About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Azadeh wearing a red mask against a floral background


Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:




Nooshin Sanjabi

“My dream is that Iran becomes free one day,” says Azadeh (pseud, 35).“We are all imprisoned.” The humanities professor came to Germany after fleeing religious and political censorship in Iran. Her field was “full of lies,” she says. Having to withhold the truth from her students made her feel guilty, but “the fact that the students loved me, was giving me strength.” Today, two years after arriving in Germany, she lives in a refugee camp in Stuttgart.“I had a strange feeling of depression—am I supposed to press the start button again? Am I supposed to walk all these roads again, and are all the studies that I completed in Iran for nothing?” She’s determined not to stay jobless. “I’d love to be at least useful and be able to earn for myself and not have to live on another’s charity.” Azadeh may have escaped the oppression she felt in her home country, but being away has taken a toll. “In the words of Iranian singers,” she says,“‘our body is here but our soul is in Iran.’”

Trigger Warning: Self-harm; suicide

full interview

Can you tell us where you live now and explain the situation here and how long have you been here?
I live in a camp and it has been two years since I arrived here. Well, the situation… was very bad when we first came here. The very first camp where we went for an interview…. had a difficult situation. All nationalities were intermingled. Then… from the sanitation aspect, it was not good at all. But… people had a lot of problems with each other and they had stolen many of my belongings in the camp where I used to be. For example, many of the things that I had brought with myself and which were expensive, they stole them. We had this situation of having to keep an eye on our belongings and our doors did not even have a lock. This way, these incidents happened to us. But then we went to… came to another camp which was a very good camp but after one year, they sent me somewhere which was a really, really bad situation. And there, everyone and everything were mingled… I mean like men and women, bathroom and toilet, dirty kitchen, dirty washrooms, dirty environment… how should I say… it was a very, very bad situation. It was such that you couldn’t stay there at all. For us, to not have to stay there meant we were going to stay with our friends. Both my friend and I were going to live with one of my friends. We were living with someone just because, especially the time that corona came, a lot of people were infected by corona. I mean, my camp was totally going into quarantine and they would close its door for an entire month. You couldn’t go out and it was to an extent because of the fact that those who would get infected by corona were sharing bathrooms and toilets and the kitchens. So the one who had the virus would touch the surfaces, for example, they didn’t know they were transferring it. They would touch the surfaces and then it was the reason that a lot of people caught corona. Then they would close the camp’s door again and again and we couldn’t go out. They took a corona test from us twice. Once my result was negative I told them that my test result is negative and I can go outside. It is much better for me to go and live with my friend rather than living in this camp. But they would say no, you need to wait two more weeks so we take another test from you. Then we waited two more weeks and our test result was negative. But it was not effective. A lot of people were infected again because some people were carrying the virus and would touch different things. It was totally a bad situation but they also had a good point that I need to say. For example, when we were in quarantine, they would give us the food, the breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also, for example, we didn’t have the stress that we do not have food, we do not have water and have no food to eat. We didn’t have these anxieties but, it was very dirty. It was a very dirty environment and we were thinking we might not reach there. It is a really bad situation. It was really bad. But they have now transferred to another place and I am satisfied with my current situation, because I have a better situation, all the bathrooms, toilets and kitchens are inside the suit. It is very rare in the whole of Germany to have such a camp. Everyone says that this place is one of the best places; that it is one in a hundred.

How long has it been that you have rented here?
It has been two or three days.

Two to three days. So you were in that bad camp during corona?
Yes. I was in that bad camp during corona.

What was your feeling at that time when you were not able to go outside?
We were stuck there and you know I was in a bad condition. I didn’t know they were going to quarantine us. I wanted to go to my class, I had put on my clothes, then, I had my class at six o’clock and suddenly they told us it is quarantine here. Then I asked what for, and they said because there are a lot of corona infected people. Then I told them to let me collect my belongings and leave here, but they said no it is not possible and things like that. The situation was really bad because they did not have any veran in the rooms. It means there is no Wi-Fi. We didn’t know what to do out of idleness. Wooden rooms, all around the rooms were covered by wood and the smell of wood would come inside the room, and whatever you do in the room, its smell will cover the whole room. The rooms are all wooden and it was a very hard condition. It was really bad in my opinion.

