About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Mamadou with his arms crossed and his glasses perched on top of his head

Mamadou Safaei

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Photo and interview by:




Mahdiyh Haidari

“My dream was always to have a world without borders,” says Mamadou Safaei (pseud, 36), an Iranian asylum seeker living in Greece. Persecuted for criticizing the Iranian government on social media and sentenced to death for atheism, he decided to flee, “leaving behind my life where were my work, family, daughter, friends, and pet, and I couldn’t even say goodbye to my parents.” Mamadou’s journey to Greece entailed spending freezing nights in the mountains, being arrested and returned, and weathering starvation and storms at sea in an abandoned fishing boat. He attributes his strength to being “the kind of person who adapted himself to any situation,” but adds that his “mind has not fully recovered.” Now, he says, “my passion has increased so that I can be a better and more useful person in this life.” In particular, he wishes “to be rich enough and have the power to be able to help children live better and happier, especially the children of my country, Iran, and the Middle East.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Could you introduce yourself? 
I am Mohammad Safaei known as Mamdou in recent years. Uhh… I was born in Iran. And uhh…

How old are you?
Uh… I am thirty-six years old.

In what kind of house do you live? 
A house in the city.

Could you explain your housing conditions, like what type of house is it?
Well, my house is a good house comparatively for a refugee. Uhhh…It’s a house that .. uh..  it has a bedroom… it’s a large house; it has a bedroom and a bathroom.

Okay. Who do you live with?

How do you spend your time? Do you have a job?
Yes, I work here. Uhh… 90 per cent of the time I am at home because my work is at home. I usually work out, learn the language and answer my phone calls from morning to noon, and I work from noon onwards to 10:00 pm. 

What makes you happy?
The happiness of other people. 

Only this?
Uhh… yes, because I consider the individual interests in public interests. I feel good and happy when the people around me are well and happy. If they are happy and healthy, I will be also the same as them. 

Since you came to Europe, how was your life? Was it comfortable or tough/ uncomfortable?
Uhh… it was so difficult. The important point is that I feel secure here. I was not secure in Iran. I felt insecure in Turkey as well but not like in Iran. I didn’t feel good in Turkey. But since I’ve arrived in Europe, I have reached a minimum sense of security. The life of a refugee is tough. I had extremely difficult days on this island. I didn’t stay in this Moria camp, on this island. Uhhh… I can say we, Ali and I, slept for about 27 or 28 days on the beach near a park until we found a house. Approximately, after one or two months of my stay on the island, I found a job you could say uh.. on social media. My job is online. I work with my laptop. After I got a job, my living conditions became better. However, immigration has its own challenges and difficulties like being far from my offspring, family and friends.

Could you tell me how you feel living here?
My life here… The most important feeling that here gives me, as a deportee, is the feeling of security and freedom. My life here… The main reason I escaped from Iran was to reach safety and security. Now I am secure here as well as I have freedom, the two important things I didn’t have in Iran.  

Could you tell me about the effects of being far you’re your family? 
Uhh… the most difficult part of immigration from the emotional dimension is my separation from my daughter. Hmm… my daughter is nine years old. This separation is difficult for both of us. It is emotional damage because we were dependent on each other and had nice times together. This separation harms both of us. Then I feel homesick for my family. Almost I can say immigration gave me depression. Being far from friends harms me even though I have made good friends here. Their troubles isolated me. And loneliness is what I got for being far from my family.

Did you ever imagine that you could handle these situations? How have you defeated it and continued?
To be honest, yes, I have. The day I decided to escape from Iran, given the situation I was in I had to leave within a very short period, leaving behind my life where were my work, family, daughter, friends, and pet, and I couldn’t even say goodbye to my parents. They only found out that I left them after I had arrived to Turkey. When I decided, I knew it was the only way and I knew I could handle it. I preferred to accept all the challenges. I struggled and fought for this cause. And I didn’t want to be arrested by the Republic Government of Iran and be sent to jail or even be sentenced to death.

Uh-hm… do you think you have learned the skills to deal with problems or you have had it? 
A part of this ability was inherited and another part was gained when I was a child. The tough days that I had when I was a child made me learn these because I grew up well, and had great parents and a great family. They bred me well. Now I have these abilities and I can handle my life well here. However, some of the skills were gained through the process. 

What are the impacts of COVID-19 on your feelings and emotions?
Uhh… no effect. In the last year, it didn’t have any impact on my life and the way I live because my life is what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was at home and now I am at home. Though it impacted something. For example, I wanted to bring my dog home, but I couldn’t do it due to COVID-19 pandemic. There were some restrictions and some work were delayed. The most harmful impact was that it made life for my family harder and harder in Iran. It was the worst negative effect of COVID-19 on me.

