About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Nilofer in a hoodie with her face hidden by her hair


Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:




Zahra Mojahed

“My dream was to come and reach my destination, become a well-known Zumba trainer, have my own gym,” says Nilofar (pseud, 33) a refugee born in Iran. She and her family left her birth country for Europe due to the persecution she says they faced as Afghans in Iran. On her way to Greece she was separated from her family, jailed several times, had to sleep on the streets and lived in a jungle. She felt stress, anxiety and loneliness without her family, and even contemplated suicide. “When I was in Iran, I would always think that I am a brave woman but now I always have a feeling of fear,” she says. “I wake up each morning being hopeful but it fades away… I become very hopeless at night.” Yet Nilofar feels happy after talking to her family and hopes of moving forward keep her going. “Wanting to support my family has made me stay strong and stable.” She is proud of herself for surviving the journey and the pressures faced as a woman. “We can also do things with the same power as men.”

Trigger Warning: Suicide, discrimination

full interview

I explained the project that you can ignore answering any question that you do not like to answer or are not comfortable with, if you cannot understand the question, you can ask me and I can explain it further, whenever you think you need to take a rest you can tell me, and as I said, you can ignore answering any question that you do not want to answer. Can you please introduce yourself? You can use the name that you wish to use.
OK. I am Nilofar and I am 33 years old. Now, it has been around one year since I am in Greece. And it has been around one year that I haven’t seen my family.

Where do you live now and in what type of house are you residing?
At the beginning, when I arrived here, I spent 10 days in the jungle because my sister and I were alone. We were not allowed to be in a tent with others. They wouldn’t even give us shelter. They would tell us to go and live in a big container with other people but we couldn’t do that. There was a family with whom we had come here. We spent 10 days in a jungle with them until they took us to a section. We were living under a tent in the section. There were about 10 women in each tent. We lived there for around five months. It was before Corona until my health deteriorated, I had an asthma attack, I was hospitalized in Mytilini Hospital for five days. After that, they introduced an organization and told us that they are very good in terms of helping single women but there is no guarantee if they accept you because there is limited acceptance for everyone. And they also said that it might be only for Iranians. Then, I was lucky and talked to them and told them about my situation. Then, they informed me after one month and got me under their protection and I was under their support. When the quarantine for Corona started, I was in Mytilini under their support in terms of housing. They would give us a house but in terms of other facilities, since we still had our cards, we would pay for our own expenses.Then,l they gave us IDs. They gave us political ID without our own interference or interview. After that, our cards were terminated and everything was taken from us and we were forced to come to Athens because they wouldn’t do anything for us there. We came to Athens and we were still under that organisation support and protection. They helped us and we are still under their protection. In terms of our studies, we have online classes with them.

Who do you live with?
I live with my sister and other girls. There are many girls in one house.

How do you spend your time? Do you work?
For the work, well, as you know, it is very hard to find a job in Athens. When I was looking for a job, they would mostly suggest that I work in a café because, as they would tell me, I did not know the language and knew nothing about it. That is why it is better to go and work in a café. Then I went to work in a café but they said I need to work from this time until that time which was very long. One night, I went to the café. It was very dark when I returned. There were three boys who had drunk alcohol and came to me and an argument started and some other people came but the police didn’t get involved as they were gone. I was very frightened that night. So, I no longer went to such places for a job. But, I tried to email the different organizations and NGOs here to find a job because I at least know one international language. But, I didn’t receive any reply because of the Covid-19 situation. For my own work, since I am a coach, I didn’t receive any reply because there is Corona and they do not let us go to the gym. I am jobless now and try to keep myself busy with online classes, learning the language.

What makes you a little bit happy or helps you enjoy your life?
Having hope for the future. When I came and started the trip, I was with my family and we got separated between the Iran-Turkey border. My sister and I crossed the border and they remained at the other side. We waited for them to come but it didn’t happen because the weather got very cold and my mother was very sick, so they returned to Iran. But my only hope was to go forward and be able to support my family and bring them here. This was the only motivation that I had, my family and moving forward. That is it.