How you were at that moment and what was your feeling?
I was crying all the time, was depressed, I was always telling my friends to call me so I can talk to you. And because I also didn’t have veran, I had to find a communication way so my spirits can at least get a bit better so I can… I was alone in my room, who should I talk to? With the door and wall? I had no Wi-Fi and it was really hard. I cried a lot the first day. I begged them so much to let me go and I will not come again, but they didn’t accept and told me I had to stay.

How long have you been in Germany?
Two years. It recently reached two years this month.

Why did you immigrate to Germany?
Because of the problems that were there. Because of religious and political problems that I had in Iran with the system officials, with the system itself, because I was working in their system, hmm, I was a teacher and how should I say… I was teaching humanities. The field of humanities in Iran is full of lies because of the distorted history books, the distorted religious books, Quran, Arabic, how should I say, sociology, and all of these. Then, when I was going to work, it would happen that my students would ask me a question about, let’s say, the revolution. Because I had taught for one year. The major I had taught for one year was history, guidance, sociology, hmm… I taught dialects, Arabic, and religious studies. I had taught a lot about these humanities studies. Then, when they were asking a question, for example about the revolution. Well, I did not believe in the revolution, I even didn’t accept this revolution, or their system and hierarchy, I didn’t accept any of these things so it was very hard for me to lie to the students. For example, a student would come and take permission and ask me that her grandmother had told her that the situation was better during Shah’s era, at least the one who was drinking alcohol would go to bars and drink his alcohol and would be fine with another one who would go to mosque. But now, it is all a lie and this and that. I had no answer for that student. It was really hard for me to tell them no, this is really good, this system is really good and this and that. I was very bothered because of this issue, because you had to either not answer the student or if you were to answer, you had to lie. We had to form the basics of a student’s thought based on lies, that is why I didn’t like it. And I remember once I was teaching a class, then one of the students asked a question about Islam and Prophet Muhammad’s conquests and things like this. Then that student said that in his or her opinion, that… the prophet himself shows that here… he himself was the reason behind those wars. But I myself had read all these books and I had information about this field before and I knew that the prophet himself was the main actor behind the wars between Muslims and infidels. But, I couldn’t tell my students that, yes, he himself was behind these wars. Then I would tell my student to come out of the class during the break hours and I would tell her or him, and that I cannot say anything now. Because if I were supposed to tell them the truth, a lawsuit would be created for me. And for example, the superficial issues. The superficial issues… I for example remember once, I have stated these issues in my case too. In my case here, yes, immigration case. And for example, I remember once I used purple nail polish and went to a class. It was the second class and the school deputy came with an acetone and told me, “can you please come out for a moment.” Then I went outside and he or she said that I have used nail polish, take this acetone and clean your nails. I cleaned it there and went back to the class. But I hated this condition so much because I was sure then that they had appointed a spy inside the class. They had appointed one spy in all the classes and whatever happened inside the class, they would first go to the deputy and then school principle and report to them. So mentally, we were under a lot of pressure. Or for example, the appearance. They would bother us because of our appearances, would bother us for our beliefs. They would come to us for example, to not upload our own photos in our WhatsApp profile or to not put our personal pictures on Instagram, your page should not be public and how should I say… It means they intruded on all our personal issues. Or for example it would happen again and again or for example for myself, I would receive letter from guidance office and I would go to the guidance office, and for example, a secret letter would come and I would go to guidance office and they would ask me that I have heard you have read the religious books of Sunni in your class at university, the guidance official would tell me. Or you have come and talked against Muhammad. Then I… had no option. I was their own employee and I had to reject it and had to tell them no, it is not correct and I had to lie. This is while they were all true. But in order for us to convince them, you had to say no. Then he told me I should never have such discussions in my class. So come and put your signature here. For example, I went to the guidance office another time for selection, they would tell me that I have gone to a prohibited place. They would tell me about my eyeliner, that you have used a green eyeliner. Then I would tell them that no I have not used that. But they would tell me that we have seen you having no hijab. Hijab was compulsory. Then I would say no, not at all, I wasn’t me. Then they would get another signature from us so that we would consider these things in the future and they would introduce us to some books to take a test of those books. They would tell us we had to take this test from this book. They would introduce us to the book “Hijab” by Motahari. They would tell us to take the test to see if we could pass it or not. I have had a lot of such incidents. Or for example, suppose you have been in Iran and you have seen how people are engaged in these issues. For example, you have no peace when you walk on the street. Even if your scarf is a little bit back, let alone the guards, the people themselves are also a problem. Or… for example, I remember once, a woman came and took my hand and asked why my jeans are shredded, I don’t know… your clothes are open from the front, so let’s go to… what. We had to release ourselves from them every time. And every time we get into a car and our scarf falls down, we have to answer them all the time. So all of these were the conditions that were really hard for me.

