Speaker by Various Artists

Refugee Stories Our Politicians Never Tell Us: Part I - Shahzad Ghahreman

by David Haywood

The Immigration Act Review has once again put New Zealand's policy on refugees into the spotlight. As per usual, the attention of both media and government is obsessively focussed on the possibility of refugees abusing the system.

Tze Ming Mok has already written an excellent critique of the new proposals. But I would like to emphasize a point that is often overlooked in the general debate. The relationship between a refugee and their refuge country is not a one-way street. Not only do refugees get something from New Zealand - but New Zealand gets something from refugees. With a little help, the vast majority of refugee immigrants end up as hard-working New Zealand taxpayers. And some of them go on to make very important contributions to their new country.

Politicians never seem to publicize these ordinary refugee success stories. To redress the balance a little, two of my friends - both of whom arrived in New Zealand as refugees - have kindly allowed me to interview them for Public Address. In the first interview I will be talking to Shahzad Ghahreman, the highly-respected Liaison Librarian and Archivist at the Auckland University of Technology. In the second interview - to be posted in a fortnight or so - I will be talking to Lan Le-Ngoc, one of the key scientists at Industrial Research Limited in Christchurch.

In our conversation, Shahzad Ghahreman described his personal experiences during the Iranian revolution. At the end of the interview he said that he was surprised that he could discuss such an upsetting topic: "I thought I might cancel the interview. I didn't think I could talk to anyone about it."

I'm very glad he did - he has a story that should definitely be told.

* * *

My name is Shahzad Ghahreman. I grew up in Mashhad, a city in the Northeast of Iran, close to the border with Afghanistan. Mashhad is the second largest urban centre in Iran, and has a population of around three million. The tomb of Imam Reza is there, and so it is considered a holy city - several million pilgrims come to visit every year.

I started to write poetry in the early 1960s, when I was about 17 or 18, and my work was published in various journals and newspapers in Iran. I kept writing poetry throughout my time at university, and indeed up until the present day. At university I studied Farsi (Persian) language and literature. This is where I met my wife, who was doing similar courses. We were both very interested in the arts, and we used to write programmes on various cultural subjects for Radio Iran. My wife is a very good speaker - she has won several awards - and she used to present the programmes as well.

In addition to radio, I also used to write and present programmes for television. Eventually I had a regular programme on Wednesday afternoons that looked at the cultural events in the city during that week. I had a research team who used to collect the information, and then I would edit and present it.

Of course, I never thought I'd be able to become financially stable from poetry, radio, and television. And so after I graduated, I studied librarianship in Tehran. Later I went for specialized training in the United Kingdom and the United States to become a medical librarian. The University of Mashhad had just established its dental school, which they hoped would become the centre for this science in the Middle East. I started working for them in 1971, and set up their dental library - the core collection, the support staff, even the shelving plans.

My wife became a lecturer at a college of education. She taught language and literature to those who were going to become teachers. But both of us continued to work for radio and television as well. So we both had two jobs, and we were leading a very busy life. Our son was born in 1973, and we managed to get a loan from the bank to buy a piece of land. We built a nice house - it was a very happy period in our lives.

But at the same time, of course, we were living under the dictatorship of the Shah. We considered ourselves to be liberal intellectuals, and we used to talk a lot about politics, but only in a very limited circle - we couldn't trust everyone. We wanted democratic reform in Iran: human rights, freedom of expression, and that sort of thing.

If you look at the development of the Iranian Revolution, it was triggered by people demanding economic reform. They wanted to close the gap between rich and poor. This was after the oil prices had shot up in the 1970s, and a huge amount of currency was flowing into the country. Iran was absolutely awash with money, but there were still many people living in terrible poverty. For people like me, however, it was not just about the money. Money matters, of course, but we were mainly concerned about democracy.

We thought that a just society would flow from political freedom. All our close friends - writers and poets and so on - were involved in supporting the movement to overthrow the Shah. My wife and I felt guilty for being part of the system, and so we would try hard to encourage other people to join the revolution. We both went on protest marches, even when my wife was pregnant with our eldest daughter.

We had a friend, Javad Mohebi, who was a wonderful poet. Very, very talented - a genius. He was so devoted to the revolution that he would sometimes be protesting for 24 hours in a row, until he was absolutely exhausted - until he couldn't even speak any more. He wasn't able to go home, because he might be arrested by SAVAK (the Iranian secret police). So he used to live in different places all over the city, including at our house.