Why did you leave your country? Could you explain what happened?
I started my atheist activities in 2013. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God. On Facebook, we opposed religion, ignorance and superstition. I started my atheist activities. After some years, a revolution happened in my life and it changed me a lot. When my theory, ideology and worldview towards life changed, I didn’t accept the act of the government. In the government’s view, I was a person who didn’t practice a religion, especially Islam, and didn’t believe in God and I was sentenced to death. I didn’t have freedom of speech, choice and ideology. All of these caused me to start my activities against the Islamic Republic and its regime. My family was also interested in politics like my grandfather and father. And all of these made me anti-government. Before the 1396 election in Iran, I raised my activities to encourage people not to go to the election centre and don’t vote.  We launched a campaign, along with my friends, against the election name Emtina, which means refusal. I participated with them through my social accounts with my real name and photo on public pages. I posted a lot especially with the hashtag #Emtina, especially on Instagram. I had a lot of activities. After the 1396 [CE20017] election, I was arrested. It was the first time I was arrested. Uh… hm… after that I could get out of prison and it was a temporary release. After one year, I had also some activities and again the Intelligence Office called me up. With the consultation I had with my attorney, siblings and two of my friends, they said that this time if I go there, you will not be able to come out and I had to get out of Iran as soon as possible. I should not be arrested because it was the second time. And this caused me to escape from Iran and come here.

How did you feel at that time? 
My sister and I had tough lives. She lived with me for the last two months and she had a lot of stress. As well as my wife and my daughter had hard days in Iran with me. I decided to leave Iran in a concise time. All my relatives who knew about my decision of leaving Iran had tough times as well. Leaving all your achievements and properties with just a backpack is really difficult. I struggled a lot for a work that was like my son and uh… I worked very hard at it. I was forced to leave it. I had to leave my daughter, dog, sister, family, friends and everything. All of these things affected me and caused me in having super hard days.

How was your trip to Europe?
I couldn’t get it. Could you tell me once again?

Your trip to Europe? How was it? Was there any difficult experience that you want to talk about? 
Yes. I had a very strange trip to Europe. Also, my trip from Iran to Turkey was super hard. I was forced to sleep in a mountain and I was about to die from the severity of the coldness. The time in turkey was also hard. For about ten hours, half of the people of the city were on my track to find me and return me to the dormitory from where I escaped. The dormitory was for the smuggling of humans. I had a tough 24-day stay in Van city in Turkey. On the first of August, Ali and I decided to travel to Europe. And when I was in Turkey, the smuggler got my money by fraud and I felt paranoid. I wasn’t able to believe anyone. Ali, my friend, and I decided to come to Europe without any smugglers. On the first of August, we started to walk from Istanbul to Greece. For about 7 to 8 days we were on the way and we chose impassable ways not to face the Turkish police or people because the people in border cities of Turkey inform the police when they see strangers. They knew we were strangers. I could say we walked the way for about seven to eight days. We had a lot of difficult days on the way. We neither had a good place to stay nor food to eat. We had intense stress because we had to hide from others.  A lot of things happened that I cannot talk about all of them in a short time. I am creating the movie of my life. In the movie, I write about all the details. After seven or eight days, we arrived near the Ipsala river, a border between Turkey and Greece. We passed the Ipsala river on the ninth day. If my guess is right, it was the ninth day that we were in Purse city in Greece. The city police arrested us and delivered us to the border police. Ali and I had two phones and two power banks, some money and backpacks. The border police took all of them from us and all the refugees. We didn’t have anything. They sent us to Turkey without anything because they did it to prevent entering the refugees into Greece again. After two or three hours, they put all the refugees that are about 150 in a truck which is used for locating criminals. They brought all the refugees to the Ipsala river, put us on the boats and sent us back to Turkey. Because they took all the phones and money from the refugees, the refugees are forced to hand themselves over to the Turkish police. And the Turkish police got them to Istanbul but again they find money and go to Greece. Because we walked for ten days, it caused all my fingers to blister. My feet were swollen and I got to Greece with about 17 or 18 pills. It caused us to decide not to surrender to the Turkish police, pass the night and tomorrow sleep till noon in a place where is sunny. 

