Starting our third and final part of this interview many questions still will remain unanswered. Not only questions I have but also questions Setareh and probably thousands of other women have. As a person who truly believes in justice and equal rights for women and men, I wonder when enough is enough. I wonder and ask myself where this world is going with all the conflicts we are facing currently and the brutality we are witnessing—conflicts that are based on power, greed and misuse of religion. While our attention moves from one war to the next, all the people affected by those wars, women, children and men, left behind in the rubbles of what once was their lives, injured inside and outside, easily get forgotten. Those people have nowhere to go, nowhere to live. We quickly fall back into our patterns of not wanting to ‘deal’ with it as we have ‘enough’ to deal with in our daily lives. So it happens to the women of Iran. The short uprisings that grab the attention of our Western media quickly drop from the headlines once we turn our short attention span to the next conflict. For us, the subject is over, for them, it continues—day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year.
As I am writing this, the Peace Nobel Prize 2023 was given to the Iranian Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist who has spent the last eight years in prison in Iran, and who has been incarcerated numerous times since 1998 for her activism. Her 17-year-old twins received the prize for her in Stockholm. They were 9 years old when their mother was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment for establishing and running “a human rights movement that campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran”. Once released in 2020 she was sent back to prison in 2021. She is suffering abuse and solitary confinement and she reports such abuse of all women in Iranian prisons. The trauma that those women and families have to live through is unimaginable and will be part of their lives and memories forever—and all this is only because they have to fight for their rights and freedom of expression. As long as Iran is rich in oil and natural resources the Western powers will keep the status quo.
We are left with the hope that one day, justice will prevail and the women who fought for their rights and suffered immensely, the women and children and men who died in those conflicts and political chess games have suffered not in vain and will live a free and prosperous life, as we are accustomed to. Maybe I am dreaming, but dreams like that keep millions going and fighting for the right cause.
Let’s continue with our interview.
[You arrived in Athens and that’s where your new life started. What did you do?]
It was extremely difficult. I stayed maybe two or three months in the house of the smuggler. He bothered me a lot there because I couldn’t find anything for myself and I didn’t know anybody there. Actually, I did not know that I could go to a local church to find help. It was extremely difficult for me. Every night he tried to molest me. I was never able to sleep out of fear. Still today, I am mostly awake until early in the morning. I was always afraid that he would come into my room and do whatever he wanted to do. I was too scared at that time. I couldn’t claim refugee status as I explained and I tried many times to contact immigration. When they finally answered they told me that they were closed for applications and I would have to wait until they would reopen. Nobody knew when. One day, I was able to escape from the smuggler’s home. Having no money was a big issue and I tried to contact my husband through my husband’s friend. He told me that he was going to let my husband know. About two hours later my husband returned my call. I was walking around in Athens; I didn’t know where I was. I told him that he needed to find somebody who could give me some money. My husband told me to wait and not to go back to the smuggler’s home. Even though I didn’t tell my husband what happened, he sensed that something was very wrong. My husband also faced many problems in Iran. He was looking after our two little children, he needed to go to work and unfortunately, his family didn’t support him at all. He had still problems with the police, looking for me. When you are in trouble, nobody helps you—believe me. Maybe other families are different but from his family, he couldn’t expect any help. They didn’t like me because I was different and independent and because I spoke my mind. His family is more traditional. And not to forget, my husband—their son— followed me. Through inquiring my husband found an Afghan supermarket in Athens and told me to go there. My husband spoke to the owner and sent me the location to go there. This man gave me about 200 Euro and helped me to find a new room in another home near this supermarket. After about 5 days I realized that this home is mostly for Afghan and Iranian refugees. The rent was 250 Euros and I tried to find a job for myself. I went to a Pakistani supermarket and found a cleaning job. I received 10 Euros every day for 8 hours of work. Because I was still undocumented I didn’t have any other options. This man helped me to find the lawyer who eventually received 1000 Euros from me but didn’t help me at all. Because I didn’t have any documents I couldn’t sign a contract with the lawyer and I gave her cash. I was very depressed at that time and received medication. I couldn’t sleep and I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t go to a doctor in Athens but the Pakistani man sent me to a psychologist. He couldn’t give me a prescription, only the medicine. With a prescription, I could have applied for refugee status, but he wasn’t allowed to give me the prescription. After about 4 months I contacted the lawyer and asked her if she had done anything. All she said was that I should wait. Still, I didn’t have much money and also my husband had financial difficulties.