We had a committee in the university who were helping to encourage the revolution. I was elected to that committee three times. Of course, it was still dangerous to criticize openly the Shah's regime - it was a very serious crime - but in one of those meetings I became so furious that I stood up and shouted: "Down with the regime!". No-one had said anything like that before, and it could have got me into a lot of trouble. So I was the first at the university to publicly criticize the Shah - which is ironic, considering what I was accused of later.

It was wonderful when we finally heard the news that the Shah had fled Iran. That same night I took my father for a drive around the city in my car. People were attacking statues of the Shah, and pulling them to the ground. They were even collecting bits of the broken statues as souvenirs - as a sign of this great victory. It felt very historic.

Everyone was so happy. We thought that now the Shah had gone - it would be the end of the story. Tomorrow democracy will be here, and everyone will get some of what he or she wants. We were totally wrong, of course. Politically we were illiterate. That's the problem when you live under a dictatorship. You can't learn politics, because you don't have the sources. We all did our best - but our best was simply not enough.

Even just after the revolution, a few very knowledgeable people predicted that fascism would come to Iran. The victory of the revolution was officially announced in February 1979. It was decided that we would hold a referendum in April to decide on a new political system. Most people were talking about a democratic republic. But then Khomeini, who was the accepted leader, said: "Iran must be an Islamic republic. No more, no less."

Of course, this isn't democracy. This isn't the people telling the leadership what they want. This is the leader ordering the people to do what he says. So then we liberals realized that the referendum was a washout. But still we were hopeful. We thought: "Okay, an Islamic republic for now, but we will change it. This is just one step back." But that step back was the end of the story.

For me, personally, that was also the end of the story. I lost my jobs in May that year - both at the university, and in radio and television. If you weren't on the side of the Islamists then you had to be removed. I was accused of supporting the Shah - which was ridiculous, of course. I went to the vice-chancellor of the university, and said: "If you say I am a traitor then you should prove it". I asked for a trial. I said: "This is a good opportunity. It will be a good start for a democratic society. You are allowed to accuse me - but, at the same time, I have the right to a fair trial."

The vice-chancellor said: "These are special circumstances, Shahzad. Soon - very soon - everything will be okay. We will have proper courts, and all those sorts of things. But if you co-operate with us now, and hand in your resignation, we will send you to a campus in another city. You will still have a job as a librarian. It will be just as good for you."

But I wouldn't go along with that. I said: "No, the problem is not solved if I am sent to another city. Either I am guilty of something or not. If I am not guilty, then why should I go away? If I am guilty, then why should I stay? You would be right to dismiss me in that case."

So that was my story. There were lots of people like me. But I am glad - let me confess here - that they dismissed me. Because if I had continued to work at the university, under the Islamic regime, then I couldn't be quiet. I couldn't be part of that system. So I could have lost my head. Easily. As lots of people did.

My friend, Javad Mohebi, the talented poet - who was so devoted to the revolution. After the Islamists took power, they told him he should be quiet. And keep quiet - and say nothing. But, of course, he simply couldn't do that. So they invented some evidence, and charged him with a crime. A very nasty dishonourable crime. And they put him on trial, and he was sentenced to 80 lashes. The punishment was to be administered at the school where he taught - in front of all the children who had respected him. The court was on the fifth floor of a building. My friend couldn't tolerate the sentence, and when they left him alone, he found a window and threw himself out. That was life in the new Iran.

As for me, the first thing I thought after I was fired was that I wouldn't change anything in my life. Some people suggested that I should move to another city. But I said: "No, I won't. If I move away, people will say I am guilty, and that I have fled my crime." However it was very difficult for me to stay. For the first few weeks I was really frightened. When I was dismissed from my job, my details were printed on a poster at the university along with other people who wouldn't co-operate. They printed my name, my photograph, my wife's photograph, and our address. I was worried that some young radical - who wanted to be a hero - could come and set fire to our house, or even kill us. This happened to some other people.

Then I had second thoughts, and wondered if perhaps we should leave. But a lecturer at the university came to see me, and said: "What has happened to you is not important. What is important is your reaction to this event." He encouraged me to stand up for myself.