All the limitations that you had and not being able to be yourself at your work, how did it affect you mentally?
Actually, because of this issue… once… before I came to Germany, I tried a lot to go to a country like the Emirates, ok? Then… but Emirates was not giving residency to Iranians because of political issues. Then I went to a psychologist. I was really sick. When I was going home at night, I would get so sick and I would tell myself why we should lie to students. It was affecting me very badly. Then I went to a psychologist and I remember some years ago, three years ago, they charged me for the visit just to talk to me for an hour. They charged me 200,000 Toman just for the visit. Then the psychologist asked me what my problem is and I told him or her that my problem is that my work environment is not the same as my mentality. I have a job that is not the same as my mentality at all. I have to lie. I have to lie to my students. Feeling guilty in my conscience is bothering me. I can’t. You suggest a solution and in your opinion, where is it better for me to go? Shall I go to Europe or go to these Arab countries? Considering my resume that I had before, he told me to go to Arabic countries. I tried to go to those countries but I couldn’t go. I couldn’t.

It means, you mostly felt guilty?
Feeling guilty and I was not at ease. These were bothering me too much. I didn’t like to not be myself. Because my system is always in a way that I love to be myself. I love to be whoever I am. Not to sit and count everything from two to four, like I should not say this here and that there, I shouldn’t be this way and that way, from several aspects of external appearance, and from inside. We had to act according to their standards and whatever they told us. This was bothering me very much. Very much. That is why I didn’t want to be there. All the mental problems that I had were because of these problems.

How could you cope with the situation, what were your strengths and how could you survive?
I… most of the time, the things that had happened to me and I didn’t like to… it was like my students had gotten aware of this issue. I mean I was answering my students in a way that they had understood my system. That is why I would face a lot of problems. I was not coming to do… but they had understood it and they had gotten aware that I am like this and this is my system. They had understood. That is why I faced further problems. It was like this.

You didn’t say what you were doing, what were your strengths to cope with it?
Suppose… it was because the students loved me. Between all of my students, 80 percent of them loved me, except for that 20 percent who were their spies and appointees, 80 percent of them liked me because I was an updated teacher, my information were up-to-date, how should I say… my teaching methods was up-to-date, my appearance was up-to-date. The students liked these. They were helping me cope with that situation. I know that my conscience was not at ease but the fact that the students loved me, was giving me strength. It was like this.

What would you do yourself? For example, one would do drawing, some read books …
I was reading books. I was reading books. I was always reading psychology books. I like psychology and philosophy. I read psychology books and listen to music too. But I was not doing activities like painting. I was mostly in a book reading mood, or listening to music or I would rarely go to gym. Like this. I was also travelling. I was also travelling to change my mood.

What was your dream when you were in Iran? It can be very personal or very big or small or stupid.
Yes, in Iran, my dream was that Iran be a very free country. I very much loved to… [crying]… because of the fact that I had studied very much and had struggled so hard, they could at least know our worth. [crying] We were imprisoned there and wandering around here. This issue is bothering me very much. I studied so much and tried hard to reach the thing that I wanted. I myself loved to become a…teacher one day. This was my choice but I didn’t know this was the system. Because I was a child and I was eighteen. I hadn’t lived in Iran’s system. I had been in Iran for a maximum of five or six years. Also, I didn’t know anything about their system. That is why I really loved to reach at least this “minimum” of our life. We tried so hard and studied. I remember when I got 20 in the national university entrance test. And I went to Tehran from our village to register and they made things difficult for us and would that I will not get a dormitory room.

