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Urban voices – Habiba:
“There are many difficulties here in Tehran, but it is much better than Afghanistan”

The following story was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.[1]

I’ve been in Tehran for about two years. We moved here from Kabul in early 2019. We left mostly because my father became unemployed and also because of my own educational goals. My father had a homeware store in Dasht-e-Barchi [a settlement in western Kabul] but he went bankrupt, so he sold it. After he sold it, a year before our migration to Iran, he tried to launch a new business but in vain. After this, my uncle, who has a tailor workshop in Tehran, suggested my father should come and work with him. So my father, mother, brother and I came to Tehran.

In Kabul I was at a private university, but its teaching quality was low. Mostly it was a waste of time and money, so I left. When my father disclosed his plan to migrate to Iran, I got motivated because universities in Iran are of high quality. Their fees are almost the same as those in Afghanistan.

We didn’t come with a smuggler. We all had passports and got visas from the Iranian embassy within a few days. It took us around a month to sell our house and possessions. My father sent the money to my uncle via hawala. Then we flew to Iran and took a cab to my uncle’s house which was nearby the airport.

All in all it cost about €750 per person, most of it for the tickets, but also for the visa fees, travel insurance, and health certificate. We made this money from selling our furniture.

Now we live in a house in Baqer Abad. There are both Afghans and Iranians living in this locality. It is better than Afghanistan. At least we have 24/7 water and power services. There is a school and a hospital here. There is security, but its only problem is the high rate of crime and robbery, like in Afghanistan.

I tried to resume my education here but have not been able to. When we arrived, we had a three-month visa and at that time it was not time for enrolment, so I had to wait. I tried again after six months of being in Tehran when enrolment was open, but they refused to accept my application because my visa had expired. Once I have earned enough money, I heartily want the problem of my visa to be resolved so I can start studying in a university. The teaching here is much better. If I can solve the problem of my visa, I will surely proceed my educational goals, no matter how long it takes.

Now we are considered as undocumented migrants. I planned to go to the police and pay the fine to extend my visa, but I found out it was very high and impossible for us to pay. For all of us, it would be around 21 million tomans ($5,000) in total. Plus, we would have had to return to Afghanistan and apply for a new visa. So I decided to ignore my educational ambitions and work to support my family.

Life without a legal permit is very tough. We always need to be careful when commuting. People with no documents can hardly go anywhere, except their workplace. They do not have holidays, cannot visit shrines, hospitals, schools. They are deprived of everything. The only thing they can do is live and work under fear. Even if you get a good job, they pay you less or exploit you because you are undocumented. You cannot complain. The police will not listen to you.

It is very difficult for my father because men are more in danger of deportation. Police are always on the roads. They stop Afghans as soon as seeing them and ask for documents. If a person does not have a document, he will be taken to the police station, and then to a deportation camp. Most of the police officers ask for a bribe in return for release. Once they arrested my father and took him to the police station. When he called us, I immediately called my uncle. When we went to the police station to release my father, some policemen were continuously insulting us. It badly affected us. My uncle went there with some money and released him before he was sent to a camp. Had he been sent to a camp, it would be impossible to release him by bribing the authorities. He would directly be deported.

Documentation makes a huge difference. Firstly, there is a feeling of deprivation. In Afghanistan, despite insecurity, we could go to university and could walk freely on the roads. But we cannot do the same here, even if we go somewhere, our heads are down to escape people’s attention and questions about documents. When we walk on the roads, we try to avoid the main streets because there are a lot of police there.

I know two people from my community who were arrested without documents and they were taken to a camp and then deported. They are in Afghanistan now. Usually, when Afghans are arrested, we notify each other and try to get them released by paying money in a police station before they are sent to a camp.

Arrests of Afghans have increased since two months back, especially in Tehran. There was a time when they did not conduct raids on construction sites. But now they do. The workers do not feel safe in their workplace.

My mother and I are working in my uncle’s workshop. My father works in construction every day.

With the Covid-19 outbreak, my uncle’s workshop was closed for around five months under government orders. The death toll was very high in Iran and even now there are still some restrictions. My uncle’s shop reopened two months ago, but there is not much work so my he fired almost half of the workers. Currently, lots of our products are not sold, they are just stored here. There is not much for me to do, I just chat with others and pass my time. We do not have good salaries because it is based on the number of clothes we make. I get 5,000 tomans ($1.2) for each collar I sew. Previously, I used to make 10 to 15 in a day, now I make 20-25 in a week, because we do not receive any orders.

