About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Shabnam with her hands clasped and looking down wearing a blue blazer standing against a yellow wall

Shabnam Azar

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:

United Kingdom



Sarah Tehranian

“Since I was 17 years old, my dream was to be a very good poet,” says Iranian refugee Shabnam Azar (pseud, 43). As an outspoken journalist during the 2008 protests in Iran, she faced threats and surveillance by Iranian authorities. This prompted Shabnam and her partner to flee to India, before going to Turkey, where they applied for asylum and were granted entry into Germany. In Europe, Shabnam struggled with Europeans’ perception of her as a Middle Eastern victim. “They really wanted to put me in an aquarium and view me as a Middle Eastern being found by the Germans, and tell my sorrowful story to the people of the first world,” she explains. Throughout all her tribulations, however, Shabnam has found solace in writing: “I have a very strong force inside me, and that is writing, and writing as a poet has always saved me.” Today, she works as a journalist in an Iranian TV production in London. Her dream for the world, she says, “is to reach a balance and follow the behavior of nature.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Yes, I am Shabnam Azar. I emigrated after the protest which was known for the Jonbish-e-Sabz (Green Revolution) in 2009 in Iran. 

Where and with whom do you live now and what is your job?
I live in London with my partner. We emigrated from Iran together. I work as a journalist in an Iranian TV production. 

How is life in Europe? Is it harder than the past or not?
Life in Europe like other countries has its own challenges. I cannot say whether it is hard or easy because I cannot describe them using words like easy or difficult. Everything is relative. Comparing to the situations in Iran, in some ways it is harder and in others it is easier. 

How does living in Europe make you feel compared to India where you lived before or Iran? Do you consider yourself a European? 
We live in a world that is in constant transition. We are crossing everything and it has nothing to do with geographical boundaries and we are always crossing even ourselves. This is a global product that we are experiencing in this century. Therefore, in this century we don’t even have time to think about our personal experiences. What happens to us controls us in a way that we cannot think about ourselves. What do I mean? I mean we live in a controlled world where even my immigration is not a choice. I did not choose to emigrate. The system in Iran may have imposed immigration on me, and a global society may have imposed a large part of immigration on me. The world community needs a number of victims, and immigrants are part of these victims. It means that the world community needs to have sacrifices to tell the western society that we are a happy world, to see how many displaced people are here. And this is one dimension. I don’t want to be negative about this issue. I’m looking at the controlled perspective of the world. When I applied for asylum from the United Nations in Turkey. They called me from Germany. One of the things I thought about was that I never wanted to live in Germany due to a single important reason. Because in the war between Iran and Iraq, Germany was the country that sold chemical bombs to Iraq, and in many Kurdish parts of Iran, these chemical weapons were used. Therefore, when I went to Germany, even stepping on German soil bothered me. And this feeling was still with me in Germany. Since I knew the history of that country in many fields, and we all know it, and it is not necessary to return to those events, like the World War. There were a lot of plaques in Germany that were on the ground, and that used to bother me. And there was a plaque commemorating a Jew who had been killed. And yet again, I learned things there and admired them including the effort of a nation to become a better nation and recognize their own weaknesses. But on the other hand, as an immigrant and a journalist, I migrated because of my profession because I was a wanted person. We went through a very difficult period and it is a very detailed story and I had to run away. I had a very difficult life when I was in India and the same in Turkey. When I reached Germany, they really wanted to put me in an aquarium and view me as a Middle Eastern being found by the Germans, and tell my sorrowful story to the people of the first world. And this was something I did not want and did not do.

How did this look make you feel?
I found out about this game very early and the only place I went and talked willingly was an organization called Journalist Helfen Journalist. In German, it means journalists helping other journalists. Its founder was a woman whose husband was killed in the Bosnian war and both were journalists. They were such sweet people who supported others in any difficult situation. Because, I understood the originality and nature of that group and I had accepted their help in the letters of support they sent me when I was in Turkey. I willingly went to them and talked about the conditions of a journalist in Iran. But the ‘look’ of the people of the first world on the third world was part of the things that bothered me. So, when you ask me how do you feel living here as a journalist? For example, I cannot ignore the role of Britain in the country. I cannot ignore everything that has happened in Iran’s contemporary history and the hands of the entire country that were involved and say that I have a good feeling. 

