such as the one I am telling through the eyes of Satareh are getting drowned out. Nobody wants to hear them, actually, the general media has taken the stand not even to talk about them. Satareh is only one of many women who had to flee her country, who was fighting for survival and who was fighting for a better life. A woman coming from a country that grants women hardly any rights or only superficial rights. A country women cannot speak up, and cannot live a free and independent life. I have met many Iranian women and they are fierce fighters and strong characters. But the strongest character can be tested to the limits and that unfolded in Satareh’s continuation of her story.

My heart is getting empty.

What happens when my life is finished?

Who will notice that I am gone?

Is my soul going to heaven? Where is my body going? I don’t know.

As you know, Turkey has a good relationship with Iran and it is not safe for Iranian refugees to stay in Turkey, especially when you are in a dangerous situation.

I mentioned earlier the man who pulled me out of the water was Afghan. He told me that he saw me in Turkey at the place where I was staying when I was trying to buy some bread in the morning, and he recognized me. I survived because of him. I believe that god sent him to rescue me. It was really scary. The situation was very scary, and horrible. Sometimes I wonder if this didn’t happen to me, how could I be such an optimist?

As I mentioned already, they [the Iranian Government] attacked me, they broke my nose, they did many horrible things to me and it was only in god’s hands that I survived. I believe that no one [Setareh’s voice is breaking and tears are rolling down her face] can kill you if god doesn’t. It’s in god’s hands.

There were moments of immense sadness when Setareh talked about her escape.

After the Afghan man pulled me out of the water we returned to Istanbul. We walked for a while in the dark; it was around 2 or 3 a.m. We were able to find a taxi which took us back to Istanbul. I did not have money to pay the taxi driver. I lost my phone and money when I was in the water. After the taxi driver dropped me off at the smuggler's place, where I had stayed before, he was paid by the smuggler. I stayed there for about a week to recover, and during this time, the smuggler made another plan to help me escape to Greece. The second time someone came to his home and took me in a big van with some other people to Edirne, at the border to Greece. That was the second attempt out of six to cross the river that parted Turkey from Greece. I was in constant fear. You have this constant feeling that something bad could happen.

When we reached the land in Greece, we were detected by night infrared cameras and the border police. The smuggler who guided us across the river told us to lie on the ground as the border police would approach us and put us in jail and then they would return us to Turkey. I was scared because I didn’t have any idea about this. I was not prepared for this. When the border police arrived, they told us to surrender our phones to avoid any recording or sharing on social media. They destroyed our phones on the spot. The European Union is helping Greece to catch the refugees, and they want to avoid that anything could become public.

As a women you are always in danger. You are sexual fair game.

They put us in a police van without any windows—it was really dark— and took us to the police station. They put us all in a very narrow and small room. The stench was horrible as the toilet was right there. We had to fully undress except for our underwear and they body-searched us. At that time, we were two women. The other woman escaped with her husband and two children. We were separated together with her children from the men and put into another room. I put 100 Euros in my underwear and the policewoman who body-searched me took the money, she also took my shoes, but she gave me my dress back. Then we were taken to another room together with about 50 men—too many people for this small room—and only two women, me and the other lady. Nobody was dressed, they only had their underwear. The men were beaten by the police with sticks. This was not only Greek border police. Some of them spoke German, some spoke Greek and English. It is an international border police. They covered their faces with black wool masks. We were held for more than six hours until the morning. Then they took us back to the river. 80 percent of the river belongs to Turkey and only 20 percent are part of Greece. The border police are not allowed to cross into Turkish land. They took us into the middle of the river and threw us into the water. They used the inflatable boat we arrived in which is only for maybe six people. They simply threw us into the water. As I mentioned, I cannot swim. I was horrified and I was crying and crying. I told them that I could not swim. I plead with them to let me into the boat because I cannot swim. But they didn’t care. That was my second attempt and I was close to drowning again. A young African man turned to me and said, “I can help you. But you have to trust me.” He was very dark and it was actually the first time that I spoke with a person from Africa. I thought to myself, “Setareh, you can’t do anything but trust him.” He was really strong. He put me on his back and carried me to the other side of the river. He was a really nice guy. You hear so many bad stories about them. They talked so badly of them and I didn’t have any idea. But he was really kind. I will never forget him. He was staying in the Asian part of Turkey while I was staying in the European part. I never saw him again. But he helped me to survive[sighs and tears]. At that time I was so scared and I was really happy to finally find someone who helped me. Most of the people that night came from Syria. Two of them told me they could help, but I didn’t trust them. I had the feeling that something wasn’t right. And my feelings never lie. I could sense it. However, I trusted the African boy.

"I can help you, but you have to trust me," said the young African man.

When he carried me he said to me, “When we pass the river, just follow me and we'll have to run for a short distance to get away from the group of Syrians. After that, we can just walk." He said, “We need to get away from them because I don’t want them to bother you.” I don’t know, maybe he heard something from them. He just wanted to run from them. I wasn’t sure and thought that he might want to touch me, too or do something with me. However, I told myself “Come on, he helped you. He doesn’t want to bother you.” So, I trusted him and we ran together. And he saved me. There is a constant fear of getting molested or even worse, raped. As a woman, you are simply considered to be sexual fair game.

