Living in exile: “I am not less than any other human. I just want to be heard and seen”

Ali* is an Iranian Christian convert who was reported to the police after some of those close to him discovered he had changed his religion. In 2015 he fled to Cuba via Armenia because it was the easiest place for him to get a visa as an Iranian.

Ali hoped to be resettled quickly in an anglophone country because of his fluency in English. He has been recognized as a refugee by the UNHCR and is in the resettlement process, but this has been slowed significantly because of political issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. CSW spoke with Ali who told us of his experiences of living in exile.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

“I’m a young Iranian Christian citizen who has been stuck in long and exhausting limbo against my will for more than half a decade in Cuba. I’m a refugee, away from all the loved ones and abandoned in a foreign land with no sense of ‘belonging.’ I’m a university graduate with an impressive background in sales and business management that has been achieved with dedication and hard work at international companies in my country.

I owe who I am to the values I learned from my parents and the environment they provided me. They are both educated and sincere citizens that devoted their life to help others. They taught me to question, seek answers and never give up.”

Can you explain a bit about your journey from your country?

“After the threats I faced, I had no choice but to escape to somewhere far or unreachable to Iranian regime. At least no other Muslim countries. What I didn’t know was that Cuba has strong ties with Iran’s government.

I wanted to leave for another place but I have been provided just with the option of going back to my country if I decided to leave Cuba. Ironic that in the 21st century people still don’t understand the life-threatening risks that a refugee/asylum seeker is facing.

In escaping a country whose culture, history and name is in my blood, I lost something ineffable. I can’t write or talk about it, it’s just a void.”

What it is like living as an exile?

“I have never experienced this level of discomfort or being an exile in my life before or if I know somebody in this situation. But now I am one, with more than half a decade of living in fear, uncertainty, tears and pain.”

“The pain is so deep that I don’t know how to deal with it. It’s a discomfort that doesn’t heal with time. Doesn’t matter where I am or what I do, there is always something missing. There is never 100% satisfaction. Nothing is available or fair.”

“People always look at me like ‘what have you done that you need to escape?’. Being judged and looked at with pessimism over whatever that I do [as a refugee] are main elements of connections I establish [with other people]. How many times is it possible that one can explain HOW and WHY many things have happened? Ten, twenty, thirty times? There will be a time that ‘isolation from others’ is the only tolerable way of carrying on with life.

Every single day the question of ‘Is all this worth it?’ comes to my mind. Even if every time the same answer and reasoning is satisfying. The bottom line of all of this is that we are all human and nothing but human.”

What would happen if you tried to return to your country?

“Based on Islam’s law that rules Islamic countries, the sentence for ‘abandoning the religion and/or not recognizing Mohammad as profit’ is punishable by death. This is directly written in constitution and Islamic law. In cases that the authorities do not execute the ex-Muslims, they punish them with long years of jail including physical and psychological torture of the defendant. This includes arrest, harassment or incarceration of family members of the defendant as well.”

What are you hoping for?

“I’m hoping people that make decision over who to accept or not to, realize that I’m trapped here between persecution, poverty, bureaucracy and social isolation. Refugees are hard workers, attentive and motivated. This all can provide a good base that with support results in huge success. I have plans since day one when I get resettled [sic]. I’m prepared to establish my life, so I’m just hoping for my situation to be solved so I will be free again.”

“I am not less than any other human. I just want to be heard and seen.”

What would you want to ask the international community to do?

“I want my voice to be heard, prayer to be answered and to be gone from this country to a safe destination that provides me with what I deserve. Where I go really doesn’t make any difference for me. As long as I can live my life in Jesus with no threats and fear of being deported/jailed/tortured.

I have been kind and helpful to everybody that I interact with, I always include everybody in prayers including those that are after me to harm and hurt me. The way of Jesus is the way of life. 

I simply want to be accepted as who I am so I can be free, get married, have a family of my own and contribute to society.

Please keep me in your prayers. I recently fall [down] a lot. This journey is extremely hard and out of my power. It has completely stretched my psychology [sic] and brought me to my knees. Please pray for my strength. The longer this situation gets, the harder every day gets.

And finally please pray for my parents… they miss me so badly that it breaks my heart even talking about it. I can’t forgive myself for all the pain and agony I impose on them.”

* Name changed for security reasons