I understand this. To be clear, the first time you entered a European country was Germany and then England. If you want to talk about your experience with people who are in Germany and England, what is it? What is your relationship with German and British citizens? Tell me about your experience, both good and bad as a female Iranian Journalist. 
I think it depends on where people put themselves. Fortunately, although we live in a very controlled and corrupted world, we still have choices. Since I arrived in Germany, my choice was to immediately save myself from the system that Germany would impose on the immigrants and the only way to save myself was to enter the German academic environment. Therefore, I entered a very special university that had a great opportunity called ‘Kunst Hochshule’, which was a German media art school. And I studied there for five years. And now I have to deliver the thesis by the middle of December. And it was very difficult to pass because 50 people from all over the world were accepted each time and I successfully entered the university by my third try. I encountered a kind of perspective that I don’t think anyone had the chance to come across it. It was a very inquisitive, critical and deconstructive way of perspective that prevailed in this university, which did not exist in any other university in Germany. I had professors, many of whom were the founders of art movements. For example, the first American video artist who founded the video art movement was one of our university professors. There were many people who helped me, and if I was in Iran, I would not have had this chance. Although migration can make a person very weak and have a severe identity crisis, it gives people choices that can shape new structures in your life and be successful. It gives a person a chance to find different angles of view, which means it makes a person better.

I wrote a little note. The things you said were very interesting experiences that you had in university and with special people. I would like to know what the good and bad experiences you had in Germany and England gave you? Do you have new features compared to the past?
It is a very good question. It is a continuation of what I mentioned before, I lived in a country where I had a low ceiling to be able to jump and progress and here this ceiling was non-existent from a personal point of view, but it did exist from a social point of view. What does it mean? That is, my experience of encountering people who were very different, that is, it was the same in Germany, that is, it was a different place that was not Germany. I should have been able to find myself in that situation. This actually helped me to know other Shabnams (meant herself) and evaluate other Shabnams and remove those Shabnams that weaken me and strengthen the Shabnams that help me to be more useful and efficient.

If you want to say in a short sentence or in a few words, what new feature did you find? Can it be shortened at all?
… I have to think and answer you.

Let’s leave it at that, talk about the past and don’t say anything you don’t want, I won’t ask you about those events a lot. Why did you decide to leave Iran and come here? What happened? And what feelings did you have? Talk about your experience.
I was working as a journalist at the height of the 2008 elections in Iran. I was under surveillance because I was very critical of the government and I was from a family that was under surveillance since the beginning of the revolution and we had many restrictions. For these reasons, I emigrated from Iran. Because I was very active in the protests in 2008 and cooperated with student movements at the same time, and that was the time when I was in a very difficult situation and was threatened. They came to my house to arrest me and within 1-2 weeks we left everything and went to India because we had traveled there several times before. We just wanted to leave Iran temporarily and return because the conditions were such that we could succeed. I never imagined living in Europe. The big shock for me was not immigration and leaving my country was a bigger shock for me.

It must have been a difficult decision?
It was not a decision that we would leave Iran forever and we left temporarily. But when we had to come, it was an unbelievable imagination. We had to find a way to live in another country. In India, it was not possible at all because of the financial, work and visa conditions, so after 11 months we went to Turkey and there we applied for asylum to the United Nations.

Tell me about your trip to Europe, how did you come from Turkey to Europe?
We were in Turkey for 7 months. In the process of applying for asylum, everything was clear and clear to me, and everything that could happen to me was from my journalist card and the newspapers that had my name in them, and from many associations from all over the world that wrote to the United Nations. They were because of my support. Various journalism associations from all over the world and literary associations from all over the world. At that time, our work was done very quickly and after 3 months, we received a positive answer from the United Nations that we would be prioritized to come from Turkey to Europe, which took 7 months to complete the administrative process.

This is very interesting to me because I had the same situation. A letter was sent to me from other organizations and it was a special feeling for me, and what did you feel then? When you apply for asylum and you are supported on the other hand, your situation is unstable. Tell me about the feeling of that time.
At that time, I remember that someone from the pen writer’s association wrote to me and said that you can act as a poet because I had written several books. I could enter Europe not as a refugee but as a poet and through a literature course. And then I remembered one of my imprisoned poets who was also a journalist and I told that person to give this opportunity to that person. Since he was imprisoned, if he hears about this opportunity, he will find some hope. At that time, those letters of support were very valuable to me, and I thought that the people who have left Iran for many years, still haven’t forgotten that in a critical situation, things need to be done and not just talked about. I had a very good feeling for these people. I felt that I should do the same for others in the future that request help from me. 

The time when you were waiting for an answer is a very challenging time and it’s something that you will remember for the rest of your life because you suffered a lot of stress. How does it make you feel to think about it? Some people get angry and some feel empowered. What is it for you?
It was really a nightmare and a stressful time. It was very strange. 