So I came up with this idea. I hired a van, and purchased some fruit of different types from a wholesaler - apples, pears, and so on - and parked in front of the university. When my ex-colleagues came to buy fruit, I said to them: "See I am here - still at the university. I am not giving up." I turned it into a little business. Eventually I would drive into the country so that I could buy fruit directly from orchards, rather than going through the wholesalers.

That was in the first few years, when there was still hope. I also used to write for various publications under an assumed name. Later on I could see that things were getting worse, not better. A friend said to me: "Why don't you emigrate to Dubai. I know people there who could help you get a job. You could even work at a university." The friend obtained a visa for me, and I bought an airline ticket.

I travelled to the international airport in Tehran , and went through the process to board the plane. But at the last stage a security official said: "Sorry, your name is on the prohibited list. You're not allowed to leave the country." The official told me to go to a special office in the city. He said it was probably just some bureaucratic error, and that I'd be able to leave on a flight later that day.

So I went to the special office. There was another gentleman waiting to speak to the security officials. He asked me what had happened. So I explained, adding that: "I hope this won't take long as I want to leave Iran this afternoon". He said that the very same thing had happened to him, and he'd been coming to this office every day for a year: "And still they haven't been able to tell me why I'm on the prohibited list". So I started to realize that this was serious.

I discovered that if you were on the prohibited list then it was illegal for people to hire you. So I had to take all sorts of jobs under assumed names or in illegal employment. I worked in takeaways, and on farms - all sorts of places. Friends would put themselves at risk to give me some work. The other option was to work for the black market, but they would pay very low wages if they knew you were prohibited.

Sometimes I would be recognized. At one stage I worked at a pizza shop, and someone wrote graffiti on the wall which said: "Death to Shahzad Ghahreman - the traitor who works here." That was the way that the regime worked. They didn't shoot everybody who opposed them - some people they preferred to buy. First they would make them suffer, and then say: "Now you have tasted the bad life. Do you want to go back to the good life? Come and join us."

At one stage someone from the regime contacted me and said: "We need you for the government's public relations department. We can give you a nice job in Tehran." I turned them down, of course. I couldn't stand to be part of what they were doing.

Time wore on. Some weeks it would happen that I hadn't a job, which was extremely difficult for me. I would have to stay at home - pacing the room like a prisoner. Our eldest daughter was born in 1979. It wasn't so bad when she was young, because then I could play with her. But after she went to school it was awful. It was difficult to explain why I stayed home. It isn't usual in Iran for fathers to be at home while mothers to go to work. But it was a good experience for me to look after the children.

My wife was able to keep working, but she was demoted to teaching at a suburban girls' school. Just an ordinary teacher - not a lecturer anymore. She had a very difficult life in that school. She was watched all the time - it was extremely stressful. The pressure of being constantly spied upon meant she was utterly exhausted when she came home at night.

It was lucky that she could still work because it allowed us to survive. But we had to sell all our possessions. Our books, the furniture, the carpets, and eventually the house. Everything was sold in the end.

The war between Iran and Iraq was going on all through this time. The students at my son's school were being pumped full of propaganda. How glorious it is to go to war. How you will become a hero in heaven if you are killed. They were conscripting boys into the army at the age of 15. Of course, we didn't want our son to fight in the war, and so - when he was 14 - we sent him to live with friends in Germany.

This was a terrible situation. Our friends in Germany looked after him well, but our son was extremely unhappy. We couldn't communicate with him very often, but we did the best we could with encouraging letters, and the occasional telephone call. We thought that we would never see him again. I remember asking my wife once, when we were by ourselves one day, what her greatest wish would be. And she said: "Only to see my son again". That was very upsetting.

Early in 1989 - after eight years of trying to leave Iran - I was finally introduced to a person who said he could help me. My extended family helped us pay the money to escape. The plan was to take my wife and daughters to Germany, so that we could all be with our son.

But before I could leave I needed to have my passport revalidated. So this person took me to visit a high-ranking mullah - a very important holy man. We sat on the floor, and I was introduced: "Here is a gentleman from Mashhad who would like to donate some money for the war". This was just a bribe, of course, but it couldn't be said directly. And the mullah asked: "What does the gentleman do for a living?" At that stage I worked on a sheep farm, and when the mullah was told this he said: "AhÖ meat. Yes, I like meat very much." He licked his lips, and I realized that he wanted meat as well as money. So I said: "And also I would like to bring you some top-quality meat as a special gift". A week or so later a new passport was sent to me.