How has your life been from the time you came to Europe? What difficulties and problems did you have and what has been good about it?
Well, from the time that I remember and when I was born in Iran, I have always had this feeling that the situation might be ideal for me and I might have a good life. But as you know, I didn’t have an ideal condition in Iran because they wouldn’t accept me. I was not accepted there because of being an Afghan. I never had an identity. Neither Afghanistan was a country for me since I was not born there nor Iran. I have always been chasing a good identity to say that I belong here from now on. Also, the situation in Iran was very bad so I came here. I came here with the hope that Europe will make an ideal life for me but I encountered a lot of difficulties along the way, especially in Turkey. I spent two months in Turkey with the people who I didn’t know at all. It was very hard. They would always arrest us and send us back. They would always ask for money and I didn’t have any. We stayed hungry, we had no place, we slept under the rain, we slept in the streets. The police arrested us on the streets once. We have been in jail. They sent us to jail several times when they arrested us. The situation in Turkey was very hard during the two months that I spent there. I couldn’t understand how I was living. My only hope was to reach Greece, thinking that it might be better there. When I reached Greece, I thought since I am a woman and single and alone, they would support me but I found out that no, there is no such a thing. Everything and anything that I had thought of were totally the other way around. I lost all of my hope when I came here because of the stress and anxiety that I had. As I said, I once had a severe asthma attack in Mytilini. I had two asthma attacks here because my mind is always busy worrying about what I should do to reach my destination soon and be able to start my life. But everything is still uncertain.

Can you explain how living here makes you feel?
It is very hard for me to live here without my family because I very much feel lonely. You cannot understand it when you are with them and you think that you will always have them with you. But since the time I came here, I feel lonely most of the time and I feel alone every minute and I hope that we can get together again. It means, coming here only set us apart and I don’t know how long I will live but I always love to feel the good times of being with my family. Here, I always overthink and, how should I say it, I am dying inside thinking about, “Was it worth it?” This is what I always ask myself.

How could you tolerate it? How could you tolerate being far from your family? What helped you to tolerate or pass this situation?
As I said before, I have persevered until now because I was hopeful that I will move forward, will make my life, will study, will earn money and will support my family. Just wanting to support my family has made me stay strong and stable and do not do anything wrong. Because I remember, I had even thought of committing suicide, but well, my family is my only hope.

Have you ever imagined facing such a situation and being able to manage it? Or how did you overcome it? With what in hand and what abilities?
When I was in Iran, since we were one of the middle class families and everyone would work and I also was one who would work, I would think that I am having a lot of difficulties and I am very strong. When I came here and saw everything, it was much harder than that. I was thinking that my life might become easier here but I found out that no, the difficulties have just started here. I am very happy that I have persevered for so long here as a single woman. I am proud of myself and I am also happy for the fact that my parents have raised me up in a way that I have remained strong until now.

Do you think the challenges and hardship that you have encountered until now have made you stronger or increased your abilities?
Yes, a hundred percent. Because, as I said, I wouldn’t think that, as it has been said, when you are happy you cannot think about the hardships and you might say the hardships are only for one or two days. I wouldn’t think we might be able to stay alive under the rain, on the road, with no food and water and be able to tolerate all of these things, even as a woman. I remember we would spend three to four days in the jungles without any food or water. The only hope that we had was that we will cross over, we can, we can. So, I could increase these abilities in me and I am happy and proud of myself for surviving in this bad situation and the pressures that I was under and the mindset that, I don’t know if you have ever experienced it, the people around us see women as weak creatures. But no, I have felt that we can also do things with the same power as men.

How has Covid-19 affected your daily life, your emotions and feelings?
When this disease came, well, it somehow gathered people together at first because they couldn’t be with each other due to their busy lifestyles. But the bad thing about it was that it ruined the economy and the situation got worse. If I wasn’t worried about my family before, I am worried about them after this because the situation in Iran is very bad and its economy is very devastated. Well, this puts me under a great deal of stress thinking about what my family will do now, if they will be able to go to work, whether they have money or are able to pass their daily lives. This disease didn’t have anything for me here except for stress and exhaustion.