Can you say the sentence from the beginning completely?
When I was with my partner in Turkey, it was a very nightmarish time. I even had reactions that I didn’t expect, such as aggression, weakness and feeling hopeless. I felt and saw these in those 7 months. This was very strange to me. Now, when I go back to that period, the best parts of those times are when I was supported by others, for example, I remember that a foundation sent me a sum of money and I gave the same money to someone who has worse financial conditions than me. Or there was a time when someone would call me that someone had escaped from Iran, and we had room in the house, and we would give him a room so that he could live there for 2 months. Or those who did not know their way would come, we would help them to find their way. These were the good points but I was extremely annoyed from that time to a limitless extent. Now when I think about it, I don’t have any special feelings about that period because I have a very strong force inside me, and that is writing, and writing as a poet has always saved me and has always helped me get out of my crisis and I devoted that period to writing. From all the sufferings of that time, I made a tool for myself called ‘ to create’ and then in university, all the topics I worked on were immigration topics, and I overcame my challenges by producing work one after the other.

You also answered my second question that those times are hard for everyone and everyone somehow finds a strategy to survive. I think your way of survival at that time was to write.
Yes, writing. When I entered Germany, I basically entered a professional artistic career.

I want to go back. When you were in Iran, what dreams did you have for today’s Shabnam?
Since I was 17 years old, my dream was to be a very good poet. It didn’t matter to me where in the world I still have that dream. That’s it. My dream has nothing to do with space and time because words have no boundaries. Although they limit the word to the language, in fact, the spirit of the word is bigger than being limited to the language. I often think that we confuse myself with words. I mean, I have such an inner connection with them. This does not fit within the scope of language for me.

So, can I say that immigration did not affect your dream?
No, it had no effect.

It’s great, I think we achieved most of the things. The only questions I want to ask are so that I can find shorter answers regarding our conversation. So, it would be great if you could give a short answer. Before you came out of Iran, did you think about your strengths, what were the important points? What are your positive points? And do you think you have them and it has gotten better?
When I was in Iran, I thought that I had a leadership spirit, which I don’t have now, and I think this was due to my understanding of my environment.

Do you mean being a leader?
Yes. I had a leadership character when I was in Iran, but after leaving my environment, this was taken away from me, and it is certainly due to a cultural issue, and moving away from the culture in which I grew up. I have lost my influence on society, especially on the immigrant communities.

What else was your question? What has made you strong? What do you think you found strong now?
I think I look at all issues much more comprehensively than before, that is, I have become comprehensive. It has made me very strong to face any situation I face and most importantly, I have become more flexible than before.

Very good. What is your hope and dream for the future?
The same thing I had since I was 17 years old. If I say personally that we all have many dreams for the world, that all of our dreams are defined by a few key words that we all know, for example, peace, non-immigration and the opening of borders. Now my wish for the world is to reach a balance and follow the behavior of nature. What nature always seeks is to achieve balance, and what we need in today’s world is balance, balance between spirituality and materiality.

What are your hopes and dreams regarding immigration?
Regarding migration, I think that people should migrate within themselves first, and it has nothing to do with place and geography, and migration is a very personal issue that people must find this ability to be able to cross themselves. If migration is a matter of geography, I think it is more of a matter of geography. I think that all civilizations will fall, and people have always migrated throughout history. But now, people’s view of immigration is instrumental. This was the part of my thesis that I liked. I compared the migration of people and stones. If we want to look at migration, I find that humans are very weak creatures that tolerate the least laborious type of migration. While on the other hand, for thousands of years, birds, butterflies, creatures, and fish have been migrating, and they are born and die many times on their migration path until they reach their destination. There is even a butterfly that reproduces as soon as it has reached the destination and the moment it reproduces, it dies.  If we make migration broader, we will see that it is an experience for us and for birds, it is their life, and I would very much like people to understand this nature and to understand this naturalness from within themselves, to know that migration is completely instinctive. Any creature whose conditions are not suitable will go to a better place. Now butterflies flutter and fish swim with all its dangers without any defense and we migrate with thousands of defenses and tools, but we make a tragedy out of it when it is not really a tragedy. If we understand that we have to cross, this is one of the crossings that we live in.

It was interesting. I don’t think anyone said this in my interviews. I asked all the questions. If you want to say something about your experience, because this project is for Europeans and they will be the audience of this program. Add and say whatever you want.
I think I said everything.

Thank you for the interview.
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.