It turned out that it was very difficult to arrange a German visa. I waited for a while, and then my contact asked me: "How would you feel about going to a country called New Zealand instead?" Believe it or not, I had never heard of New Zealand before. I said: "New Zealand? Where is that?" They told me it was an English-speaking country near Australia. My heart sank when I heard Australia. In Iran we were very Eurocentric - after all, Tehran is only three or four hours flight from London - and Australia seemed like the end of the world to us. But then I spoke to a relative who knew about New Zealand, and he said: "Oh, it is a very nice country. Very safe and civilized." So I said: "Okay, I'll go."

A couple of weeks later I received a valid invitation from a company to travel to New Zealand as a businessman. I was supposed to be buying wool for the Iranian carpet industry. I had to get a New Zealand visa to do this, but I was told: "Never go to the embassy yourself, because they might ask business-related questions, and they will easily recognize that you know nothing about wool or the carpet business." So I sent my travel documents through friends, who dealt with the embassy on my behalf.

As soon as the visa arrived, I bought a ticket on the next flight to New Zealand.

I was extremely nervous at the airport. I was convinced that I was being watched, and thought I'd never be able to leave Iran. I made it through security, and then I boarded the plane. But even after the plane took off, I was still terribly anxious. It was an Iranian airline, and so I was still in the hands of the regime. I thought they could perhaps stop me getting off the plane at our destination, or even turn the plane around and go back to Iran.

I changed airlines in Tokyo, and that was a bit better. But then it turned out that there was an Iranian sitting beside me on the flight to Auckland, and he had a black diplomatic passport. And when I noticed this, I thought: "What is he doing here? Is it something to do with me?"

It takes ten hours to fly from Japan to New Zealand. And it was agony, because as soon as the plane departed he started asking me questions. I tried not to answer, but at the same time I wanted to be polite. I thought: "He may only be a member of the embassy." So I had to spend the whole of that ten-hour flight pretending to be a carpet salesman, and watching every single word I said.

Then we landed in Auckland. And when there were no problems leaving the airport I couldn't believe it. I walked outside. It was marvellous - just marvellous. The date was June 18th 1989. It was a Wednesday. The weather was bad - it was raining - and I was exhausted. But so happy. I took the bus from the airport, and came to downtown. And I walked around, and looked at the city. That was the start of a new life.

It took me until the following Monday to visit a lawyer, and start to apply for refugee status. As soon as my case was filed I was given a special grant from social welfare. This enabled me to move into a room at St Benedict's Hostel, and it also paid for my flight down to Wellington for the refugee status hearing.

My case was heard in early September. I had to explain my situation in front of an investigation panel. This comprised representatives from the SIS, Foreign Ministry, United Nations, and Internal Affairs. Luckily I had all the documents which showed my previous activities: my situation in Iran before the revolution, the accusations that had been made against me, my situation after the revolution, and everything. If the hearing was successful then I would be allowed to stay in New Zealand. If not, then I would have various avenues of appeal.

It was one of the unforgettable days in my life. I presented my case. Members of the panel started to ask me questions. Sometimes I could answer them directly; sometimes I had to wait for an interpreter to translate (I was not so confident of my English in those days). After an hour they asked me to leave the room. I went to an adjacent office, and waited with my lawyer.

A short while later the member from the United Nations came into the room, and she walked up to me, and shook my hand. She said: "Congratulations. Your case has been decided right here. You are accepted. You can ring your family in Iran, and your son in Germany and tell them to go to the New Zealand Embassy. They will be issued a visa, and can come here straight away. It's all arranged."

It was wonderful. I rented a house for my family in Blockhouse Bay, and found out about schools for my children. My son arrived from Germany on October 2nd 1989. My wife and daughters - we had a second daughter in 1986 - arrived in New Zealand on October 18th 1989.

My wife left Iran without telling anyone. She didn't even resign her job. Her passport was valid - she wasn't on the prohibited list - and so she just bought tickets, and put herself and our daughters on a plane. Later on there was an official notice saying she had been dismissed from her job because of absenteeism. We thought that was quite amusing.

