By Aida Ghajar
November 23, 2018
I was talking to human traffickers in the back alleys of Van when I heard about Hamed Fard, an asylum seeker who lived in the city. I was supposed to meet with Reza that day, a human trafficker who did not show up. I later found out that the Turkish police had arrested him. So, that day, I went to see Hamed instead, not really knowing who he was and how he ended up in Van.
The rumors one hears about the city of Van are so horrifying that you can expect anything to happen. Many of the refugees I met told me the story of Arash Shoa-Shargh, an Iranian journalist who had been kidnapped and taken back to the Islamic Republic. However, later I found out that his extradition was the result of an agreement between the Iranian and Turkish governments, and it was the Turkish government that returned Shoa-Shargh back to Iran. Fard told me later that Shoa-Shargh was a friend of his from Van, and that he is now serving time in Lakan Prison in Rasht in northeastern Iran.
Fard was a little late for our meeting. As I waited, many Iranians passed by with shopping bags in their arms. Before the Iranian rial lost its value, Van had been a tourist destination for Iranians who wanted to spend their weekends in clubs and bars in a city that felt like home; the city has a lot of signs written in Persian and many streets that look like those of Iranian cities. I also noticed Turkish police on the other side of the street, checking some of the Iranians’ documents.
A young man approached me. He was my height and was wearing a pink t-shirt and jean shorts. As he spoke, I noticed that he had a very a clear, smooth voice. “I make a life of this voice,” he later told me. But I still did not know who he was. “You’re a journalist, for God’s sake,” he said to me, smiling, “[And} you don’t know Hamed Fard, the rapper?”
We went to a café that was his usual spot. The café workers knew him, and a young Iranian boy — also an immigrant — served us tea and coffee. I pressed the record button and asked him, “How did you end up here?”
He began his story with his marriage. He had fled to Van with his wife and child, but they went back to Iran two years ago. The hardships of an asylum-seeking life were enough of a reason for his wife to ask for a divorce and leave him. But Fard doesn’t blame her. “She couldn’t take it anymore. The first year especially was very difficult, and I was working as a construction worker — which directly affected my marriage.”
Fard’s asylum-seeking life began in Turkey on November 2, 2015. “When I started [this new life], I had to do anything. I made beehives, and worked in carpentry workshops and became an expert in building bed crowns. I had to wake up every day at 5am and get into a van with no seats. They would take more than 20 people squeezed into a van to work and back, and give us a piece of cheese and bread as our meal [for a day that lasted] from 7am to 7 or 8pm. I was dead exhausted when I went back every night. Under such circumstances you can’t really have an intimate relationship with your wife. My wife was also bored and exhausted from staying home all the time and taking care of our kid. It was a hard time.”
From Making Music to Harsh Interrogations
Fard had graduated as a metallurgic engineer and worked for a company in Rasht, as well as singing and rapping in his spare time. In 2012, he recorded and distributed a song called “Vatan Yani” [“What Motherland Means”]. Shortly after this, his friends called him to tell him that security agents had arrested the people working for the music studio where he had been recording and were looking for him. Fard fled to Tehran and hid at the place of a prominent rapper called Yas, and considered fleeing the country via the Iraqi Kurdistan borders. However, since the agents were unable to find Fard, they arrested his father, who was struggling with cancer. Fard had no choice but to turn himself in.
It was on a Saturday morning when the agents came after Fard in a dark car with tinted windows. They blindfolded and handcuffed him and, after a 15-minute drive, took him to a house. They placed him in a room and he heard a voice coming out from a speaker, ordering him to remove his blindfold. They moved him to different rooms a few times, until he ended up in a room with video recorders. Two interrogators, called “Samiei” and “Noori,” both wearing medical masks, interrogated him for the next four days in that room.
“I had a prison guard at night who wanted to look like he cared. I had 30 minutes of fresh air every day, blindfolded, and could smoke a cigarette at that time. My worst torture was the cold weather. I was in prison in January with only a T-shirt on. I felt they liked seeing me shaking when answering their questions for the camera. They asked me who I was working for and what foreign country was sponsoring me. I was only working for myself and my passion, without any ties to anyone.”