Because… I don’t know what their reasons were and all the students who were there were saying that we all are two-digit ranks. One was 51, one was 20 and one other was 10, and things like that. But then they told us no, and I don’t remember their reason. But they were hurdling us. For example, these things that they do not value our worth. The “minimums” in people’s lives… educated people like us who have a better life than us in other countries, now that we have become immigrants and have come to Germany. Since I came here in an emergency, I couldn’t bring my documents from Iran. My documents are all withheld from me. It is with the Ministry of Education, my bachelor’s degree is also with them, the same is my MA. They take a five-year commitment to work for every one year of our studies. And I couldn’t bring my documents and now that I have come here, I feel like I am like a newborn; zero kilometer baby. A person who has got none of her documents is like being no one. On the other hand, they don’t even accept our documents. They don’t accept our bachelor. Although they accept MA, they do not accept our bachelor degree. For example, they tell us to start from the beginning and I don’t know… to… to pass a term. We have worked so hard there, we were imprisoned there and wanderers here because we couldn’t become achieve what we wanted to be, back in Iran. We have the right to be free, we have the right to live. We do not deserve this, in my opinion.

How does it feel when you think that you couldn’t achieve your rights both here and in your country? Does it make you angry or sad? What is your feeling?
I get very sad. [crying] Even me and people who are in Iran. Yes, all of the people. We are all imprisoned. People are all imprisoned in Iran. People are experiencing a feeling of being in jail. When they tell us [those who are outside Iran], like… when we post on Instagram or other things, whatever is the content of the post like motivational, different political situations and psychology. They write “good for you that you are out of Iran.” They wish to be in our place and we wish to be in Iran. We love to be in Iran.

How did you come to Germany?

I mean how did you come? Did you come by air or land? How did you come?
I came half of the way by land and half the other by air.

How long have you been on the way?
The process through which I came and reached here is almost three weeks.

How was it? Do you want to talk about it?
The stress that I had, its stress was bothering me very much. I had never… I mean I remember from the time I came to Germany… the stress that I had, like, if they catch me, or I get in trouble… I had a bad backpain that… I was about to die from this. Beside this, my breasts were in a terrible pain, because I had too much stress and I was very sick. And when I came here, for three days, I was stressed because of their questions. The beginning of that first month process was very stressful. Then when I went to the doctor to get a visit so I could check my breasts, my breasts were aching a lot. I went to the doctor and the doctor told me that I have got cyst, five to six cyst. Because I had experienced a lot of stress. It didn’t occur to me until then that I should visit a doctor because my breasts are in pain. But it was because of the stress that I was like this… that this thing happened. I had a strange backpain that I had never had in my life. Now, from the time I have come to Germany, now anything that puts me under stress, it directly attacks my sciatic vein which is in my waist, in my back. They hurt so much that I think it happened when we came here and I got the stress of the way and I don’t know, life and the hardships here. It had some type of stress there and it has its stresses and hardships here too.

Will you explain the hardships and stresses here?
Hmm, the hardships here, one was that we didn’t know the language at the beginning. We were very troubled. Eh for example, can I share one of my memories? The memory that has bothered me very much and I still have in my mind. I had newly come here, to a place, I knew nothing of its language. It was the first day I had gone to the city center and was coming back home and taking a train. I had taken the wrong train. Then, when I was on the train, I saw that instead of S4, I had taken S5, the train. Then I came out in the next station and it was 9PM in the night. It was winter, in February, the weather was so cold. Then I said “Oh my God! What should I do now?” I didn’t know the names of the places either. You have seen that the name of the places is written in German, like Pavarita Park, I don’t know what it is. The German language was a bit hard for us to learn the first day. Then… whatever I was doing, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know, I had no internet and I told myself what I should do. Whoever I was asking, they would say I should stay here for half an hour or go by foot. Then I thought that it was going to be short so I started walking. Wherever I went was wrong, and whoever I asked either didn’t know or didn’t answer at all. In the streets, when you ask them a question in a place like a residence area, they don’t answer at all. Even if you stand on the street and clap and beg them to stop their car I have a question, no one stops. Then I continued walking and my hands were freezing. For one hour I was cold and my hands were freezing until the end. I was asking this and that and I was going here and there. From a thousand people one or two people would answer and their answer was wrong. Then I reached a boy and told him that I don’t know the address and I don’t know where to go, I don’t know the name of the place. Only the name of a supermarket which was there, popped up in my head and I told him the name of the supermarket and the boy did something so I came home. My hands were freezing as if it had been locked and I couldn’t open this lock, whatever I was doing. Then I warmed my hands for some time and came inside the room and told myself; if someone dies here or for example, whatever happens, no one is there to help. Other times I would call my friends that I am in this room. It would happen that, sometimes, I wouldn’t lock the door of my room. I would come and sleep in my bed and no one would come to ensure if anyone is alive or dead in this room. Then I would give my address to my friends and would tell them if they didn’t see me around for more than three days, come to this room and find me dead in this room. OK, like this. It is such a strange country that no one asks about anyone. It is only you and yourself. If you took care of yourself, then good, if not, no one will do that for you.