When the sun rises and the weather is warm, we had to swim in the river and go to Greece. We passed the night. In the morning while we were looking for a place to sleep, we found two boats which were for fishing. One was a motorboat and the other was a rowboat. It was clear that they were not used for a long time. They were very dusty and full of leaves. We decided to choose the motorboat. Through the Ipsala river, we tried to go to Greece. We got on one of the boats which was a fishing boat and it was convenient and had good facilities. It had two creels [wicker basket for fishing], gloves, a cutter, a balance, buckets and a rope. There were two waterproof clothes and Ali and I wore them, put on the hats and covered our faces. Ali was riding the boat very slowly like 10 km/h and I had a creel in my hands. We wanted to show that we were ready for fishing because it was early in the morning and most of fishing takes place in the early morning. The reason we moved like this was that there were some watchtowers and we did not want them to suspect us. We used this trick. We tried three times to go to Greece through the Uppsala river. We failed three times. Two times we faced the fences and one time we got to a place where it had a way to the cities of Greece because of this we decided to go to the Aegean sea. We wanted to be on the right track until the gasoline finished and we got to go to Greece. As we entered the Aegean sea, the water surface went down and the trunk of trees came out of the water. We wanted to turn around these trunks, but the boat’s motor got stuck in the mud at the bottom of a lake. With a lot of effort, I unstuck the motor of the boat. I wanted Ali to go to the centre of the sea where it had deep water and then circle the sea to reach the beach. As we arrived at the deep water, the boat ran out of gasoline. Based on Greek police sayings those four nights and five days were the stormiest days of the month when we were lost in the sea. When we ran out of gasoline, we could see the beach and the land but were not able to reach it. We were far from the land and we shouted a lot, but no one came to help us because the sea was stormy. After some hours, I fainted because of the storm and water that caused me to faint. For two days, I was comatose. Then we tried to take the water out of the boat. We were seasick and vomited because of the water we swallowed. This vomiting discharged our energy, and also we had ten stressful days that were super tough without water, sleep and food. As well as we were lost in the river for (inaudible) and days without food and water. In a nutshell, after two days, I got well. However, after four days, Ali, my friend, fainted. His heart and pulse worked, but his body doesn’t work. I was very terrified because Ali was stronger than me and he fainted. I guessed that after one day we would die. On the fourth night when Ali wasn’t awake, the storm was over and the sea was calm like a pool. The previous night the storm was so harsh. The waves took the boat in the air 10 to 15 meters and hit it on the surface of the water. We assumed the boat was destroyed. Fortunately, the boat was very sturdy. We drank a lot of water from the sea. 

On the fourth day when the sea was calm, it gave me a chance to think. In the last four nights, the sea didn’t give us a chance to think. I shocked myself and said to myself that my passion for life was a lot. I advised myself and said to myself if I could survive for one hour, there is a chance that we could be rescued. I accepted that the boat was my home and the sea was the yard and I had to strive to survive. The night was over and in the morning, I had a chance to think again. Uhh… I apologize, the boat was also our toilet and it was very dirty. I wore gloves and washed the boat and our clothes. Then I dried the clothes. Because of not drinking water, we badly wanted water. It was August when the weather is so hot. The days were so hot because of the sunshine and the night was cold due to the storms. Ahh… calm water caused the sea to look so beautiful, so it got me swimming in the water. Sometimes we were close to the beaches and saw the people who were swimming, we shouted and whistled a lot, but they could not see us. There was a rope. Ali tightened the rope to himself and wanted to push the boat, but he couldn’t. For the second time, he wanted to push it, but again he wasn’t able to do so. I saw 4 to 5 sharks in our 100 to 150 meters and told Ali to give pushing the boat. I wasn’t sure whether they were sharks or not, but I was terrified. I guessed there was a chance that the sea had sharks. Because I was passionate to swim, I tightened the rope to the boat and me and entered the water. I had the boat with my left hand and went under the water for about 2 to 3 seconds. Then I quickly came back to the boat. When I did that, I became so fresh and felt like I was revived. At that time, I figured that if I knew how to use water, maybe I could survive. I cut and filled a barrel with water and using a piece of cloth, I wet it with water and pour the water on my body. With the help of the sun in the sky, we knew what time it was. It was 10 or 11 in the morning. Suddenly, I saw two white yachts coming. They looked like dots. I had an orange shirt. I took it and shook and shouted for help. They didn’t see us or they didn’t want to help us. They passed. 

I can say the sun was in the middle of the sky, I think it was between 12 and 2 in the afternoon. While I was doing this, we ran out of water in the barrel. I was trying to put the dish in the water. When I raised my head, I saw that one of them is 150 or 200 meters away from us. I was happy that one of them came back, I told Ali to get up, we survived and Ali woke up. They came to us but not too close. They were circling around by their giant boat. They asked us “who are you?”. Ali was good at English and told them that we were lost some days ago at sea. And they said, “what can we do for you?”. We said that call the police. They called the police and the marine police came within an hour or an hour and a half. The man who rescued us was Ryan, he was British. He was with a woman, they seemed like they were either a couple or friends. And they were old around  40, 50 or 60. He was a tall, strong and old man and he sent us some water, two 1.5 litre water bottles. The moment that we drank the water, something weird happen to our body. Since our body and skin had gotten really dry when we drank the water it wanted to expand our body and skin it felt like we were being shot from the inside. The police came and rescued us. And his boat’s name was Down Surprise and it was so interesting for me. I wish that I could meet him again. I was friends with one of the policies that brought us to the Lesbos Island. The police in here took us to Lemnos Island because it was close. And we stayed there for 48 hours. They took us directly to the hospital where we were under special care and they treated us very well, unlike the Greek border police. The sea police and the hospital employees were very nice to us. They checked and recovered us. Then the police investigated us. After two days, they sent us via a big cruise ship to this island. We have been living here since 17th of August. Two policemen accompanied us and I got to know one of them. I got his Facebook account. I wanted to find Ryan, the English navigator who helped me, through his account, but I couldn’t succeed. I am hoping to find Ryan and thank him. They are the incidents that happened to me.