When he reached this point in his story, Fard reached into his pocket for a cigarette, took a sip of his tea, and then continued. “My family always struggled with finances. My dad worked two full-time jobs to provide for his four children. I also worked since I was a child. I did construction work, carpet cleaning, painting, etc., all to make money so I could hire a music studio.” He said he was able to pass the admissions exams to go to state university, but he and his family would not have been able to pay for him to go to a private university if he had not have passed. “I used to play the keyboard as a child, but our financial struggles made my dad sell the keyboard. I started my rapping career on the Yahoo Chat app using my friend’s laptop in his garage.”
He told me more about his albums and his hit songs, “Cyrus” and “Is it Gonna be Okay?,” expressing his love for his fans and telling me how he gets his energy from their support. Then his tone changed and he swiftly moved back to the discussion of his interrogations and imprisonment.
After four days of interrogation, the agents made Fard promise he would never rap again. The judge at the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Rasht was a man called Kazemi. Kazemi referred to Fard as a “hooligan” and an “imbecile,” and sentenced him to 17 days in prison — he was locked up with more than 70 murderers and other dangerous criminals. He was eventually released on a bail of US$200,000.
Fard told me about those 17 days of hell, and how prisoners were treated. “Every day at 5pm they would give us a cigarette and we had to smoke it in front of them. One day I saw with my own eyes guards beating up a prisoner so bad that he was vomiting blood, only because he gave his cigarette away to another inmate.”
The Long Wait in Turkey
After his release, Fard decided to lay low for a while so he would be able to pick up his singing career once again later. “But I couldn’t write any more lyrics. I was censoring my own work. Now, when writing every single word, I had to think about a thousand different things. However, I did not want to leave since I was out on bail. Eventually, a fan of mine who was an attorney contacted me on Facebook and was successful in exonerating me.”
In May 2013, Fard was sent to court on charges of “propaganda against the regime”, “confusing the public mind” and “production of unauthorized audiovisual content.” Even after his release the threats continued. Sometimes he was summoned for his Facebook posts or after his performances. At the time, Emad Ghavidel, another Persian rapper who was a friend of Fard’s, was also summoned for questioning and was told not to be Fard’s friend or have anything to do with him. They then instructed Fard to do the same with regards to Ghavidel, and tried to bring their personal relationship into the equation.
Because of the non-stop pressure, Fard decided to leave the country and, since he had a valid passport, he booked a ticket straight to Turkey. As the Syrian Civil War really began to rage, Fard and Ghavidel released a video criticizing Bashar al-Assad. The video went viral, resulting in several interviews with BBC Persian and VOA Farsi.
Considering the circumstances and his artistic background, Fard expected to leave Turkey for his final destination within the first six months of his arrival there, but, like many other asylum seekers, when I spoke to him he had been in the country for years waiting for an interview date with the UN Refugee Agency (the UNHCR). Turkey changed its laws, and refugees now have to go through the Turkish police first before meeting with UNHCR agents. This change has made the process of claiming refugee status in Turkey longer and more unclear; no one knew what to expect in terms of how long they might have to wait for their asylum applications to be processed.
“There were many who promised me they would get me out of Turkey. Even my friend who left the country with me [has since] left, but I’m still here with no interview date. Everyone says they converted to Christianity. The UNHCR has called them, but they have not called me. The Turkish police told me I have a strong case, but I guess the UNHCR has no desire to review it. On the other hand, some refugees can’t take it anymore and deport themselves back to Iran. This makes our situation even worse since the UNHCR thinks we are liars and, if they make us wait long enough, we will go back to our lives.”
