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Iran's Baha'is Leave Persecution Behind On Train To Istanbul

Tehran's railway station, the scene of many tearful good-byes
Tehran's railway station, the scene of many tearful good-byes
Every Thursday at dusk, members of one of Iran's most beleaguered religious minorities gather at Tehran's railway station.

With anxious, teary eyes, they are there to see off relatives and fellow Baha'is who have decided to pull up stakes forever and take the 8 p.m. train to a new life in Turkey.

The Tehran-Istanbul line has been running weekly for 12 years now, with every trip carrying Baha'is away from the discrimination they live with in Iran.

The country's largest religious minority, the Baha'is have faced discrimination ever since their religion was founded in what is now Iran in the mid-19th century.

But Iran's Islamic Revolution brought a turn for the worse. The new constitution gave no official recognition to the faith, seen as a false religion by the fledgling regime. The surge in persecution and harassment led many of Iran's 300,000 Baha'is to consider their options, and for the past 30 years a great number of them have chosen to leave.

This evening, approximately 200 passengers are making the trip to Turkey. Dozens of them are Baha'is on a one-way ticket.

A Cup Of Tea

I will be on the train for days, with a stop 60 hours into the trip in Kayseri, a Turkish city along the route to Istanbul that has become a popular end stop for Baha'is.

"On this train everyone has excess baggage, how come you don't have any at all?" a bewildered cargo attendant asks as I prepare to board.

The comment grabs the attention of two middle-aged women within earshot. Turning to me, they ask if I can check in some of their excess baggage to spare them paying an additional $110. "In return, we will give you freshly brewed tea on this long three-day trip," they offer.

Many take all they own.
Just 10 minutes late, the train departs. After settling in, I leave my compartment to find the two women.

At the station, I had seen a boy crying as they embarked. When I ask one of the women why, she says he was the youngest member of the family, and that she had to leave him behind.

"Poor boy, he feels really lonely now," she says. "If he had his passport, he would have come with me, but now he might have to leave the country in an unauthorized, illegal way."

If We Could Stay

During the journey, a number of the more than 80 Baha'is on the train agree to speak anonymously about their reasons for leaving Iran.

"After the revolution I was made redundant at the Education Ministry and I had to rent a cosmetics shop. It was okay until 10 years ago, when they declared my working license null and void," says one man.

He says he managed to send his two sons to Pakistan and, with the help of the Baha'i community, they then moved on to the United States.

"Now, my two daughters are older and want to continue their studies. Since we cannot let them go on their own, my whole family had to leave," he explains.

"We sold everything we had and we don't want to go back to Iran. We plan to stay living in Kayseri for some time until the United Nations or the Baha'i community does something for us," he says.

"We brought some necessities to avoid paying more for them in Turkey. It's not clear how long we will stay there -- a year, 10 months -- and since I probably won't be able to find a job right away, we brought some rice and cooking oil as well," he adds.

I ask why his family chose to leave by train.

"Certainly we would not have been able to take all this with us on a plane," he says of the family's excess baggage. "The train is much cheaper than a plane, and stops at Kayseri."

The family paid $700 for train tickets, an amount he says places a significant burden on his and other families.

"All of us in this train have relatively low incomes, and we have been under so much pressure over the years that we are without a penny to our name," he says. "Even now that we are heading to Kayseri, we have all our hopes in God, because we know we have hard days ahead of us.

"If only we could stay in Iran and live like other people," he laments.

Life In Limbo

"It's been more than two years that my two daughters have been in Kayseri," says a middle-aged woman from Babol, in northern Iran, who is traveling with her husband. "The UN is supposed to do something for them so they can go to America and continue their studies, but it is not yet clear when they will be able to go. In one or two years' time? Could it be tomorrow?"

She is aware that her daughters may have a long wait ahead of them, recounting the story of friends who spent four difficult years in Turkey before they were able to move to Canada.

"This is the fifth time we have been on this train to Turkey to visit our daughters to take them some money and foodstuffs," she says, expressing thanks to God that her family is somewhat well-off.

"My husband and I have worked all our lives and we have managed to make some savings to bring up our children," she adds. "Some international aid organizations have helped our daughters live their lives in Turkey until they can go to the country they want."

I ask why she doesn't emigrate herself. What keeps her and other Baha'is in Iran considering the hardships they face?

"As far as I know, most of our fellow Baha'is love Iran and would like to earn an honest living there and serve their fellow countrymen," she replies. "I consider myself one of them."

Nobody likes to be driven from their home, she explains, and the Baha'is who have left Iran had good reason.

"Most of them have left their country because of their children's future. Some have left their homeland because they were fired and they couldn't find a proper job. And after the executions in the early years of the revolution, some left because they feared for their lives," she says.

"Of course, the situation is not that bad anymore. But still, as a result of the difficulties Baha'is face in Iran, they are forced to leave."

Alone On Deck

The train to Istanbul passes plains, mountains, lakes, and rivers. Thirty-six hours after leaving Tehran, and six hours from the Iranian border, we reach Lake Van.

Passengers making the trip to Turkey along with two wagons carrying cargo are unhitched and transferred to a Turkish vessel that will ferry them across the lake. On the other side, they will switch to a Turkish train in the city of Tavan.
Some families may not see each other for years.

Along the way, some of the passengers dawdle on deck, while others head inside to gain their strength for the rest of the trip.

I see a young woman gazing at the horizon, leaning on the ship's railing. "I am 18, from a Baha'i family, and I am here to follow my destiny," she answers when I ask about her reasons for leaving Iran, apparently on her own.

"I want to live in a free country, continue my studies, and express my opinions and beliefs," she says. "I want to live somewhere where nobody asks me 'why.' For me, Iran is a country where you have so many 'whys' to answer. 'Why are you a Baha'i? Why are you this? Why are you not that?' I want to live freely, with no problems in life, where I can achieve my desires."

Despite its failings, she says, she loves Iran.

"I have lots of close bonds to the people there, but to have a better future I had to leave my homeland," she says, adding that her goal is to stay in Turkey until she can move to the United States to study medicine.

"The Baha'is in Iran suffer a lot, but they are patient and forbearing," she adds. "They all hope that one day things will get better, but that day never seems to come."

A Defeated Mother

With tearful eyes, a woman on the train introduces herself to me like this: "From the very first day of my life I have been in sorrow and agony, but because of the love in my heart for my homeland, I never thought of leaving."

She has worked as a dressmaker since the first day of her marriage 27 years ago in order to help her husband -- who works as a taxi driver despite having a university degree -- put food on the table.

"We did all we could to keep our children in Iran and see them succeed in life," she says. "But I have to confess that all that pressure has made a loser of me. I feel utterly defeated."

While she did what she could to avoid leaving home, everything changed when her daughter came to her and said she planned to leave Iran.

"For the next five or six months I kept trying to talk her out of it, but in the end it was I who gave up, because I realized she was right in coming to this decision. But believe me, even now all my heart and soul belongs to Iran."

Finding A New Home

At 8 a.m., the train finally reaches Kayseri, ending the long trip for many of the Baha'is. They are greeted warmly by members of their new community.

After 10 minutes, the train leaves the station to continue on to Ankara and Istanbul.

Upon returning to my compartment, I am pleased to find a pot of freshly brewed tea awaiting me.

As promised, I will have enough to make it through the rest of my journey.

Asha Shahir is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Farda

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