Fresh start for refugees in Iran

In 1999, UNHCR Iran began its resettlement programme for refugees with a well-founded fear of returning to their country of origin. Since then, almost 4,000 Afghans and Iraqis have been accepted by third countries for resettlement based on various criteria. In Iran, the resettlement unit has been prioritising women-at-risk cases.

Iraqi refugee Ahlam doing last&;minute shopping in Tehran before leaving for Canada.   © UNHCR/L.O'Mahony

TEHRAN, Iran (UNHCR) - It is mid-afternoon and the telephone is ringing in the UNHCR resettlement unit in Tehran. Maryam is expecting an inquiry from a refugee about the possibility of being resettled in a third country. The name and the voice are familiar but the call is far from routine.

"I'm the woman you sent to Sweden two years ago!" Fozieh reminds her.

Fozieh is back in Iran to follow a possible lead on the whereabouts of her missing husband, whom she married when she was 12. For Maryam, this is a unique opportunity to see one of the many Afghan and Iraqi refugees she and the resettlement team have helped start new lives.

The confident, smiling woman who appears at the UN refugee agency office in Tehran is almost unrecognisable from the desperate person Maryam first met three years ago. Gone is the black chador, replaced now by modern western clothes, light make-up and stylish highlights. For Fozieh, going to Sweden has allowed her to make a fresh start, a million miles from the nightmare she survived in Afghanistan.

Although she has yet to find her husband, the 29-year-old mother of four is now content for the first time in a long while. She is taking language and computer classes - illiterate in her own language, she can now read and write Swedish - and recently began volunteer work in a convalescent home for the elderly. She has learned to drive, has a car and takes her children to school every day.

"For us, Sweden is now home. There I've had the opportunity to have a better life and build a future for my children," says Fozieh. "UNHCR went to a lot of trouble to get us there. The children are really making progress and life is wonderful in all respects."

And there was an added bonus. Just before the family left for Sweden, Fozieh discovered that her 24-year-old brother Hossein was still alive. Arrested by the Taliban along with his brother-in-law, he had been imprisoned for more than five years, suffering physical abuse and mental trauma.

Through UNHCR, Fozieh was reunited with her brother, who joined her in Sweden last September.

It was the arrest of her husband and brother that prompted Fozieh to flee her native Afghanistan for Iran. It was not the first time she had suffered. When she was nine, she lost both parents and three siblings when a bomb hit their home in Herat. Two other brothers were killed fighting with the mujahideen.

Like so many Afghans, the young family found refuge from war in Iran, where Fozieh worked as a cleaner. She eventually approached UNHCR, and a resettlement file was opened. Fozieh was a classic woman-at-risk case - alone with four children to support, her husband and close family missing, or dead.

"I had nothing," she says. "My biggest concern was the children. Because I was illiterate, I wanted them to have an education."

The process of resettling someone is a complex task that can take anything from a few months to a few years, depending on the case. Each one has to be assessed individually and each story must be checked in great detail. In 2002, Sweden, together with Canada, Australia and Finland, received 1,177 submissions from UNHCR in Iran.

Along with voluntary repatriation and integration in the country of asylum, resettlement in a third country is one of the main durable solutions UNHCR seeks to find for refugees. But only a very small percentage is eligible to benefit from this option.

Ahlam from Iraq is one of the lucky ones. With her husband and two teenage daughters, she is about to leave for Canada. But she says, "Until I get on the plane, I will always feel afraid."

Originally from Baghdad, Ahlam worked in the medical service of the military. Her commanding officer was a neighbour and friend. When he was executed, she came under suspicion. She was questioned and watched, and her telephone conversations were monitored.

Her husband, who also served in the army, was jailed. For four years the family heard nothing until his release in the mid-90s. They found themselves constantly under observation and decided to flee.

First Ahlam and the children headed to Saudi Arabia. Stopped at the border, they were turned back. Ahlam was detained for six months. Their home was confiscated. To protect their relatives, the family went into hiding.

Unable to work, and with no future, they made another attempt to leave. This time to Iran, where her husband had friends. "We sold everything we had and travelled to northern Iraq under the pretext of having to attend a wedding," recalls Ahlam.

The family left with nothing but hand luggage. Shaking with the memory of the unsuccessful night-time crossing through the desert two years before, Ahlam and her family found themselves literally stepping into a minefield as they crossed the border into Iran.

Avoiding big towns and main roads, the family finally made contact with the Iraqi community in Tehran. They spent their first night there in a mosque. Their journey to safety in Iran had cost them all the money they had.

But Ahlam knew of UNHCR and within weeks had made contact with the office. Soon, the family was being accommodated in an Iranian government-run camp for Iraqi refugees, a few hours' drive from the capital.

But life there was not easy for them. With a Masters degree in nursing and a good command of English, Ahlam took time to break down the barriers of suspicion with the other refugees in the camp, many of whom are Marsh Arabs from southern Iraq. The family made the best of things - the girls attended school, Ahlam's husband found some work as a welder and she set up a small informal Arabic school in the camp.

Now, thanks to UNHCR, the Iranian and Canadian governments, the years of living in limbo are over and the family is about to be resettled. Three years after their first interview at the Canadian embassy, they have just received their visas and are looking forward to their new life.

"Canadians are open-minded," says Ahlam. "I know they will understand our needs."

She dreams of doing her doctorate, the girls of learning English, French and computers. They want to do medicine and teach. Ahlam's husband just wants to return to his beloved profession as a metal artisan.

"We couldn't have survived without UNHCR," beams Ahlam. "They gave us such great help".

By Laura O'Mahony
with additional reporting by Mehrva Arvin, UNHCR Iran