Now, I want to ask questions about your past. What happened to you to make you leave your country? Can you explain it?
I remember from the time I was born, I would think that I am an Iranian and I wouldn’t even know what Afghan means and who is an Afghan. I would also make fun of Afghans with other students in our class because I wouldn’t feel that I am an Afghan too and didn’t know what it meant, until one day that I remember when our teacher called upon us saying “The Afghans who haven’t paid their tuition should go out.” That is when I understood that I also belong to that group, a group different from the Iranians. Then, the situation got worse for me there and everyone would point their finger at us telling us “You are Afghan, you are Afghani.” I would tell them that we are also human and we have the same language. But I don’t know, until now, an Afghan is a different person to them. I lived with this feeling of being a stranger for many years there and I never understood why it was like that. I had nowhere to go and they wouldn’t give me any documents, I couldn’t go to university back then. The situation was very hard for me. But with the help of some people, I could go and work with some people but in a more difficult situation. I would work for them for hours and hours, four to five hours but I would receive half of the salary that I had to get. They would take as much money as I could earn because I could do nothing. I neither had any document nor any word to say. That is why I was stuck and I was working for them. It was until I chose a major, I loved dancing from the beginning. I always loved to be a dancer, I always loved to move forward and work in bigger groups. But due to the situation in Iran where they do not let women dance or do anything like that, it was hard. Then, Zumba, which is a dance sport, came to Iran and we worked in that field but in a hidden way. We would name it something else. For example, we would call it advanced Aerobic and when the customers would come, we would then explain it to them and tell what it was. Then, there were some people who were religious and would report us to the police. The police came to us twice and warned me if I continue it, they will fine me. So, I didn’t work for one month. After one month, I went to another gym and started working there. This time, after around five months, the police caught me again and took 500,000 Toman as fine, released me under an undertaking, humiliated me and told me anything that they wanted. They told me that you are not even a human as an Afghan to live here let alone doing such a thing, you have brought corruption here, you are guiding our youth toward immorality and told me whatever they wanted. After that, I didn’t work because I was not allowed to and I was afraid because of my family. It was until my father had a fight because he had a stall and an Iranian took all his money. My father filed a complaint against him but they didn’t give back his money. The situation was very bad both financially and in such conditions. That is why we decided to come here all together. It was a difficult decision. We sold whatever we had. We took the trip and got separated in the middle of the way. They returned with a bad situation with the little amount of money that they had. And we came to the other side.

How does it make you feel when you think about those moments?
Well, on the one hand, I feel that my past was very bad but, on the other hand, I am happy that I started here and took a step for myself. Because when you live in Iran, it is like you are running on a treadmill and do not reach your destination as much as you run. It is like you are only running. You feel like you have to always do what others tell you to do. As a woman, you have to get married, have children and bury all your dreams and wishes. But I am happy that my parents did such a thing for our future and we came. Although we got separated, I am happy that we took a step forward for ourselves.