Feeling alone and helpless?
Yes, helplessness and loneliness. If you don’t any friends here, you will be very lonely. You are alone and helpless. I think to myself that if I die in this room one day, when will they know that I am dead? No one comes to your door to find out if you are alive or dead. For example, some time ago, someone had died, did you know that?

I don’t know.
It was in a camp around Taam, a boy had killed himself and had died. He was also Iranian. After two to three days, his uncle calls him but he is not responding. His uncle then comes to the camp and after two to three days, he goes to the guard at the camp and tells him that the person in this room is not responding. Then they go and open the door and find out that the room is covered by the corpse’ smell. The room. Yes. It was six or seven months ago.

I didn’t know.
Yes, then they transferred me from here to the place which has a bad condition. I took a pill and told them that I needed to go to hospital so that they might do something for me. I took some 10 to 15 pills and they took me to the hospital. My friend was also with me and she called an emergency and took me to the hospital and they washed whatever there was. They washed my stomach and then they asked me why I did that and I told them that I cannot tolerate the situation there. Then I went there. I was in the hospital for two to three weeks although I got better after two to three days. They had washed my stomach. They had taken me to a section where everyone was insane. All of the people in that section were not normal. I was frustrated. Two weeks passed. Then there is a man and woman who support us. These Marie and José who are in this whatever group. They came there and I talked to them but they said I have to stay here for some time. But I said “if I stay here… am I a prisoner here? If I stay here a little longer, I will go nuts.” I told them to let me go on my own responsibility. So I came out.

Can you explain your mental situation in detail that why did you commit suicide? Explain your mental situation a little more.
Because… I don’t know how to tell you. From which aspect should I tell you about my mental state. My mental state, when I see that I had a good education in Iran and because I have studied in Iran and don’t have my documents. I had a strange feeling of depression that I am supposed to press the start button again? Am I supposed to walk all this road again and all the studies that I had in Iran, was for nothing? I have tried so hard and struggled a lot. Thinking about these issues makes me insane. Thinking about starting again and if I wasn’t able to bring my documents from Iran, to do this thing again, and the thing that I should be forced to work in the areas where I didn’t used to work before and for which I have no experience and I don’t know… things like this and that life is hard, rent is expensive and I don’t know… it takes a lot of time to reach to a normal life. All of these things bother me. Besides, my loneliness. Loneliness and being far from my family, depression because of, as Iranian singers sing that, our body is here but our soul is in Iran, speaking with my friends and stuff like that. That is why, considering my moods, it is not good at all. The interesting point is that, if you want to do something, they have taken my identity card, the town hall has taken my identity card and when I want to give an attorney letter to one of my friends in Iran, if she can make a connection to get my documents from the university or… You can’t go to the embassy. We cannot go to the embassy. Ok, if you want to give an attorney letter, you can do it through the internet ok, but it asks for an identity card. I don’t have my identity card. One of my friends wanted to marry her boyfriend. She had gone to Germany and they had told her that she needs to have a single status letter from Iran. I don’t know whether you need to have your father’s permission, and what else they had told her… it was a long list of things and documents to have like residency and things like that. She had given up on getting married. Now we don’t have a single-status letter and to make that letter, we need to have our identity card and when they ask for our identity, it is with the Germans. I don’t know, whatever we want to do they ask for an identity card and where is our identity card? It is with the Germans. It means we cannot get married, cannot bring our documents here. We can literally do nothing. We are either limited from Iran’s side or from Germany’s side. Germany, well, before that, I was talking about work. We want to go and work but they have given us a negative response. We want to work and give them this refugee ID card but they say that we cannot work with this refugee ID card. I don’t know… if we want to rent a house and they say they will not easily give us a house with this because they will understand that I don’t have a job. And if you want to install Wi-Fi, it is the same story. It means that we are both limited here, they have considered some limitations here for us, and we have some other limitations at the other side of the sea. It means that we are simply dangling in the air. All of these thoughts bother us, in my opinion.

