Iran: Christians Refugees Depart for U.S.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Uncertainty plagues family in Turkey until plane is airborne.

February 22 (Compass) – Facing the death penalty in their home country for converting to Christianity, an Iranian refugee family today left Turkey for the United States, where they have been accepted for resettlement.

Zivar Khademian and her three adult children boarded a Delta flight to New York this morning at 11:45 a.m. local time, after traveling all night by bus to Istanbul from their temporary home in the central northern Turkish city of Kastamonu.

According to International Organization of Migration (IOM) officials, the family will spend one night in New York before flying on to Lincoln, Nebraska, where they will resettle with the assistance of a local refugee aid organization.

Khademian’s oldest son, Faheem Moini, who works as an assistant pastor in Vancouver, British Columbia, plans to drive to Nebraska to welcome his family to the United States. He immigrated to Canada in 1997 and has not seen his mother and younger sister Fatemeh Moini, 20, in 12 years. The other two refugees of the family, Hossein and Kazem Moini, both in their early 30s, last saw their older brother 17 years ago.

Troubles till the End

Though the United States accepted the family for settlement in November, uncertainty over details of their emigration continued to plague the refugees up until their departure.

At a formal immigration orientation in Istanbul in late November, the family was told to contact the IOM weekly in order to learn their departure date.

Their emigration was initially delayed when Hossein Moini was called back to Istanbul’s American Hospital to retake medical examinations, apparently over kidney problems that he suffered from as a child.

By mid-January, with no departure date set and their visas about to expire, Turkish police demanded that the family spend $800 to prolong their stay. The problem seemed resolved on January 27, when the IOM informed Khademian that she and her children would be leaving on February 22. Police then relented, saying that instead of spending money to renew their visas, the refugees would simply be issued exit permits.

On Monday (February 20), local police in Kastamonu contacted the family to say that their exit papers were ready. But when Hossein Moini went to pick them up the next morning, police refused to give them to him, saying that they didn’t think the family would make their flight in Istanbul the next morning.

“What time is your bus to Istanbul?” one officer asked Hossein Moini. The Christian responded that they hoped to leave for Istanbul at 1:30 that afternoon. “Come back at 1:10 p.m.,” police told him. At the arranged time, the Moini brother picked up their exit papers from the police station without hassle, but the family was unable to leave the city until 11 p.m. that night.

Exciting Future

Before fleeing Iran in January 2003, the widowed Khademian and her children were baptized in secret by a Protestant church in Tehran.

After arriving in Turkey, the family was twice refused refugee status under U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) terms, despite their status as former Muslims who had converted to Christianity. Under Iran’s strict Islamic laws, anyone who abandons the Muslim faith faces the death penalty.

Kazem Moini had been jailed for six months in Tehran after being caught duplicating Christian tapes. His sister, Fatemeh Moini, meanwhile, faced the prospect of being given in marriage to a strict Muslim relative from the Basij militia, who was making that demand based on the promise of her deceased father.

Later, the family also obtained a copy of an arrest order issued in October 2004 by the Supreme Court of Iran against Khademian for committing apostasy.

Although the family received a final rejection letter last February from the UNHCR declaring their file “closed,” Turkish authorities stayed their deportation order for six months in response to a plea from a Canadian church hoping to sponsor the family. But when the extension expired, the family was ordered to leave Turkey by October 20 or be forced back to Iran, where they faced probable arrest and the death penalty.

After a formal appeal to the UNHCR by the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly

Refugee Legal Aid Program in Istanbul, U.S. officials intervened directly in their plight, summoning the family to Istanbul for an eligibility interview four days after their deportation deadline had expired.

Preparing for Departure

At Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport this morning, Khademian and her children told Compass that it was hard to believe that they were actually going to the United States after all that they had been through.

But excitement set in as the family began to discuss the future. Hossein Moini told Compass that he had already been getting to know Lincoln, Nebraska, viewing live shots of the city posted on the Internet. “It’s seems like a really great place,” he commented. “There is a church on every street.”

Fatemeh Moini said that she wants to learn English as quickly as possible so that she can make up years of school that she missed while in Turkey. Her goal is to study medicine and become a heart surgeon.

All smiles, Khademian said that she was looking forward to being reunited with her oldest son.

Copyright © 2006 Compass Direct