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    Outside Nowshahr, Mazandaran province. Photo by Mohammad Sadeqi Fasai

    Farewell cherry tree
    During the Iran-Iraq war thousands of boys were sent to Europe. I was one of them.

    By Ali Khalili
    October 20, 1998
    The Iranian

    Sweeping through Iranian sites on the Internet I have yet to see one that tells the story of thousands of young Iranian boys, many barely teenagers and some even younger, who left Iran during the Iran-Iraq war for the less than friendly confines of Europe.

    By the fall of 1987, the writing was indeed on the wall for me. Khomeini and his regime, reiterated day in and day out, that the war with Baghdad would not end until we capture Karbala and then Qods. Military training had become compulsory for all middle school and high school boys. Bombs and anti-aircraft fire lit up the once safe Tehran skies. Young recruits were being sent out to the minefields with the keys to heaven. Naturally many parents had begun to send their children out of Iran.

    I had just turned 13 and according to war-time regulations, I only had about one year to leave Iran. Two years earlier, my second cousin and good pal had left for Germany. A year before that, my soccer pal and long time friend also left for Germany. In the fall of 1987, the plan was for me to join my sister who was also studying at a university in Germany. So, late in November I left Iran.

    As a young, emotional and patriotic boy, it was tough saying goodbye to my land. It was quite painful to say goodbye to all my soccer pals and my school mates. It was impossibly painful to say goodbye to my parents and relatives, wondering when , if ever, I would get a chance to see any of them again. As I said farewell to the cherry trees in our yard, the soccer field, my street, my house and all the people, tears came and went. I felt so horrible that throughout my flight, I had a headache that seemed to be blowing my head apart.

    I entered Frankfurt airport where, in the past, I had visited as a little tourist. As I hopped on the train, I could only feel one thing: sheer pain and sadness and I wondered what I had done to deserve this, but soon I began to realize that my journey had only just begun. I was in a new world that would question my very existence and challenge me at every opportunity. I would no longer be the professor's son. And as I soon learned, I wasn't alone. There were many Iranian boys like me in Germany and across Europe. A few had rich parents who could support them well, but for most of us, the new world was a challenge every step of the way.

    The first and the biggest obstacle facing any Iranian boy in Germany was getting into school without being put behind a couple of years. In the German school system, students must start taking English and French at grades five and seven. Most of us were just beginning to pick up German. We had learned a few words of English in Iran which we were now mixing up with German and knew no French beyond "Bon jour." To that, add the image of Iranians. Most principals showed very little interest in having us in their high schools. I tried a number of Gymnasiums (German high schools) and even the Hauptschule and Realschule (apprenticeship schools that only go up to ninth grade with some future transfer options), but to no avail. I was either treated poorly or, if they were nicer, they would ask me to go back to grade six or seven.

    After a few weeks of marching around the city in the December cold, I got a tip from another fellow Iranian who used to be in the same shoes as I. He said that across the river, in the Social-Democrat province of Hessen, a new school system, the "Gesamtschule" had begun which was friendlier toward foreigners. And so, we marched to a tiny town across the river where we finally managed to find a school that would accept me. I started at the eighth grade in January, after the Christmas holidays.

    With my broken German, I felt utterly scared. And since we had a reputation as being fundamentalists, I felt ashamed. The Germans quite often looked down upon me and my other Iranian classmate. In a class discussion on love, our teacher asked us if there was such a thing in Iran. In our time off at the school library, German kids curious at the newcomers, would ask us whether we ever had a TV or seen a car before. In a class survey on what we wanted to do in the future, I said I want to attend an university. The class laughed as though I couldn't have been serious. In a trip to Munich, our teacher said he had met some Iranian students in Paris and that they were very "intelligent." He said it as if that was something totally unexpected. The ethics teacher questioned me quite severely on a number of occasions on how thousands of people could pack the streets of Tehran in support of someone like Khomeini or how could young boys run over land mines.

