By Aida Ghajar
July 13, 2019
It is my last day in Greece, and he accompanies me to the airport to say goodbye. Before boarding, I hug him one last time.
As I leave, I can see him watching the other travelers. Then he turns, his shoulders hunched, to return to his confinement with fellow refugees.
I only found out about Amin “Farid” Akramipour through the news headlines. He was one of the Facebook activists arrested as part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) “Spider” project in Shiraz.
He was charged with propaganda and conspiracy offences against the regime, and jailed for 13 years. He spent three years in Evin Prison, including two months in solitary confinement, until he was released on bail.
We met several times in Greece, and he told me tales full of terror, torture, and loneliness. In those stories, one name was repeated over and over again: Helen, his mother.
Helen traveled 900km every week from Shiraz to Tehran to see her son during visiting hours. She was his biggest support during that difficult time.
Helen was the main reason that leaving Iran was so painful. But after his life was stolen from him by the IRGC, Amin felt he had no choice.
Amin talks about seeking asylum
Voice of a Burned Generation
The first time I met Amin was in Athens, in front of an old, rusty house beside a highway. The house belonged to a local trafficker, and Amin enjoyed spending time at a nearby café.
Here, at his usual table, he told me his story.
As a young man he worked at a tire company in Iran, he said, but moved to India after gaining a place at university.
Shortly after he arrived, he began creating Facebook pages supporting reform in Iran. These proved popular, and one even gained more than 200,000 followers.
Through these pages, he met other Iranian activists from the online community, including Amir Golestani and Babak Iranban.
Together, Amir, Amin, and Babek created another Facebook page called “The Voice of a Burned Generation.” Its goal was to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
While in India, Amin successfully obtained a visa for the US. He was overjoyed, but wanted to say goodbye to his family in Iran first. It was a decision that was to change his life.
Back in Shiraz, he visited a store one day to buy a Virtual Private Network (VPN) pass. A customer was looking at him mysteriously, and then made a phone call, during which he heard his last name.
By the time he rushed back home, it was too late: the security forces had already arrived. Fifteen agents had entered his home and many more were on the street.
Amin was arrested, and his laptop and other belongings were confiscated.
The human trafficker’s house
“I Would Have Preferred Execution”
After a night in a Shiraz jail, Amin was put on a plane to Tehran. He was then transferred to Ward 2A of Evin Prison, where he remained in solitary confinement for more than two months.
“They blindfolded me and shot a bullet next to my ear,” he said. “My hearing was impaired for the next few days. They even beat me up because I couldn’t hear them properly.
“I had long hairs on my body and they began cutting them with a steak knife. They blindfolded me and made me stand fully naked in front of them in the middle of the interrogation room.
“I heard such insults there that I would have preferred execution.”
They beat him constantly, Amin said. When they got tired of beating him, they threw any objects they could find at him. They tied his hands to the ceiling every night, forcing him to stand on his toes until morning.
“I had had surgery on my left knee and made the mistake of asking them not to beat up that knee,” he said. “After that, that knee became their main target.
“One would beat me up from the front and the other from the back. My face was so messed up that they couldn’t get it ready for the TV interview, so it had to be canceled.
“Because of the torture, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc, which is still causing me problems today.”
The prison officers beat him in an attempt to get information about other Facebook administrators, he said. But he refused to provide any details.
“Other people who were arrested made testimonies against me, as they assumed I was out of the country. But I could not do that to anyone else.
“I accepted the torture, and as a result no other admin was arrested.”
Amin’s mother’s hand bearing the visiting stamp
“I Slipped Into a Deep Depression”
After solitary confinement, Amin was transferred to a different ward and informed that his family could visit him. But on the visiting day, he was instead taken back to the interrogation room and his mother was told to return home.
Three more weeks of torture followed. Finally, he was let out and allowed to see his mother through a glass partition.
“Helen put her hand on the window and asked me to do the same,” he said. “She was crying constantly. She still cries whenever she remembers that time. I did my best to calm her down.”
He found a crack in the prison wall that let him see the highway outside, and he told his mother to go there and wave to him and he would wave back. She did so, though she had no way to see him inside.
Amin on his bed in Ward 350 of Evin Prison
Life inside prison was made more bearable by the friends Amin made. One was Soheil Arabi, who remains in prison for his social media posts that allegedly “insulted holy figures and establishments.”
Soheil used to ask Amin to cook a rotisserie chicken when his daughter, Rozhan, came to visit, so the little girl would think she was meeting her father in a restaurant and not a prison.
Every night, lying on their beds, Soheil and Amin used to watch funny video clips of Rozhan her mother had sent.
Another friend was Gholamreza Khosravi, who was charged with advocating for the People’s Mujahedin of Iran [MEK].
“Gholamreza was the first person in the yard every morning, with his book,” said Amin. “I was the only other one there that early since I couldn’t sleep.
“We would spend a few hours together until 9am every day, when everyone else came out. One morning they called his name and he never came back.”
A few days later, Amin read the news of his execution in the morning paper. It hit him hard.
“After that, I felt very low,” he said. “I slipped into a deep depression for several months.”
Amin and Soheil Arabi in prison
Forced to Flee
Amin was finally released on bail in 2016 under specific conditions. He was under close supervision and had to go in for questioning every week.
He tried everything to find a new job, but was unsuccessful. His former tire company was now run by the Revolutionary Guards and refused to pay him the compensation it owed him.