Can you explain your trip to Europe for us? What happened on the way and what difficulties did you have along the way?
When we started our trip from Iran, I remember they put seven people in one taxi, squeezed 7 to 8 people there. There was someone who couldn’t place himself inside the taxi so they made him sit in the empty area at the back of the car, the trunk, he couldn’t even breathe properly. They told him to lie in the trunk in order to cross the border. We couldn’t breathe properly, couldn’t move ourselves, our feet had become so numb when we got out of the car that I couldn’t feel them. I couldn’t move them. They took us to the villages and put us inside the tents. We stayed there for two weeks because we wanted to cross over but couldn’t do that. It was until they gave us to another group saying that they were a good group, they are Kurds. They took us to a difficult to commute road and a mountain which was very hard to climb. We had to climb that. I had asthma and couldn’t even move. There were smugglers who could help us but we couldn’t trust them for their help because we couldn’t rely on a smuggler as our supporter. No, If they take your hand, they might have other intentions too. Well, it was very hard there. When I figured out that we have gotten separated from our parents, it was very hard for me because they also understood that we were alone. Then, the smugglers may have wanted to come to us pretending to help us, for example, to buy us something and this and that. But well, the good point was that we were with a family who had a daughter and a son. We begged them and asked them to please introduce us as their own daughters wherever we go, we will get separated from you once we reach Greece. We finally reached Turkey and stayed there for two months. We lived in dirty houses the whole time we were there. The first time we arrived there, they took us to a stable. It was a stable and they kept us there for two days and would only give us bread with tomatoes. They told us that we had to stay there until they took us from there. After that we came to Istanbul. We came to Istanbul and our family was finally able to contact us. I talked to them and they sent us money. They gave the smuggler as much money as they could so that they could take us to the other side. But the police would always catch us and put us in jail. We would sleep on the streets and alleys. The situation in Turkey was very bad. I always had the dream to visit Turkey one day but after that incident, I even hate it when I hear its name, especially Zeytinburnu District where I remember we stayed for a long time. They arrested us twice when we were on the sea and although we were all wet. I had health issues but the Turkish police wouldn’t pay any attention to my health. They wouldn’t care. My dress got dried on my body until night because we came and went and came and went many times. It was until we were on the sea and were very hopeful that we might be able to go to the other side when suddenly a ship came and tore our boat’s hose and left us all alone in the water. We were on the water for around one hour and I got seasick and my condition got worse. Then someone called a person in Greece, Greece’s coast guard. They came for us and took us. That is when I fainted and don’t remember anything about how I entered Greece. I only remember when I opened my eyes I was inside a container home where there were doctors. I was there. Also, something happened to me when we were in the jungle. My face got bruised because I had crashed with a stone and had fallen over it with my face while I was running. My face was totally bruised and when we arrived in Greece, they were very worried about me and what had happened to me. I didn’t tell them anything. I just told them that I had fallen on the ground. They took me to a hospital. I spent one to two days there, in the hospital, until I was discharged and they took me to the Moria Camp. I remember when I arrived in Moria, everyone would tell me “Welcome to hell.” I was happy just because of reaching there but I never thought it would be truly hell. It was hell because I had never thought of living with a lot of different people, a lot of fights, a lot of arguments and all those things. The women in the section would always fight with each other, attack each other with knives, they would beat each other, there were sticks, stones, and would attack each other with whatever they had in hand. I still have the videos showing how they would beat each other. I would never come out of our container home. It was until I got an ID, I am happy that I have an ID but they took all of the facilities from me. They gave me an ID. I don’t know what to do at that time.

How do you feel when you think of the way?
The pathway that I want to take from now on?

No, the route that you came through, its difficulties.
Well, most of the time, when I think about it, I am about to cry because I still cannot digest some of the things that happened to me. It is very hard for me and I cannot forgive myself. I ask myself if it was worth it, coming all through these routes and experiencing all these things that happened to me and how I am supposed to digest them later. But on the other hand, I am saying, my family is my only hope and to be able to do something for them is something that’s worth it.

When do you mostly think about the things that happened to you along the way? Do you mostly think about them, or for example, what makes you think about those moments?
These issues always come to me during nights. I remember when I arrived in Turkey, I mean Greece, I was not able to sleep during the nights for about two months. I could not sleep at all because I would wake up to nightmares, would dream that I am falling into an abyss, the bad feelings that I had at the jungle, the fears and horrors that I had would always wake me up. I could not sleep for the first two months. I went to a doctor; I would visit the doctor most often there. They gave me medication. I talked to the psychologist. I received treatment until I got a little better. I still think about them at night, I cannot sleep, I am most of the time awake until 3 o’clock at night because I cannot sleep well.

How do you feel when you remember those moments at night or when you want to sleep?
I am saying, now, I have changed in a way that… When I was in Iran, I would always think that I am a brave woman but now I always have a feeling of fear. When a man wants to cross by me fast, I feel like he wants to harm me. I become horrified when a shadow crosses. I have become more timid now than the time I would think of myself to be brave because I always have a feeling of fear thinking someone might attack me now and catch me.

How has the situation you have faced affected your life?
Well, I am saying, it made me very weak, on the one hand, because I had never been hospitalized before but it is the third time I am getting hospitalized. I have gotten weak physically, I have gotten weak mentally. In terms of my hope, I wake up each morning being hopeful but it fades away in the middle of the day and I become very hopeless at night. I sleep with hopelessness but again I… As I said, I call my family and once I talk to them I become happy, happy that they are healthy. It didn’t have any good impact on me because I am seeing the bad effects they have had on my body, on my mind and in every second of my life. But, my only hope is to go there and make a life for myself.

Have you ever imagined being in such a situation and being able to manage it?
I remember all those who had come to this side would tell me “Nilofar, do not come, do not come illegally, you should never do it, it is not good.” I would say to myself, “Oh no, they have reached there themselves and have the ideal life that they wished for and they are jealous now and do not want us to be there.” But once I arrived here, I finally understood them. I truly never thought of being in such a situation.

