Before I left for China I’d joked that I’d enter Europe as a refugee, saying that I’d jump on a leaky boat from Africa to London when I ran out of money.
Instead, I’m coming into Turkey on a train from Iran, chock full of Baha’i refugees on their way to Ankara.
The Iranian government, believe it or not, tolerates Jews and Christians because it views them as wayward sibling religions with which Islam shares a common history.
Baha’is, however, are not acceptable.
The Baha’i religion started in the 1840s as a reformist Shia sect. The founder, The Bab, preached equality between men and women and peace amongst all mankind, and was executed in 1850 by highly unimpressed Iranian authorities.
Today, Baha’i believers are the most persecuted of all religious minorities in Iran. Luckily for them they are no longer summarily executed and imprisoned for merely believing, as they were 30 years ago, but they can’t attend university, aren’t allowed to work for the government, and the police are allowed to raid their private businesses and confiscate property at will.
It’s nasty stuff and as a result the weekly Tehran-Ankara train is full of families getting their young children out of the country, university students seeking refuge in order to continue their studies, and people visiting brothers and sisters who have already left.
Australian MPs would be appalled that people who could afford a train ticket and looked like regular, middle class folk would be allowed to claim refugee status, but that says more about their lack of humanity and common sense than it does about these refugees.
I got on the refugee train in Tabriz, northern Iran, and shared a compartment with three cheerful women who spent the whole trip cackling away at some great joke and feeding me.
They were Baha’i and off to see their two sons and one daughter who were about to leave Turkey for US universities.
The next day as I was gazing out the window in the corridor a lady struck up a conversation with me. Her husband was a former banker and they were taking their two young sons out of Iran to go to school in Ankara, before departing on a world tour to see their two daughters already in university in the US.
It was the same with the Azeri-Iranians I met at midnight on the boat across the lake at Van, and they all had one thing to say: “Iran, bad. Turkey good.”
I was a little confused in all these conversations. I knew the Baha’is were persecuted, but not how much or why, until Fatima, a young woman visiting the brother and sister who’d already escaped, explained why.
Over a glass of wine (me, not her) in the restaurant car, she said basically the government thinks the Baha’i are making it up.
Furthermore, because Baha’ism is rooted in Shiism, the country’s religion, the ayatollahs reckon it could give people funny ideas more easily than religious rivals Christianity and Judaism.
Fatima had teamed up with two other young women who were taking the plunge. One, Bashari, was accompanied by her aunt and said she was leaving after some lecturers at her university, BIHE (Baha’i Institute of Higher Education and the only one Baha’i believers are allowed to attend) were arrested.
Degrees from this uni aren’t recognised in Iran so graduates can’t get jobs even in private companies, but foreign universities in the US, Europe and Canada do.
“I don’t plan on returning to Iran. I don’t have any good memories there,” Bashari says. Not surprising since recently several of her aunt’s relatives were arrested for communicating (read: proselytising) with Muslims, allegations which may or may not be true.
I asked Fatima if the Iranian government made it difficult for Baha’is to leave and seek refugee status. Na, she said, they don’t want us anyway.
As a heathen infidel, my first thought was why not just say you’re a Muslim and worship undercover?
But having spent the last four months in countries where the appearance, at least, of religious devotion is the norm, I’m aware of how difficult that is, especially in a country like Iran where people wear their religion on their sleeve.
It’d be like going on an extreme diet in secret: you’d have to eat normally in front of your friends yet try to stick to the strict regime without anyone finding out.
So the only realistic option for many young people is to become refugees. They have no education and job prospects in Iran, a real risk of being arrested for conspiring to proselytise, and why stay in a country that doesn’t want you anyway?