In Iran, public companies do not pay their workers on time. My husband is an engineer and worked for a public road construction company. Sometimes they don’t pay you for months. So money became a big issue. At that point, he wasn't paid for almost a year. My brother works as an engineer too and has the same problems. It’s especially difficult for engineers. We also couldn’t borrow any money. We already borrowed a lot and were at a point where we couldn’t pay back. I had to pay for rent, food and medication and it got increasingly difficult for me. I was walking in the city and stopped at a café to get a coffee for me. While I was sitting outside of the café, I was talking to my husband on the phone and crying. Suddenly a young girl asked me if I was Iranian. She was Iranian and asked me if I mind if she sat with me. I was fine and we started talking. I was skeptical at first and because of my experience, I didn’t want to ask anybody for help anymore. I explained to her what happened to me and she told me that she knew somebody in Heraklion who would be able to help me. She said, “You already paid 1000 euros to this lawyer. Stop paying her.” She told me to go to this person in Heraklion, pay him 500 Euro and I would receive my papers without waiting any longer. I was very suspicious and asked her how that would be possible. I have already been waiting for almost a year and no one has been able to help me. She said, “Don’t worry, I am definitely sure.” She told me what happened to her and explained that if you get caught with fake documents at the airport in Heraklion you are sent to prison in Herssonisos, which happened to her. She was in prison there for 2 months until they found an interpreter who helped her. She became friends with this interpreter, and he helps other people. I didn’t have anything to lose anymore. What else could happen to me? So I decided to try. I didn’t have any more time to lose. I already lost one year in Athens. My children were too young. They needed me. And as they grow up once they reach the age of 16 the government doesn’t consider them as dependent anymore and they would have to apply themselves and probably wouldn’t get any immigration papers. I didn’t want this to happen. I was too scared that things would drag on forever and without thinking, I told her, “Call him now, here. I want to speak with him.” I spoke with him on the phone and had the feeling that he was a good person and I could trust him. As I told you, I have a good sense for people. I promised him that as soon as I earned money legitimately, I would pay him, no matter how much he was asking for. I know my character, I am a responsible person. I will work hard, but I need my family. I can’t live like that any longer. So the next thing was to find a fake ID because I wouldn’t get any ferry ticket without ID. I decided to take the ferry to Heraklion. I went back to the Afghan supermarket and there they helped me to get a fake ID. I only had 100 Euros left. I paid 50 Euros for the ID and 35 Euros when I bought the ferry ticket. I arrived in Heraklion and he picked me up from the port and took me to his home. After 10 days, he got the documents for me to legally become a refugee. He got a permanent residency card for me from the asylum services in Heraklion and after that, I received an appointment for the interview.
[Tell me about the interview. You mentioned once that the man who interviewed you at some point interrupted the interview because he was crying as a result of what you told him had happened to you.]
Yes, the interviewer was really kind and he really gave me hope. You know, I tried for over a year and the interview took about three hours. I had to explain everything to him that happened to me, especially in Iran and in prison. It was really difficult for me as I had to explain everything to him and I had to go into details I never talked to anybody before, not even my husband. He was very sympathetic to me. He told me, “Don’t worry, we will give you a positive answer. “ I realized that I finally will be able to manage.
[So that’s when you basically started your new life here in Crete?]
Yes, and I can say that Cretans are very proud people and also very kind people. Whenever they realized that I was alone and what happened to me, they came around and helped me. They tried to find a way to help me solve my problems. I was shocked because I never had this kind of help before. My family and my husband’s family didn’t help me, but these kind people, who didn’t know me—total strangers— went to great lengths to help me. They didn’t have any information about my character and yet they opened their hearts and immediately helped me. I was trying to find work which is not easy outside the main seasons. I met a hotel owner of a hotel in Koutouloufari and he gave me a room in his hotel for free. I also didn’t get any support from the government because I didn’t stay in a refugee camp. You only get financial support when you stay in a refugee camp. I requested to be on my own and not in a camp. I also didn’t know that I had to go to a camp to get other support. You get a lawyer, you get medical support, you get help with your documents. Everything I did on my own, you receive help in a camp. Also, Crete doesn’t have a refugee camp. Other islands, yes but not on Crete.
So, if you want to work in Greece you have to go to the government to get a social insurance number called AMCA. I did all of that on my own without help. So first I was not allowed because I wasn’t in a camp. But I kept trying and finally, I succeeded. As you know from me by now, I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. If you want something you have to fight for it.
[So, you’ve been on Crete now for almost two years. This October, your family finally joined you after almost three years. What was that feeling like?]
Oh, it was perfect. In the beginning, I just couldn’t believe it. It was a long and difficult process. We had to translate all my husband’s documents from Farsi, to English and from English to Greek. Again we had to pay a lot for translators, government applications etc. It did cost a lot. This paperwork was all done in Iran. The Iranian government then has to stamp all the papers and they charge a lot of money. And you have to pay in Euros, not in Iranian Rials. We earn our money in Rials and the exchange rate is horrendous. (1 Euro is 45,532.50 Iranian Rial!)
[Was it difficult for your family to leave Iran? Did the Iranian government harass your husband?]
No, because it was now almost three years ago, they didn’t care anymore. They had everything they wanted. They confiscated our assets, my business and my home. They had the money they wanted. My husband was free to leave.
[How much money did they take from you?]