Being alone and dangling in the air.
Yes, we are alone.

Depression. Yes. Being far from our family and friends.

What do you do with the current situation? What do you do to make your day yourself and make yourself feel better?
We go to social media, sit and read others’ posts and regret why we are not in that position. But well, watch movies and keep ourselves busy with watching movies and with some topics on the internet. There is no book either. We don’t know their language and there is no book. With the artificial world and I don’t know… go outside and do some shopping, have a walk and things like that, that is how we spend the day.

Now generally, how is your daily life?
Well, when I go to my class… I attend my class from morning till afternoon. In the afternoon when I come home, I have my lunch because I am hungry and I feed myself. [laughter] Then in the evening, I go to the gym.

Now the gym is…
Now the gym is closed. There is no gym and no class. So what do we do? We lie on our bed and keep ourselves busy with social media that unfortunately there is no Wi-Fi in this room. Then I have to go outside and walk around in this cold weather so I can bring the day into night and come back home. I go to the places where there is at least a Wi-Fi and I can communicate, have a chat, or read something, two videos and films or things like that then I come home. This is our daily activities.

To those who are not in this situation and cannot understand this situation, to the Germans and Europeans, what would you tell them to better understand people like us?
I tell them I hope you were in my shoes. [laughter] It was a hard question. I loved to be in their position rather than them being in my position. Because I really wanted my life to be stable, be something normal and it shouldn’t fluctuate every time, I shouldn’t be shocked all the time, I shouldn’t experience… I should go straight forward in my life. I know that everyone’s life has ups and downs, this is something natural in life. We all have some ups and downs but external causes bother more than internal causes. Some causes are internal. But someone who does not have any role in this ups and downs but the society is imposing them towards her, the government is imposing, the country is imposing, others are imposing them, these things bother us. But if I have a love failure, I would say it was my own fault but when you yourself are not guilty, these things bother you. I guess you understood what I mean. That is why I loved it if the external causes do not create a lot of tension for us, so we can have a better life. I would love it if they didn’t look at us like useless, leech people. Because if we had the same situations as they have and if we were in their position, we didn’t want to stay jobless. I myself have gone to different places for work, but it didn’t happen. But I don’t want to remain jobless, I don’t want to be labeled with these things like a jobless person, a useless person, a person who feeds from government’s aid and I don’t know … things like that. I don’t like these things. I loved to be useful to them. I could at least be useful to them that for example, they wouldn’t call me a parasite. I am also not at ease with my conscience. It hurts me in my conscience that they are paying for our expenses but I cannot do anything. I love to be at least useful and be able to earn for myself and not have another’s grace. Always in my life… I started working when I was eighteen years old. I was eighteen years old when I went somewhere that would pay me beside my studies. For example, I have received a monthly stipend and I haven’t spent from my parent’s pocket. I remember it was the year 85 and they were paying us 20,000 Tomans per month. It was enough to pay our commute and some primary needs. Then I started my work. I started my own job and needed no one’s provision. The way I have grown up but the fact that someone else is paying for my expenses now, either it be an organization or a place is paying for my expenditures, it gives me a feeling of… I feel like a useless person and like a hanger-on, and being worthless. It is bothering me. I want to go to work at least. I am not saying I’m doing great things, but it is at least something that I can earn for my own. To be able to earn my rent, my house expenses and things like and that. This way I can at least decrease the burden that I have put on them and make it lighter for myself. I would love it this way.

What is your dream now?
My dream is that Iran becomes free one day.

Do you mean the dream that you had in Iran too?
Yes. [crying]

Is there anything you would like to share?
No, there is nothing left. I talked a lot. [laughter]

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.