How did you feel at that time?
(Sigh). When Ali fainted when we were in the middle of the sea, I couldn’t say I lost hope. I knew we could survive. Sometimes we made jokes like I asked Ali what you wanted then? Ali replied soup. I said to him when I arrive, I will cook it for you. He asked me and I said I wanted a cold beer. We wanted to keep our chins up, but the energy was dried out. We walked for ten days with the least amount of sleep, a lot of stress and the worst kind of food. After that without preparation, we lost our way into the sea. I didn’t feel hopeless, but after these challenges, I felt hopeless, especially when I saw Ali without energy. I talked about it. Suddenly, I introspected and said to myself that this boat is my home and the sea is my homeland. I had to survive. The feeling that I had at that time is hard to describe. We accepted death and said goodbye to our family, daughter, friends and dog. I cried a lot when we were on the boat and the sea was calm and we survived. In fact, I was a person who didn’t cry a lot. After this incident, I was born again that became another person.

Do you still think about these incidents? When do you usually think? 
Yes, I do. I can say those events are with me every day. Now my mind has not fully recovered. When we were on the boat, our bodies were weakened because we vomited a lot on empty stomachs. All of these would make us not sleep, we would just faint, especially me. I would faint and fall, but suddenly a large, heavy and cold volume of water hit my unconscious body and it shocked me. Till now I cannot sleep soundly. When I came here first, I could not sleep well because my body shakes in sleep, but after we got a house and my nutrition improved, my condition gradually improved. Now it can almost be said I dream of it two or three times a month. If my mental state is good, I dream less, if not, I dream more. If I am a little nervous, distrusted and upset, I am usually restless at night. I have nightmares about those incidents and my body shakes in my sleep. I have not forgotten this yet, but I am trying to forget it. Every day and night those incidents come to my mind and I always talk about them and will talk about them.

How do you feel when you think about these events? About what? About your past. The tough way that you passed. When you think about them, how do you feel?
I was born again. I feel more powerful. My love for life increased and my outlook on life changed. I appreciate what I have even little things more than ever. I appreciate my family, friends and the environment where I live more than ever. A new chance has given to me life. I got a chance to live again, I feel really strong. I am a much stronger person than before. 

Could you tell me if the situation you faced today affects you? If yes, how?
Did the situation I faced today affects me? Yes, hundred per cent it affects. I think in the previous question, I answered. The effects it has on me make me feel stronger. My passion has increased so that I can be a better and more useful person in this life and the world, more than before. 

Have you ever thought you can handle this situation?
I answered the previous questions. In fact, I was the kind of person who adapted himself to any situation. wherever I was, I tried to present my best self. Yes, I have. I have always thought I have these qualities and wherever I go, I can be useful. 

How did you overcome this situation and come out of this difficult time? From where did you get your support power or you have already had it? 
Power of support! I have already told you that I don’t believe in God. I am an atheist. There is no numinous power. I got all the power from myself, my thoughts and my mind. I have my power from my mind. 

Before these incidents and your escape from home, what were your hopes and dreams?
I have a lot of dreams and they are very important. No, in the past. My dream was always to have a world without borders. I had a Facebook ID called the borderless world. I used to do my Facebook activities on that page in 2013, 2014 and 2015, I stopped working with that account after that. I used to think about a borderless world right from 2012 2013.  My main dream is maybe an unattainable dream. Another dream I have is that the war in the Middle East ends. And become like Europe. Europe is almost borderless. I would like the Middle East to become second Europe. That The Middle East has peace. This is my general wish. My current wish is freedom for my country, Iran, as I had this dream for which I was arrested and these incidents happened to me. These two hopes were always with me. My third wish is to be rich enough and have the power to be able to help children live better and happier, especially the children of my country, Iran, and the Middle East. These three dreams are the biggest dreams of a world without borders, the Middle East without borders and the freedom for Iran and my offer for children to have better lives. They were my dreams in Iran.

Now, what are your dreams and hopes? 
In fact, no difference. The hopes I had in Iran were the same as I have now. I want to try and I am trying for my hopes. I am trying to implement those theories. If I add one more wish to these is to see my family and my daughter.

Thank you a lot.
You are welcome.

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.