    I learned that one of my main struggles would be to prove my very existence. Every day I pondered more and more about life. But there was no alternative but to go on. So, I worked hard, picking up German as quickly as possible until one day in May, my essay -- ironically on the topic of love -- got high remarks from my teacher and was picked as the best in class. Later one day in June, our teacher came to class and asked everyone if they knew why Germany's flag was at half-mast. To his surprise, the only person in the class to know was me. I said that it was the 44th anniversary of the General Stauffenberg's coup against Hitler. When asked where I knew that from, I said I had seen a movie on it in Iran. Yes, proof that we had TV sets in Iran.

    From then on, at least as a person, within the small confines of my classroom, I knew I had gained respect. I was no longer that boy from madland; I was merely a person, and that in itself was a blessing. As time went by, I got used to all the fuss that would go along with being an Iranian, but for me and most other young boys, there were more challenges which stemmed from lack of financial resources. With the growing inflation in Iran, my father was barely capable of sending enough money for me to live with my sister in her dormitory. To make things more complicated, according to dorm rules, no underaged person was allowed to live there. For my entire stay in Germany, from the age of 13, I had to live a clandestine lifestyle. I would leave the dorm early in the morning at 6:00 and return after 5:00 in the evening, a few hours after school.

    In my pre and post-school hours, I would wonder around the city, often pondering about my fate and that of others like myself. With empty pockets, I would look at the happy faces of the German students eating chocolate bars, candies and ice cream, and felt betrayed by those in my own country, who had denied us so much. I would look at the buses and trains, universities and stores and wondered why Iranians are so deprived. I would look at the free people and wondered why are we so repressed as a nation. In Iranian schools, I was told that the source of our problems was the U.S. or England or other imperialist forces, and of course, the Shah. As I would walk through the streets, I had begun to seriously question the validity of any of the lessons I had been taught. Those were indeed some interesting times for me, as my childhood innocence was suddenly shattered and I quickly faced the realities of life.

    It was only in my fourth month in Germany, when I received a letter from German police, who are in charge of foreigners' visa matters, stating that there are over 10,000 Iranian boys in Germany, who were becoming a burden on the country. The letter claimed that most did not have sufficient supervision or financial means, that some have become involved in criminal activities and therefore, they had requested me to either become a refugee, live with a German family or return to Iran. For some reason, the word refugee back then sounded too horrible. I also did not want to live with a German family when I could live with my sister. Returning to Iran, which was still involved in a seemingly endless war, was also out of the question. After a couple of months of expensive legal nonsense, I managed to get things straightened out with the help of my father's old friend.

    Life went on: leave the dorm at 6:00 in the morning, return after 5:00 at night. I felt like an escaped prisoner. I stayed out of sight of any one who seemed untrustworthy. One day in July 1998, toward the final days of school, our teacher mentioned that Iran had accepted a ceasefire with Iraq. I could barely contain myself. I practically ran all the way to the dorm which was quite a long way. I took the unorthodox step of going to the second floor, out of my safe haven where there was a shortwave radio in the shared livingroom. A couple of students, who were probably the only two pro-government Iranians around, were already by the radio. The news began with the usual revolutionary chants and the broadcaster read Khomeini's famous line that he had taken the cup of poison and agreed to peace. The statement was shocking, but what was more appalling was the sad faces of the two other students who seemed upset. But I had no time to analyze anyone at such a joyous moment and I left for the third floor, with a big smile on my face.

    Eleven years has gone by since that moment at Frankfurt airport when all I could remember were tears, pain, and darkness. Those days have long gone. Today I live in a new country, far away from Iran and Germany. But at times the sad memories still come to haunt me. My heart aches when I think of all of us clueless teenagers wondering around far away from home. Someone famous once said: those who forget history, are bound to repeat it. So, let's not forget. Let's hope that one day the dreams which all those young children carried in their hearts far away from home -- dreams of true peace, freedom and dignity -- will finally come true in Iran. Amen!


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