“Instead, it told me it didn’t want to see my ‘traitor ass’ around there,” he said.
He finally tried a taxi service, but was turned down when they found out about his background as a political prisoner. “The manager even told me not to call them to book a taxi!”
Finally, Amin decided to leave the country with some friends. They planned to travel to Turkey, then to Europe. Amin’s sister, Hanieh, had moved to the UK while Amin was in prison, and he hoped to join her there.
“On the day of departure, I went to my mom’s workplace,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “I wanted to kiss her one last time. “She said, ‘I bought you some strawberries, but I know you can never eat them.’”
Through other political prisoners, Amin and his friends got in contact with an activist in Van, Turkey, who was known for helping refugees find human traffickers.
“We first went to the border city of Khoy. The trafficker put 20 of us in a small room and we were there for two days until we began the journey. Then they put us in the back of a truck, covered the top, and drove for 1.5 hours.
“Initially, they told us we would only hike for two hours, but in the end I had to walk for 14 hours with my bad knee and back pain. All I could see were mountains and hills.”
During the journey from Iran to Turkey
At the border with Turkey, three Turkish traffickers on horses came to collect them.
“We passed through the barbed wire and began walking behind the horses. They took us to Van, and we stayed at my activist friend’s house for a few days.
“By the end, it was just me. One friend turned back in the mountains and the other while we were in Van. I was completely alone.”
From Heaven to Hell
Amin found a trafficker to get him to Ankara, but was forced to make the trip alone after the man pocketed his US$1000 and then refused to go with him.
In Ankara, he introduced himself to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to begin his asylum-seeking process. He was assigned to the city of Kutahya, and was homeless for 10 days until he found a room to rent.
He lived in Turkey for just under a year, but had no help from the UNHCR. He met other asylum seekers who had been waiting for many years, so he decided to continue his trip onwards illegally.
His sister was able to find a trafficker to take him to the UK for €12,000 (US$13,500). The trafficker put him and four Kurdish families in a van that took them to the border with Greece.
Forty other travelers were waiting on the border. Together, they crossed into Greece by foot via the city of Edirne.
“We walked for a few hours until we reached a river,” Amin said. “They had inflatable boats for us, and I was in one with a family of six children.
“When we stopped for a moment, a girl called Nasrin fell into the water and I jumped in to save her. For the rest of the way, I carried her on my back. This act came back to help me later, at a refugee camp in Greece.”
The trafficker did not take them to Athens. The person who was supposed to come for them never showed up, so they were told to surrender themselves to the police. That way, they could obtain their departure permits after a few days of detention.
“They fingerprinted all of us in the police station and kept us there for the first night. The next day, they took us to a building that looked nice from the outside.
“I was thinking it might be a place I could relax and have a room for myself, but I was wrong. As soon as we passed through the gates, it felt like going from heaven into hell.
“Children were hanging from the doors and people looked like zombies due to the lack of light. It was almost pitch black in there.”
Joy Amid Despair
Amin had to stay in the building for one month. It was a terrible experience, he said. It was the middle of winter and there was no warm water. Many people, including children, fell ill.
Amin was the only one who knew English, so he tried to voice their concerns to the guards. “I told them that we needed warm water for the bathrooms.”
In response, the police took him to another building and beat him up on his birthday. “They told me: ‘Now your body is warm so you can use the cold shower.’”
One day, the guards came into the dormitory with a list of people who were being released that day. Everyone gathered around them as the names were read out.
“The names of all the travelers who came from Turkey with me were on the list. Nasrin and her family were with me in the room, near the door, and Nasrin would look back to find me every few minutes.
“They reached the middle of the list and everybody began shouting my name. My name was the last one on the list. When they read it out, everyone cheered.”
Amin after being released from the prison camp
As he spoke, tears rolled down Amin’s face. “That was the best moment of my life. It was the most support I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Amin and the other refugees were transferred to a UN refugee camp, where they were interviewed. “My translator was a Tajik guy. When he heard my story, he began crying and asked for a few minutes to compose himself.
“After I was done, his supervisor came over and hugged me. The supervisor asked me where I would like to live, and I said Athens.
“They sent me to a temporary camp for two weeks, which was very nice, and then I finally made it to Athens.”
Loss of Identity
Amin has now tried six times to leave Greece, but without success. The trafficker, who has already been paid the full €12,000, always gives him a passport with a photo that looks nothing like him.
He has tried five different airports, but was arrested each time and spent a night in jail.
“One time the airport police laughed at my passport and called me over to look at the picture that was shown when they scanned it. He was a black man.”
Amin now wants to wait and make the journey legally. He has rented an apartment far from Athens and is living his life.
“The biggest torture the Islamic Republic inflicted on me was not the beatings and being forbidden from seeing my family,” he says. “It was the fact they took my passport away, which prevented me from traveling like a normal citizen.
“I would never have left the country if I was able to find a job there. I could at least teach skating. I know that an Iranian passport is not worth much, but I had an American visa on that passport.
“Now it’s like I don’t have an identity. You can’t believe how much contempt I have had to endure simply because I don’t have a normal ID. There is no worse suffering than that.”
As I hug Amin to leave, he has a faraway look in his eye.
“During the time I’ve been away from my family, I lost my grandfather and my father was in a car accident, which put him into a coma for a few months,” he says.
“My mom still says she wishes she could spend one more night with me. But I don’t know when that can be. How many more years can a 60-year-old woman travel for?
“I am a prisoner here.”