Then after the 6th attempt, I finally passed the river for good. I was prepared for two days, but not 6 days and 6 attempts. We were instructed to only take food and water for two days. I had one loaf of bread and two bottles of water. We couldn’t take much with us when we crossed the river and once we got to the other side we needed to get to the road to Thessaloniki. It’s a long way from the river to the road and we had to pass a wall Greece built to prevent refugees from coming into the country. Being totally stressed and exhausted, I got my period much earlier and at the wrong time. I didn’t have any sanitary pads, tissue, napkins... nothing. I remember I had one roll of toilet paper and I used toilet paper as a sanitary pad. Also, the weather was extremely cold. There are no buildings in the area, just bare land and cotton plants. They are extremely sharp and my feet were scratched from the cotton. It was so difficult to pass this part. The smuggler instructed us to sleep there and we would continue the next day in the evening. The entire day we needed to be silent. We were not able to move. We had to sleep on the bare ground without blankets. The situation was almost unbearable.

The last night we were really close to the highway. The smugglers were waiting for a “taxi”—that’s how they called the vans to carry the people to Thessaloniki. Again, it’s a game for them and they call it the “taxi game”. The smuggler told us that the police were patrolling the highway and the van would most likely not come. I was crying. I was at the point that I wanted to go to the highway, stop somebody and report us to the police. I didn’t have any water, I didn’t have any food left, and I was exhausted and scared. I had no energy left in my body. As I said, I only had food for two days. I already managed to ration it for 4 days but for the last two days, I didn’t have any water or food. This situation was horrible.

I had no strength anymore

Because it was a big group of people, the smuggler was bringing across the border, he told us to walk down the mountain into the valley where we should stay and hopefully the “taxi” would come to pick us up and take us to Thessaloniki. I think it was around 4 a.m. I was so weak and exhausted. Thankfully some guys helped me down the mountain. Then we lay down to sleep. I maybe slept for 45 minutes when I noticed a leg on my body. I screamed and he put his other leg on me to shut me up, because we were very close to the road and somebody could have heard us. Then the smuggler told us to get up and walk towards Thessaloniki. It was ice rain, it was slippery and gusty. The ground was full of mud and I really don’t know how I got up the mountain. I had no strength anymore. Finally, we had to get over one more fence. It was about two meters high. The van was waiting there. I was the last one and had just one leg over the fence but couldn’t pull my other leg up. The smuggler who guided us up to the fence took my other leg and pushed me over the fence. I landed on the other side and immediately ran to the van. The van was already moving when I was trying to get in.

They took us to an empty factory near Thessaloniki. All of a sudden they told me that I had to pay. As I mentioned my husband arranged to pay 4000 Euros. They were supposed to get the money when I arrived in Athens. My husband’s friend told him not to pay before because otherwise they wouldn’t take me to Athens and leave me. They kept me there one more night. As I didn’t have a phone yet from the time the border police took mine, I couldn’t contact my husband. The smugglers contacted my husband to arrange the payment. It is very common to use a money exchange, which is trustworthy for both parties and the money gets blocked until you reach the destination. After they arranged the final payment for Athens, they helped me to continue to Athens.

We have to be stronger. Life comes toward us like a truck. I don’t want to permit anybody to think they are the winner. They are losers. They cannot attack us and use our bodies. They cannot touch us and rape us that easily. They did, they are doing it. Nobody stops them. It is really normal. It doesn’t matter if we are beautiful or not, if we are single or married if we are in good shape or not, if we are older or young. They don’t care.

I want to show other women to be strong. They have to believe in themselves and that they can change their lives. No one can stop us, except us. If we want to do something we just take one step. The first step is the most difficult. The other steps will follow. You don’t have to make an effort for it. But at first, we have to respect ourselves.

We have to be stronger. Life comes towards us like a truck.

You know, I felt guilty. I felt guilty a lot because of the things that happened to me. If I had closed my mouth and didn’t share my opinion maybe these things wouldn’t have happened to me. But again, I said to myself, “If you didn’t say it out loud you wouldn’t be Setareh.” I cannot change my character because of other people. If I want to I can change my character for myself. The only time I want to change is to be a good person, to be a better person. If I close my mouth and my eyes and don’t tell the truth, that’s not me. I can’t forgive myself. This is the real life. I lost most of my friends in Iran through this. Even my good friends, hardly have any contact anymore. They do not understand why I didn’t shut up. They do not understand why I put everything in jeopardy just to speak freely. They arranged themselves with the situation in Iran. Change will not come so quickly in Iran.

It was also difficult for my husband and my family. My husband had to go to the police station in Iran to get interrogated. He had to denounce me. He told them that he wouldn’t know where I was. If he had said anything about me, they would have finished him.

