Do you want to know something shocking? According to the UNHCR, there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Among these, there are 25.4 million refugees. These are the highest levels of displacement on record. So why aren’t our hearts breaking? It’s because, at the end of the day, these numbers are just statistics. It’s hard to feel compassion for numbers. So let’s take one person. One life. One number out of the millions. And share her story.
Meet Mehri. She’s a refugee from Iran who came to Australia 35 years ago. She grew up in a typical Iranian household: a mum, a dad, and heaps of siblings. She was a bright and passionate girl who dreamed of going to university. But this all changed in her final years of high school, when the Islamic Revolution happened in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini swooped in as Supreme Leader promising to make Iran prosper. But once in power, he started implementing his extreme ideologies. He wasn’t a fan of minority groups, and Mehri was a Baha’i. The Baha’i Faith is the latest world religion that preaches equality of gender, race, and religion. It’s a religion where the goal is universal peace. There’s just one problem… the Baha’i Faith comes after Islam, which is supposedly the final religion. So, for Khomeini, this meant a heresy. The new authorities started stripping away Baha’is’ basic human rights. University was forbidden. Baha’i employers were sacked and businesses forcibly closed. You couldn’t have a passport if you were a Baha’i. You weren’t allowed to leave.
“My father was a banker and was sacked for his religion. We had no money and obviously no government benefits. I’d never seen him so broken. I completed my high school studies but it felt in vain because I couldn’t take the next step: going to university,” Mehri tells D*scribe.
Aside from the deprivations, authorities started imprisoning, torturing and executing Baha’is without a reason or a trial. “Our National Baha’i Assembly were kidnapped and never found. Now they’re presumed dead,” Mehri said.
“I remember sitting at home and revolutionary guards would break in whenever and raid the house. They’d start throwing things around looking for Baha’i books. We had to keep them hidden. Sometimes they’d put drugs in people’s houses and then arrest them for it. It was constant anxiety. I could never relax. One day they stopped me on on the streets, took my handbag and went through it. I was so scared because there was a prayer book in there. By some miracle they didn’t notice and let me go. But that moment is something I’ll never forget.”
After witnessing her aunt and uncle being imprisoned without trial, and many acquaintances tortured or killed, Mehri made a decision: “I thought to myself, ‘if I get arrested and they torture me, I won’t be able to tolerate it. I better get out of here’.”
But how, with no passport?
“When the options are to live in fear and probably be arrested and killed, or escape illegally, it’s not even an option.” Mehri got in touch with a people-smuggler. He’d charge 100,000 toman to smuggle her out of Iran. Mehri was earning 2000 toman a month. All her savings were passed into the hands of this stranger for a chance to save her life.
One day he contacted Mehri and told her to meet him at the airport in two days’s time, at 6am. And that was it.
“I remember being shocked at how quickly it was all happening. I told my mum about it that night and she burst into tears.” But the gravity of the moment wouldn’t sink in for Mehri until later.
The night before Mehri left, the family had their last dinner together – though Mehri didn’t know this. She thought she would return a few years later when everything had blown over, she never allowed herself to properly say goodbye to her homeland.
“It didn’t occur to me that I would leave forever.”
Mehri’s brother drove her to the airport. She wept the whole way. But he told her to keep a straight face – she couldn’t get caught. There she met the smuggler and another five people he was taking. They took a flight to another city in Iran. The group stayed there until it was dark. Then they started the journey of crossing the border to Pakistan.
“A lot of people crossed by camel or donkey. I know some friends who didn’t survive the journey. They died of thirst in the middle of the desert. I was lucky our journey was in sort-of a four-wheel-drive,” she said.
The smuggler drove in the night with his lights off. He was trying to pass the border stealthily. “We were driving off-road in the desert.” No one was to make a sound. Mehri held back her sobbing – it was life or death. Then the boarder guards heard a noise. They were trained to look out for smugglers. They couldn’t see the car, but started shooting. Mehri had never screamed so hard. It was traumatic. The smuggler shouted at them to duck so they wouldn’t be killed. Then he stamped on the accelerator and raced across the border. “Sand flew everywhere. We were covered. But we made it across.”
It was midnight, but there was no time to sleep. The group begged the smuggler to let them sleep in the desert and continue in the morning, but he handed them over to the next smuggler who’d drive them to the city. He said it’d be a two-hour drive, but six hours later the group gave up asking. No rest. No food. No fresh water. Mehri drank some muddy water in the desert to keep her mouth moist, but that was it. Every so often, the smuggler would stop driving and demand more money from the group. He refused to drive until he got what he wanted. Luckily it was only money he was after.
It was 10am when they arrived in Karachi, Pakistan. Dusty and oddly dressed for Pakistan’s style, they made their way to the Baha’i Centre. The administration team got them in touch with the United Nations, and the group was granted refugee status a few months later. They were then able to receive a small sum of money to survive. After about a year, news came that Mehri could fly to Australia and start a life as a refugee. But that’s a whole other story: the heart-break, the homesickness, the isolation.
Mehri’s most important message is for Australians to have sympathy for refugees and asylum seekers. No one wants to be undocumented, she says.
All that in one number. And there’s millions more.