As soon as my family arrived we started to receive a special government payment every week - similar to the unemployment benefit. Also we were able to go to special classes for studying the English language, and so that we could learn more about New Zealand culture. These were very useful.

My youngest daughter had the easiest time adjusting to New Zealand, because she was just three-and-a-half years old. She went to kindergarten at the usual age, and has never looked back. Her older sister had a more difficult time. It wasn't so easy going straight into an English-speaking school. But she is such an adaptable person - she joined the girl guides, and became very interested in all their social activities. Then she discovered that she had a talent for public speaking, and after only living in New Zealand for a year or so, she was awarded the first prize in a speech competition. I still have her photograph from the Western Leader newspaper.

My son was very nervous about going to school. He had suffered a lot of racist treatment in Germany, and was dreading going through the same experience here. But it didn't happen in New Zealand. Everyone was very open-minded and welcoming. That was a very positive discovery for all of us - because you can really judge a society by its children. If children throw stones at you because your colour is different, or perhaps follow you chanting rude slogans, then they have learnt these social attitudes from their parents. It wasn't like that here at all.

Having spoken to Iranian refugees in other countries - and if I compare their experiences to my own - I think we were extremely lucky not to have gone to Germany, or Sweden, or the United States. I'm not saying that these countries treat refugees badly, but I think that New Zealand offers a much better culture and environment for refugees and other immigrants. Our family was really blessed to come here.

My son, being older, had the most difficult time of all the children in terms of learning English. He spent the summer that we arrived concentrating on his language skills. By the end of that summer he had become good enough to get into sixth form. And by the end of seventh form he had become dux of the school. This was a big surprise to us - we didn't even know there was such a thing! He was one of the top twenty students in New Zealand for his bursary exams, which enabled him to fulfil his ambition of studying medicine.

He studied at Auckland medical school, and then worked in the Auckland and North Shore hospitals. He decided to specialize in neurosurgery, and has since published scientific papers in various medical journals. He is just about to complete his final qualification as a neurosurgeon.

My eldest daughter went on to study pharmacy at Otago University, and now works in Middlemore hospital. She recently married her partner, James, who is also a pharmacist. My youngest daughter has followed in her brother's footsteps, and is now in her third year at Auckland medical school. So you can see that my wife and I are well looked after from the medical point of view.

My wife did an English language course at AUT when we arrived in New Zealand. Afterwards, she decided that she wanted to continue being a school teacher, and enrolled at the Auckland College of Education to study for her New Zealand Diploma of Teaching. She now works as a primary school teacher - a job she loves.

It is my belief that your job affects your family environment. For this reason I was very keen to return to my former career as a librarian - so as to maintain an academic atmosphere in our family. Shortly after we arrived I started to do volunteer work at local school libraries. Then I enrolled in a programme run by the Auckland City Council that helped people to look for jobs. When they discovered that I was a qualified librarian they put me into job training at the Auckland Public Library.

At the same time I was also doing a language course at AUT, so it made sense to do volunteer work at their library too. In November 1991, a job as a library assistant came up at AUT. I applied, and was successful in gaining a permanent position. So, all in all, it probably took our family about two years from the time we arrived in New Zealand to become financially self-sufficient again.

After a year as a library assistant, an opportunity arose to do my certificate in librarianship. My Iranian degree was recognized in New Zealand, but unfortunately my library qualifications were not. So with the help of AUT library I was able to gain the New Zealand qualifications. Again, this is one of my happiest memories. The qualifications enabled me to apply for more senior positions - eventually to my current job as Archivist and Liaison Librarian in Languages and Social Sciences.

It's surprising how many times New Zealanders have told us that we could be better off in Australia - but we would never accept that. I believe that our family has thrived in New Zealand because of the environment. Even the most talented person would get nowhere in a bad environment. New Zealand has been wonderful to us - it is our home. We wouldn't abandon it for a few extra dollars.

The world is changing, but I think we should fight hard to keep our cultural values in New Zealand. Just because Australia does certain things, or Europe, or the United States - perhaps bending the rules on human rights a little - it doesn't mean that we should blindly follow. They can have their way of life, and we should keep ours. If I have learned anything in my life - it's that integrity is a valuable commodity. It's not something you should give away easily or willingly.

© David Haywood, 2006.