Twenty nine years ago as a junior UN official I worked with the UNHigh Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) in Islamabad. I led a small team that selected and processed Iranian and Iraqi refugees for resettlement in the West, the very first step of what would turn into a 28 year career in international aid.
1988 was an eventful year in the Middle East. Iraqi airplanes dropped chemical bombs on their own citizens in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Not long after the Iranians hoisted the white flag in their merciless 8 year war with Iraq. With Sadaam triumphant, Ayatollah Khomeini seemed to lose his will to live and died the following year.
Our offices in Islamabad experienced a huge influx of asylum seekers throughout that year. Kurds from Halabja, Iranian political detainees who had been unexpectedly released from prison, a smattering of Somalis, as well as some late-arriving Afghans who no longer felt safe in Kabul now that the Russians had pulled up stumps.
Among the Iranians were a large number of Bahais, the religious minority that has had a history of persecution ever since their Prophet Baha’ullah announced his Divinity in the mid 19th century. Now that the nation’s attention was no longer focused on war, the Ayatollahs and their henchmen revved up a new round of anti-Bahaiism which forced thousands to flee Iran, many of whom came to Pakistan.
From the UN’s point of view the Bahai caseload was self servicing. The community’s networks were global, including a tiny but well established population in Pakistan. Once their fellows were registered by our office the community supported them materially and spiritually until my team found them resettlement spots in Canada, Australia or the US.
And finding resettlement spots for Bahais was not difficult. Because most were well educated and many had professional and business backgrounds, resettlement countries considered them the perfect refugee. Australia in particular, was partial towards the community admitting no refugees except Bahais from Pakistan. Long before I ever set foot in Australia myself, I knew there were substantial settlements of Bahais in Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne.
In July 1988 I took a business trip with some colleagues to visit the Bahai Center in Lahore. It was the usual ‘visiting dignitary’ function with welcome speeches, tours of the premises, chatsabout conditions in Iran with recently arrived refugees topped off by a big spread of Persian rice, meat and salad. Mr. Kamran Karimian, an affable smartly dressed Bahai businessman was our host. Just before we tucked into lunch he called one of the refugees forward to take a group photo. We smiled, shook hands with the photographer and duly loaded our plates high with food.
In late 2015 I wound up my aid career and moved back to our small apartment in Melbourne. Last week a team of painters arrived early Monday morning asking our indulgence to clutter up the stairwells and halls for a few days. One morning as I tiptoed around their buckets of paint and rollers I noticed that two of them were speaking Farsi.
“You’re from Iran,” I said to the older of the two.
“I recognised your language. I worked in Tajikstan and Afghanistan many years ago so I know a few words.”
The man smiled politely but didn’t say much else.
“I was in Tehran airport once,” I continued. “On a stop over between India and Europe. Way back in the 1970s.”
“The good days,” he said immediately.
That was the end of the conversation. He didn’t seem overly talkative and in fact, I sensed his heart was sad. The refugee’s lot. Over the next days we exchanged nods as I came and went but didn’t say anything to each other.
This morning I greeted him with one of my handful of Farsi phrases. ‘Khub hast?”
“Not bad,” he muttered.
He didn’t bother to look up as he mixed a new pail of paint.
I turned around and looked at him. “When did you come to Australia?”
“Did you fly, via Turkey or…”
“No, we came through the desert.”
“I probably processed your case,” I said. “Did you go through UNHCR?”
“Then I’m sure I did!”
“What’s your name?”
“Did you come to the Bahai Center in Lahore? With some others from the UN, Mr Crosse and a lady, Rosella?”
“Yes, I did. He was our case officer and she was my colleague, from Italy.”
“I took your picture that day.”
By this time the man’s young assistant had stopped painting. He let go a stage whisper, “Small world!”
Over the years I have often wondered what became of the thousands of people we resettled in the West. In some cases there is no doubt that a new life in Europe or North America is the perfect answer to the individual’s problem. But in many others, resettlement is plain hard work. Welfare states may consider themselves generous but most refugees are embraced by the thinnest of social bonds. Coming from societies where families are expansive, inclusive and protective, adjusting to life as an individual ‘client’ or consumer with expectations of rapid self-sufficiency and economic viability is extremely challenging. On top of that comes a new language to learn, new foods to eat and a cost of living that is simply unimaginable.
Once in a while I heard stories of some of the refugees I knew. Most did make it and most would say, we are ready to struggle in our new country as long as our children have a brighter future.
“How was it for you?” I asked Farhad, my long lost photographer friend.
“Hard. When we arrived in Melbourne the economy was bad and there were no jobs. I took a job as a painter, thinking it would be temporary.”
“What did you do back in Iran?”
“I was an assistant cinematographer.”
The time had come for another group photo. This time I asked his assistant to do the honours.