The most important assistance for new migrants is finding a house to rent house and getting a job. Those who have relatives can get help from them with housing, paying the smuggler’s fee, rent, and things like this. If they have no relatives, they will find an Afghan to show a them place. The only assistance we got was from my uncle and some of our community. They usually lend money when we have financial troubles. They helped us find a house because we knew no one else here.

The biggest need at the moment is money for rent. I know some households and other Afghans who cannot afford their rent because their work has stopped. Lots of households cannot afford food also. Previously they were working so at least they were able to afford bread. Now they do not have even that. So the number of Afghan child beggars has increased during the pandemic. For families with no male head of household, the situation is worse. Women who were previously going to work on farms or to the factories have lost their work. But now they are all at home and receive no assistance for food, housing or health services. Those who receive remittances from Europe or elsewhere, their situation is usually better, because if they receive $100, it’s a huge amount in tomans.

I am not part of this city. I do not feel a sense of belonging to Tehran. No Iranian accepts me as a human being. They all see us as foreigners who are supposed to leave this city today or tomorrow. I like this city because it is beautiful. Iranians may enjoy it, but the city cannot solve my problems. When an Iranian sees me as a stranger, then I feel like I am a stranger and do not belong to this city. For us, it is enough to work, get money and wait for what will happen in the future.

The Iranian authorities are worse than the people of Iran. At least it is possible to talk to civilians, but never with government officials. The situation of those who have documents might be better; their access to higher education, hospitals, and schools might be better than before. But for undocumented migrants, the situation is the same: we do not have access to anything.

Just a few days ago, it was announced that the children of undocumented migrants will be allowed in schools, but when we took my younger brother, he was rejected. They said that they had not yet received approval, and the classes had already started. They said the same thing last year and my brother was deprived of school.

There are more restrictions in Kabul for women compared to here. In Kabul, families monitor what their daughters do, when they go out, with whom and where. Other than this, there was much verbal harassment on the streets which means that women do not feel secure in Afghanistan. The main threat for us here is people making jokes about us on the street. My father and family are very sensitive about where I go and when I return because they are sure that the same harassment will happen here as in Afghanistan.

There are more opportunities for women here. For instance, in tailoring workshops, factories, in photography, malls and other places. If you have documents, there are more opportunities. In Afghanistan, women cannot work other than in government or NGO sectors. Even in workspaces in Afghanistan, especially in government offices, there is so much harassment that many women prefer to leave their jobs.

There are also more entertainment opportunities here. For example, I have been to the cinema with my friends two times, whereas there is no cinema in Afghanistan, even for men. It was the first time in my life I ever went to a cinema. It was an interesting experience, a great hall with a huge number of people watching a movie together. Men and women sitting side by side. Visiting the cinema was a good memory. This is an experience that an Afghan woman does not get to experience in her entire life.

We have no plans to leave here or return to Afghanistan. The main reason is my father. He says that all our relatives and community are in Tehran and therefore it is best for us to stay in this city so in case we have any problems, we can receive assistance from them. Once there was talk of going to Turkey, but my parents do not have the courage to make the journey because we don’t know anyone there.

Especially, for me as a woman, Afghanistan was not a place of life for me. While I was there I didn’t realise that I had such a miserable, restricted life. Now that I am here for a period of time, I understand what is happening to Afghan women. Probably in Kabul, Mazar and Herat girls and women can go to school, but outside the big cities, life is completely rural and traditional. Women do not have the right to have an ID card. I have not seen an Iranian girl who has not gone to school. Even the poor Iranian girls who work with us in the workshop go to school without fear and laugh out loud together on the streets.

For this reason, I am now happy that we came to Tehran. There are many difficulties, but still it is much better than Afghanistan.


[1] ‘Urban Voices’ presents seven stories from migrants and refugees living in cities drawn from detailed individual interviews conducted by MMC. They often illustrate the non-linear nature of so many migrant and refugee journeys – characterised by the twists and turns in many migrants’ erratic lives. They serve to offer evidence towards a new concept recently introduced in migration studies of circumstantial migration to describe how “migration trajectories and experiences unfold in unpredictable ways under the influence of micro-level context and coincidence.” [Carling, J. and Haugen (2020) Circumstantial migration: how Gambian journeys to China enrich migration theory. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.] MMC did not record the names of respondents and all names in this ‘urban voices’ series are aliases.