In a metal container with one small window looking out onto barbed wire, Abouzar Soltani is painting a picture of a fish while his 10-year-old son Armin sits close by. A knock comes on the wall and a guard shouts: “Why don’t you go back to Serbia? Why don’t you go back to Iran?”
Fortunately, this is not the so-called “transit zone” on Hungary’s southern border where Armin spent two birthdays in a closed camp and his father made a short film called “Fish” to keep the boy’s spirits up.
Now living freely in Hungary, the Iranian father and son are playing themselves in a theatre production about the experiences of refugees.
“I am so glad that through this play I can finally tell our story to the Hungarian public,” says Abouzar, 39, an amateur artist and former hospital PR manager from the city of Isfahan.
And their story is an extraordinary one.
When the European Court of Justice ruled in May 2020 that keeping asylum-seekers in Hungary’s two border transit zones constituted unlawful detention, Abouzar and Armin were moved to an open centre for asylum-seekers. From there they could have gone on to other countries, as many former detainees did. Yet, they chose to stay in Hungary, the country that had kept them confined and, as Abouzar put it, feeling “like fish in an aquarium”. Why?
This was the question that intrigued Martin Boross, the director of the play, “Kolónia” (Colony). “For some mysterious reason, they chose to stay,” he says. The audience must wait to find out.
The play is staged by the Stereo Akt theatre company in an old tobacco factory in Budapest that housed refugees from the civil war in Greece between 1949 and 1966. The then Communist Hungarian government welcomed them with open arms.
Kolónia weaves the story of the Greek refugees with that of Abouzar and Armin and leaves the audience to decide whether there might be parallels.
“Hungarian society thinks back with nostalgia and romanticism to the way we welcomed the Greek refugees,” says Martin. “But more recently, we locked refugees up in the transit zone.”
In the first scene of the play, people smugglers try to sell Abouzar various sea and land routes to escape religious persecution in Iran. Abouzar tells the audience: “I read a lot in the newspapers about how people drowned at sea, so already back in Iran I decided we would go by land.”
The smuggler tells him that the land route to Austria will take four days. In reality, the journey from Turkey took weeks and Abouzar and Armin spent two years in Serbia waiting to enter Hungary legally.
On stage, the scene shifts to the Hungarian border, where folk dancers in national costumes stamp and sing threateningly. A panel of singing officials ask Abouzar absurd questions and blow on buzzers when he gets them wrong. Then we see the father and son in the 6 by 2-metre container, in the transit zone.
Shortly after entering Hungary in December 2018, Abouzar’s asylum application was rejected, and he and Armin were transferred to a high security area of the transit zone where they were repeatedly told they should go back to Serbia or Iran. The boy clung to his favourite Sponge Bob toy, which we see in the play.
Abouzar tells the audience: “The Hungarian government called the transit zone a camp, but it was a prison really. Walls, fences, barbed wire, and police officers everywhere. No grass, no trees; just stone, concrete and metal.”
In total, they spent 553 days there.
Throughout the play, we see Abouzar adding more touches to his painting of the fish. The three-minute film he made on his mobile phone tells the story of an aquarium fish that eventually reaches the ocean. And indeed, the film went on to be shown at film festivals in Budapest and Bratislava.
The fish also symbolizes Abouzar’s deep Christian faith. He tells the audience: “The Bible says you have to forgive. The moment when Christ is crucified, he says: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Now, when I think back to my path, this sentence comes to mind.”
Abouzar describes how his suffering made him more tolerant. “The greater the pressure, the closer it brought us with others [in the zone]. I began to be grateful to live with Afghans, Kurds and Iraqis, against whom I had been prejudiced before. In the eyes of God, we are all equal.”
The play ends with the news that Abouzar and Armin have been recognized as refugees and they join a circle of Greek former refugees, dancing joyfully together.
"Finally, we can breathe."
Supported by the Baptist church, Abouzar and Armin now live in a flat in the western city of Győr, close to the refugee centre where they went after leaving the transit zone. Armin, now 12, is going to school.
Abouzar speaks of a sense of rebirth. “A normal room, with normal height and windows. When we were released, I stretched out my arms to feel the space. Finally, we can breathe.”
The question remains why they chose to stay after their harrowing experience in Hungary.
One reason, says Abouzar, was the help they received when they were at their lowest point, from Hungarian Christians, local NGO the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and staff from the office of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Szeged who visited them.
“They showed us that Hungary has another face.”
And although the transit zone stole a year-and-a-half of his young son’s life, Abouzar is inclined to see his time there as redemptive.
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