This made me think of other asylum seekers stuck in this country: journalists, activists, political prisoners, and many others who have been waiting at the UNHCR’s doors for years. These include a Kurd journalist who has been stuck in a small city for eight years; a journalist from Shiraz who has been here for six years; and a political prisoner who has been waiting for an answer for nine years. According to Turkish laws, after registering with the UNHCR, asylum seekers are assigned to a city, from which they are not allowed to leave. They have to go to police stations weekly and inform them about their presence in the city. Many refugees see this as another prison that’s imposed on them, and it makes it even more of a hellish experience.
I looked into Fard’s eyes again as he talked about his artistic work in Van. Despite his fears, he recorded and produced “Vatan Yani II” and “White Wednesdays” in this city, but he is living in constant stress and cannot sleep. He locks himself in his room at night and spends his nights alone. “My problem with this city is that is too close to Iran. Here you can easily spot Revolutionary Guards’ vehicles on the streets, which is terrifying. When they caught my friend Emad, they told him, ‘We know Hamed is in Van.’ One night, when I was going home from the club, a dark sedan followed me and two men ran after me into my alley. Arash Shoa-Shargh was kidnapped from this city. He was our friend and we would go to the police together on Wednesdays for the signatures. Emad called me and said Arash was in Evin Prison and that now he has been transferred to Rasht. If I leave my place late at night, I use busy streets and some of my bodybuilder friends are always with me. I carry a knife and pepper spray, and even want to apply for a firearm permit.”
I asked him if such fears might only be a result of rumors, as well as the hardships of refugee life. “It is certainly, in some part, because of that; but I have seen life in this city with my own eyes. I can’t forget what I have seen. I have big friends here who always carry guns and who have told me they have my back. But the thing is, if the Islamic Republic really wants to kidnap me, how can I even ask for help? Who can stop them?”
Learning how to Read People
I asked him if he had thought about other options, such as human traffickers. He said that he had, but that he is afraid of traffickers, who might easily hand him back over to the Iranian authorities.
As an asylum seeker, Fard identifies his major struggles as being a lack of freedom and uncertainty about the future. “The fact that I don’t have a passport anymore, and am living in exile and can’t have a stable life is very painful. Turkey is like a quagmire for many immigrants and Van is the biggest mire of all. Many people actually take refuge in Van and don’t go any further, like many Iranian Kurds. You always feel the danger and grow lonelier.”
I then asked Fard a question that I ask everyone: I ask them to define “asylum-seeking.” “Asylum seeking made me mature, turned me into a wolf from a sheep. You have no idea what an asylum seeker is until you become one. People make you into an old, lone wolf who wouldn’t hurt anyone, but who won’t let anyone get close either. You learn how to read people and become a chess master.”
Like many others, he struggles with finances and, although he has some friends who sponsored him during his journey and has a contract with Radio Javan, he still lives from paycheck to paycheck. He works during the day and goes to clubs at night to get drunk. He also makes his own liquor.
When he talked about the nightclubs, I remembered the rumors I’d heard of Iranian sex workers in Van nightclubs. I had heard that a year ago police arrested a group of them working in the city who were all infected with HIV. Some Iranian girls in Van had also informed me that they were working as prostitutes in nightclubs. I asked Fard if he knew anything about this. He said he sees many young and underage Iranian girls working as prostitutes across the city, and not only in the clubs. “Turkish people pay more,” he told me, adding that many of them are able to pay for their services through their work expenses.
We both turned silent. I was sipping my coffee when he continued. “I was depressed for six months after the divorce. I used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. I grew my beard and would go to sleep holding my daughter’s dress, so I could smell her. I kept all her toys. Avina [his daughter] was my life. After six months, I stood back up on my feet again and hit the gym. I have a song called, “Oh my heart,” which mentions her [Avina]. If you listen to my songs, you’ll have a better perspective on Persian rappers. I don’t curse, and everyone can listen to my tracks and relate to them. It does not matter anymore [where I go], even if I go to Bangladesh. I only need a music studio. My dream is to make my music without any financial concerns and provide for my daughter and my father. It hurts me that Avina is miles away from me, but I want her to be proud of her dad when she grows up. I’m certain that one day she will proudly tell everyone: ‘Hamed Fard is my father.’”