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According to the United Nations, there were 19.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014 — a total that has ballooned in the months since as millions of people continue to flee violence in Syria. That vast number can make it difficult for people half a world away to see refugees' plight in terms of individual men, women, girls and boys with hopes and dreams — rather than a faceless mass of people.
So as her seventh-grade language arts students read Katherine Applegate's Home of the Brave, the story of a young African refugee adapting to life in Minnesota, inspiration struck teacher Kelly Howes. In an effort to further humanize the challenges of refugees, she arranged for a family of Iranian refugees to address her seventh-graders just as they were completing their study of the book.
"The idea that I really want to emphasize with them is when we see people on the street, when we know that someone is in a certain category, we sometimes make assumptions," Howes said. "And we really don't know anything about them until we hear their story. That's another emphasis — just sharing stories so that we learn more about the people around us."
Mohammad Afsahi's story is one of incredible courage and an unwavering desire for freedom in the face of unspeakable persecution. Along with his wife, Parisa, and 4-year-old daughter, Deniz, he fled to Durham a little more than a year ago. They will never again step foot on the soil of their homeland, Afsahi said: "If I travel to Iran, they will kill me."
Before a transfixed audience of DA seventh-graders, Afsahi recounted his journey in English, with Howes — whose experience living in five non-English-speaking countries and teaching ESL classes has honed her ability to communicate with non-native English speakers — guiding the discussion and occasionally offering a helping word.
Afsahi, who grew up in Iran as part of a family that was "quietly intellectual," had planned to study engineering, but as a university student in 2009 and 2010, his interest in politics was piqued. He participated in some demonstrations in Iran and changed his academic focus to political science. Due to that change, it wasn't long before the Iranian government forced him to drop out of school — but he continued to demonstrate.
"The government caught me in a protest — a big demonstration with lots of people. It was 2010 in Tehran," Afsahi said. "If you want to go against the government, the government will catch you, and you will go to jail and maybe even be killed. It's very dangerous to say anything."
In jail, Afsahi was tortured, and his life was threatened. In a kind of bail system, his mother turned over the ownership papers for her home, and over the next two years, Afsahi spent all of his money on fees for attorneys, who promised that they could easily resolve his legal woes. Even after being sentenced to 10 years of prison for his political activity, his attorneys continued to imply that "it was nothing" — so Afsahi and his then-fiancé, Parisa, married and welcomed Deniz into their family, confident that they could move on with their future.
"Then my time was up, and I had to go to jail. The lawyers took my money and went. I saw that jail is not a good place — not at all, not for anybody. I decided to escape from the country," Afsahi recalled. He didn't want to worry Parisa, but he did tell his mother, knowing that his escape would mean that she would lose her home.
And with no money to his name, he fled. For five or six days, he hiked through the mountains of northwestern Iran en route to Turkey.
"I was hungry," Afsahi said. "I didn't have any money."
When he reached the first city in Turkey, there was bad news: An earthquake had rocked the city just days before, and all but one staff member at the local United Nations office had left for Ankara.
"She was the only one there. I said, 'I am tired, I am hungry,' and I showed her my three pictures [showing signs of his torture in prison], and she was sad and wrote a letter for me," Afsahi said. "She said, you can go to the police and show them this letter, and they will help you."
The police helped him get to the UN office in Ankara, where he learned that the process to gain asylum could take years. Undaunted, he followed the UN instructions to relocate to Adana, off Turkey's southern coast. For the first month, he had no money or food, and he was denied entrance to nearby Syrian refugee camps. "The situation in Turkey is very bad for refugees," he said.
Afsahi eventually made contact with Parisa, who sold their home and traveled to Adana with then 8-month-old Deniz. The money from the sale of the apartment lasted for just a month or two in Turkey, which they found to have a higher cost of living than Iran. But then their luck turned.
"In Ankara, I had become a Christian. I believed in Jesus. I don't know what happened, but when I prayed, just me and he, I said I needed a job," he recalled. His prayer was answered when the owner of a car wash offered him a job — despite having a full staff with no need for another set of hands.
Even while he was thankful for the owner's act of kindness, Afsahi couldn't help but take note of how his new lifestyle was a far cry from how he'd lived in Iran, where he owned "the best, beautiful cars in my country." Now, he was washing them.
After two years, the Afsahi family received word that their new home would be in the United States (refugees are typically not given a choice as to where they will go), and that World Relief Durham — a relief agency that works with local churches — would serve as their sponsor.
World Relief covered the cost of the family's airfare to Durham, assisted the family with bills and rent, and helped Afsahi find a job working in food service at Duke Hospital. He's now taking courses at Durham Technical Community College, and the whole family is thriving.
"I think we are so lucky because it has been really hard for people to come to the United States," said Parisa, who is now pregnant with their second child. "The move to another country was so hard, but I find here I have a lot of friends. ... In Iran, everyone wants to down you. Here, everyone wants to change your life for the better."
In his homeland, Iranians are encouraged to view the United States as an enemy and are often told untruths about the country, Afsahi said. "But now I see the real United States every day. Here, I see everything is good."
Students reacted to the family's visit with awe, Howes said: "They reflected a lot in class about how moved they were, how amazed they were by his courage."
Among the students who were moved by the family's experience was seventh-grader Caroline Aldridge. In a blog post, she said they had changed the way she thought about refugees.
"I had heard of refugee stories, and I was touched by them, but when I heard him speak in front of us about his unbelievable journey, it made me want to really make a difference," she said. "He told us that he is very grateful for the way Americans have treated him and that he feels really safe here. I am really glad that I got the experience of hearing a real refugee’s story."