In my hunt for an expert forger of French passports in Istanbul, I encountered Mandana. Mandana was Iranian, very pretty and slightly plump. She spoke perfect English, as well as German and Turkish. She had a glorious smile, coloured her hair a dark gold, and wore only bright colours. "I'll never wear black again," she often said. She, like so many, was in Istanbul illegally, having walked across the border one night with her entire family. They were all illegal and all lived together in one room. They were at the point of despair.
Mandana's father had been a wealthy owner of factories that produced the long, black, shroud-like coats worn by Iranian women. He had lived with his wife and two children, Mandana and her brother, in a mansion in Tehran. They had a villa on the Caspian Sea, where they spent their summers. Mandana and her mother spent thousands of dollars on jewellery and couturier clothes and generally lived a happily frivolous life. Mandana had a job as a secretary at an embassy, where she fell in love with a young diplomat. They wanted to marry, but her father refused to allow her to consider an infidel. Her lover did not dare to elope with her and risk a fatwa. He left Iran and Mandana's broken heart turned to rage. She married the first Iranian Moslem who asked her.
She showed me one day her wedding video, which she had taken with her when she had left Iran. It was an incredibly lavish wedding. In the video we could see the grand house and gardens, Mandana decked in a huge gown and plenty of jewels. We could also see that the groom, not yet thirty, was all ready a broken man, tense and haunted looking.
He had fought in the Iran-Iraq War. For some reason, he had been imprisoned and tortured, then released, only to be arrested and tortured again. This continued after the war ended. A senior ministerial officer despised him - his own father. When he married Mandana, the persecution extended to her family. Her brother was arrested and tortured, then her uncle, then her father, whose health was severely damaged. It became an unbearable horror for them.
One night, a friend warned them that the police were coming for her father again. They decided to run. In anticipation of this night, they had accumulated in the house $10,000 in cash and all of the jewellery. Mandana, her father, mother, brother, husband and infant son all paid their way into Istanbul. Immediately, the Iranian authorities in Tehran confiscated everything -- the houses, the factories, the bank accounts. There was no going back. By the time I met them, the UNHCR had twice refused their applications for refugee status. There was no going forward.
Mandana, being the only one who spoke other languages than Farsi, was the one who worked and supported all the others. For two years, she worked in my home and not once, in spite of all of her hardship, did she lose her cheerful, gentle demeanor. We chatted often and became friends. I tried to find work for her mother, but she was unable to stop crying and could hold no job. Her father was too ill to work. Her brother had found a girlfriend who had been granted refugee status and who was going to Canada. If they married, she would be able to take him with her. In time, if the Turkish police did not find them, he would be able to apply for his family to go to Canada. Those were their only hopes.
Their home life was hell. That the others could not speak Turkish was dangerous, for their inability to blend in meant the police could easily spot them. They rarely left their room. They had no money, no space, no hope and they lived in constant fear. Mandana's husband had nightmares with hysterical screaming. Her son had his fifth birthday but, as he was illegal, he could not go to school. (At times, her lovely child came to our home, and I invited her to bring him every day, but she refused.) Once, when her father blamed her marriage for their troubles, Mandana turned on him bitterly and screamed: "Don't you dare say this is my fault! It is your fault. If you had let me marry the man I loved, none of this would have happened!" When she related this to me in my kitchen, she had a smile of triumphant vindication. As it is with many of the millions of refugees on this planet, the struggle to survive in constant uncertainty and fear was causing the disintegration of their humanity.
In an effort to help them, we contacted people in our embassies to see if there was any chance of resubmitting their application to the UNHCR, this time, with our support or sponsorship. Those people promised to look into it. After a couple of weeks, they came back to us and said "Don't touch them." That was all. It sounded ominous but it could have been laziness. We will never know. Certainly, the family had made enemies in the local underground Iranian community. People had called the police. Twice, they had had to run away and find a new room rented under a new name. Were they as good as they seemed? Were they criminals or something worse? Again, we will never know. Perhaps my good friend was an imposter, or perhaps she was the person she seemed to be, but she knew a forger and we started work on my plan.
©2011 Anne Morddel