If I had the money now and here, I could buy a house and open my own business. That’s how much they took from us. As you know, they just take it. They don’t care. You cannot do anything about it. They block all your money and documents, passport, and ID if you were trying to do something against it. Once my family arrived here, a new life started for me—for us. When I picked them up from the airport, they were laughing and crying at the same time. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my life. You see, when I escaped I didn’t know and didn’t believe that I would be able to ever see them again and bring them here. I tried for two years. I had two interviews, one to prove that I was personally in danger and the second to prove that I really have a family because a lot of people try to lie and defraud the system.
[Did you ever think about what could happen if they didn’t allow your family to join you? You certainly had no option to go back to Iran.]
You know, interviewers are not stupid. They have a lot of knowledge and can read people. They know when you are lying. So, no I was telling the truth and it never crossed my mind. Also, my husband had an interview at the Greek embassy in Iran and what we had to say was identical.
[What are your plans?]
Actually, I am really grateful that the universe/god—whoever— helped me. Whenever I prayed for something, I received an answer. I was given a solution. And that’s why I don’t believe in anything but god.
[When you say God, you don’t mean any particular god?] No, I don’t. I call him Setareh god! My god! The universe. I don’t believe in any religion. They are all the same. They all have the same roots, doesn’t matter if you read the bible, thora, quoran… They are all the same. For me, it is important to be a good human. That’s it. Don’t hurt other people, don’t lie, don’t commit a crime, just like the 10 commandments. Be a human being! This is my religion. It doesn’t matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Orthodox, or Jewish—I don’t care because I love humans. I want to show people that we don’t have to find something inside humans to respect. We simply have to respect each other because we are human. And we have enough power to do everything we want. I had many struggles and overcame them. In moments where I was really disappointed, I always found many kind people who helped me without asking for anything back. These are important rules in our lives and we have to open our eyes and see them.
[Explain to me how you connected to all those people who helped you.]
You don’t need any connections. They will find you. Just like you found me. I easily communicate with people. “How are you?” “You have nice eyes!” “You look beautiful today.” You know, whenever I see somebody in the street and there is something special about this person, I walk up to them and tell them immediately, without any hesitation. If we let people know how beautiful they are, the world could be a better place.
[Your plans are to find work and because things are probably more difficult here, as work is also very seasonal, are you looking to move to another country?]
I want a safe society and community to raise my children and to be good humans. My big dream I have is to open my own hair salon and give women refugees who really need a job an opportunity to work. I really want to help them.
[You had your own hair salon in Iran?]
Yes, and many people worked for me. I want to create a friendly environment for them. I would like to go to refugee camps and help there. Maybe, connect with women and they can inform me who needs help. Once or twice a week, I like to go to people and help them to look beautiful and work for them for free. I would like to help homeless people; I really want to help. I want to create a place where homeless people can get a shower, get a haircut, clean clothes and a warm meal. I want to integrate them into society. I know it's not easy and needs more than just that. But I want to help them. Whenever I talk to a homeless person, I realize that they only need somebody to be kind to them. There are so many different reasons for people to become homeless. Life is worth fighting for.
[Before we come to the end of this interview, what is the message you want to give to people?]
Help other people without asking for anything in return. Smile at people, and tell them they are beautiful. Give them one Euro if they need it. Give them a flower… I don’t know. Simple things. We don’t always need money to make other people happy. We need to talk to people.
[What are your values? What is important to you?]
Being a good human. I never want people to respect me for who I am not. I want to be a good person and after they understand my character, they accept me.
[What do you wish for your children?]
I teach them to be good people. Be kind to people. Be kind to animals. Be happy with little things. We don’t always need money to be happy. I used to be rich. I travelled to many countries, you know. It is important to learn every day. Education and knowledge will give you opportunities. If you are educated, your eyes are open you can sympathize with people more easily. That’s why I told my older son for example just yesterday, “You have a tablet. You are able to learn from the Internet if you use it in a good way, not in a bad way. You can find many good things. Unfortunately, we easily get attracted by negative things. Look for the positive. If we try, and we are hard-working, god gives us the power to turn our lives around and to succeed. If you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself. If you change your character, the society around you will change.
Setareh’s journey will not end here. As much as she would like to stay in Greece, and here in Crete, her journey most likely will continue to another European country with more job opportunities. Work on Crete is very seasonal and younger people often move on to find better work opportunities. Setareh also became a close friend of mine and I wish for her to find everything she is looking for, but above all, I hope she will find the necessary peace in her life. The things she went through need to be dealt with and even this strong young woman will need help to overcome the demons from the past that often haunt her at night and during the day. At the time we recorded this third part and we had our third photo session, it was very visible that she was in a more troubled state of mind. Even though she tried to cover it with red lipstick and a strong outfit, her facial expressions were tense and her eyes were full of sorrow. Not every day is the same. And yes, she has to take one day at a time.
Due to the enormous influx of refugees in European countries and the ever-increasing conflicts in our world, the situation for refugees will not get any easier. European countries are tightening their rules and closing their borders more and more. I hope that we will at some point have politicians who will be able to find a solution, but more that we have politicians who will keep peace in our more and more drifting apart world.
Thank you for following Setareh and me in this interview.