How could you cope with it? What strategy did you adopt and what technique did you use to cope with your bitter memories?
By keeping myself busy. I think I was able to get rid of these memories because I have always kept myself busy with something. For example, when I was in Moria, I myself would go and help people, I would work with other organizations although my language was not very good. I didn’t know the English language when I was in Iran but when I went to other organizations and worked with them, I became a bit fluent in speaking. I kept myself busy. I would leave early in the morning and would work until 9 PM, as I remember. Just to make my mind tired and just sleep when I come back. The only thing that had helped me there was working and here as well, I am in search of working. I am keeping myself busy with the classes now.

Have you found anywhere to help you in terms of your mental health?
Well, yes, because the psychologists that I had were good. In Mytilini when I talked to them, the help that Europeans gave me at the NGOs, I would always thank them. Although they couldn’t talk to me, they would treat me in a way that I could feel their love. They would always tell me that I am strong, would tell me that I am strong because of being able to come here, they would always tell me that I am strong. I became very happy when they told me those words and it raised my morale.

What was your hope for your future before you decided to leave your home and start this trip? The time when you had not made this decision to come here. Start with “My dream was …”.
My dream was to come and reach my destination, become a well-known Zumba trainer, have my own gym, have my own students and trainees, create my own clips, design my own dances, being able to launch a charity and help all of those people who are in need, support my family, buy a house for my family since they don’t have this feeling that they own a house for themselves, buy a store for my father, buy a store for my sister as well, help my brother and, since my brother is a tailor, buy a workshop for him. These have been all my dreams and wishes until now.

What was your dream during the time you had started your journey and were on your way here?
Along the way, although it was very hard for me, my sweet dream was to reach my destination. I know that Europe is not something that you might think of when you reach here. But the only thing was that I was feeling that I might be able to find my true identity here at the least.

Can you explain what strengths you had before you decided to leave your home?
My strength was that I paid for things out of my own pocket as a woman, I was financially independent, I was independent. I never asked my father for money for my own expenses. I was actually happy to financially support my father during the times when he would face any problem.

Have you still kept those strengths?
Yes, I am actually still having that hope because my father has become old and the situation is also very hard. I remember when I was in Moria, the government would give me money and I wouldn’t spend it just because I wanted to give some of it to my family. I would be very happy even if I would send them 50 Euros. But well, the situation was in a way that I couldn’t support them till the end. And all my hope is to reach my destination and help them from there.

All of the things that you said are truly hard and I know it because I have been through it myself. Do you think the difficulties that you have encountered and the challenges that you have faced made you grow and have created a positive point in you?
Look, age is not important to me at all when they say you are 33 years old but I am still a girl. I haven’t gotten married yet and I don’t know how it feels to have a husband, to manage a house, and to have and take care of a baby or I have not been able to understand my mother’s feelings. But, I have grown up as a woman. As a woman, I have understood that I am able to take bigger steps. I am able to take a big step for my own life and I am even able to change many things in the world.

What dreams and wishes do you have now for your future? Start with the sentence “My dream is …”.
My dream is to… Now that I am here, the only support that I have received from the government is that they have given me an ID. My dream is to get my ID, get my passport, and reach my final destination which is Germany, go there and immediately start my studies, learn the language, go to university and start my work.

Thank you very much for answering my questions. In the end, if you have anything to add to help people in Europe to better understand the situation of the immigrants, you can say it.
First of all, thank you for the interview you had with me. After that, I want them not to think that we have come here just to have fun and entertainment, to say it. Everyone thinks that we have come here for fun and entertainment. No, there might be people who come here with that mindset but most of the people come here for the hope to have a better life. They come here because of the difficult situation, because of the forces, because of all the racisms, because their genders were ignored, they come here because of such issues. They come here just because they want to improve, to meet their wishes and to reach their goals. In the countries where we have lived, they wouldn’t value us, we couldn’t make any improvement and could not reach the things that we wanted. I am saying, we have come here to reach our goals, to meet our wishes and we need their help because we really feel lonely here, very lonely. If they are not there to help us, it is like falling into an abyss from a high mountain.

Thank you very much.
You’re 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.