The first time I spoke with my husband was after arriving in Turkey. While we were escaping from Iran to Turkey, I had turned off my phone to avoid being tracked. When we reached Northern Iran near the border, my husband gave me his friend's phone number. Since it was too risky to contact him directly, I was instructed to call his friend first, and he would connect me with my husband. After arriving in Turkey, I messaged my husband's friend via WhatsApp and stayed in Turkey for four weeks while we waited for my husband to arrange for the first payment to the smugglers. During my time in Turkey, I communicated with my husband through his friend. We didn't talk directly as the government was keeping a close watch on his phone calls. After that, we left for Greece, and I was able to contact my husband only six days after reaching Greece.

Almost three years until Setareh was finally able to reunite with her family.

The smuggler in Thessaloniki bought a train ticket to Athens for me.

I haven’t had a shower for a week. I was completely dirty. They also gave me 50 Euros because I was hungry and I needed some sanitary items. So I was able to go to the supermarket and buy a few things. When I arrived in Athens a guy was waiting for me at the train station. I stayed at his home for three days. There I also connected with my husband and asked him to send me some additional money to pay for a phone and a room that I was going to rent, in an area with mostly immigrants and refugees. It’s close to Victoria Square. I found an Afghan supermarket and asked them where I could rent something.

The thing is if you don’t have any ID, you are not allowed to do anything. I rented a room in a home and stayed there. I went to the Ministry of Asylum in Athens. However, you are not able to get inside without an appointment which you have to make by email. They responded and told me that they had closed the applications. They told me that I could not be a refugee and I would have to wait until the application was reopened. Then I could apply to be a refugee. I was in total limbo and I tried to find a lawyer and my parents sent me 1000 Euro to pay for the Greek immigration lawyer. But he didn’t do anything. I cannot prove that I paid him 1000 Euros. He took cash from me.

After seven months of being in Athens, I finally had the chance to communicate with my husband directly and even video call him via WhatsApp. It was a great relief to be able to speak with him properly after such a long time. My husband was using a different SIM card registered under his friend's name, and not his own. It was still too dangerous to use his own SIM card as the government probably still listened to his phone conversations.

[Did your husband know what happened to you in prison in Iran?]

Going back to the Iranian prison, yes, I can say that my husband knows what happens in Iranian prisons. It is common knowledge in Iran. However, I never discussed the details with him and he respected my decision. Since then, he has become more understanding towards me. He even mentioned it to me once. When I had to leave, we didn't have much time to talk about our feelings as we had different priorities and I had to leave immediately as I already said.

[What happened to your Children?] We didn’t speak to them. They were too young to understand. My youngest one was only 4 years old and he didn’t understand very well. But they were very disturbed. They thought they lost their mother. First, they thought I went on a trip and would come back soon. The older one knew a little bit more. He didn’t know a lot, but something. He doesn’t exactly know what happened. He knew I had problems and I had to leave. But this situation made them very sensitive. They are traumatized. [Setareh’s emotions are visible and it is hard for her to speak] Getting separated from your children makes you want to die. A part of you is dying. The meaning of a mother is you want to protect them. You want to be there for them. You want to die for them. That’s it. It was the most difficult part; getting separated from them. My kids are very sensible. They like to hug, touch, to kiss and that was taken away from them. They didn’t have this anymore with me for more than two years. I am sure that created problems. Inside of them, they think they are not safe. Something bothers them internally. Mothers and fathers alike want to protect their children and raise them in a good and safe way. And if you suddenly for any reason have to leave them they cannot grasp what happens. They are children. They have no idea about the situation and problems. The children are really clean, like sunshine. We have one thing now that gives us the power to master this situation, we are together again. Children are very resilient. So there is hope. When I went to the airport in Athens to pick them up I thought that god gave me another life. It was perfect, a moment full of happiness but also sadness. I felt two feelings at the same time. Happiness and sadness. But it was very nice to feel my children again. I told myself "Setareh, be proud of yourself. You managed it!" It was the first time after almost three years. I told myself that I have to be proud.

I am in this world to do good things. I want to help people.

I never discussed the details with him of what happened to me in the Iranian prison. I didn't want to talk about it and he respected me.

I said to myself, "Setareh be proud of yourself. You managed it."

68 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Oh those darn New Year's resolutions

Don't we all do this? Every year, there are those resolutions. From weight loss to less time in social networks, more time with friends and family, more traveling, less stress... and the list goes on


Marcin Rakowski
Marcin Rakowski
Nov 18, 2023

People tend to quickly suppress negative things from their memory or even think about them.

Europeans quickly forgot the times when they left the continent on a massive scale, escaping poverty and then again from war. Now we have the privilege of living here in peace and relative prosperity. However, history repeats itself and it is not certain that peace will remain in Europe forever. It takes so little to change so much. It is possible that the time will come again when we will run away again or look for better living conditions. Therefore, in my opinion, Europe should help those in need, bearing in mind that one day we may become needy ourselves.

Sabine Edrissi
Sabine Edrissi
Nov 19, 2023
Replying to

Exactly what I am thinking. With older generations dying we are losing the memory of our history and making the mistake to repeat it.

bottom of page