Afshin sits by a lake in North Carolina. He is happy here. But it took a long journey across oceans and continents, and in court seeking asylum, for him to reach a simple moment of peace. Three years ago, Afshin fled his home country of Iran, saying goodbye to loving parents and siblings, in fear for his life. When asked why he sought refuge in the United States, he answers bluntly: “I didn’t have any other option.”
In Iran, Afshin was a university student majoring in engineering until he was arrested for criticizing the government’s policies and for supporting the pro-democracy movement. Afshin was released but summoned to face a hostile court known for cruel and unfair punishments.
“If I stayed, the court would sentence me for years,” Afshin says. “I would be captured immediately and put in prison, where I would be tortured. I was worried about the prison conditions in Iran, especially for political prisoners.”
He fled to Turkey, and from there to South America. In Ecuador, he experienced discrimination and was targeted by corrupt officials. The unfamiliar language and culture made him feel isolated, he says. That first year in exile was the hardest of his life. Nevertheless, he sought asylum in Ecuador. It was denied.
“The people of Iran are alone in this world,” Afshin says. “Nobody really supports us or cares about us. I felt that in South America and also in the U.S. from the Border Patrol.” (More on that to come.) “I’m praying for the people of Iran at this time. I think the government in Iran is not good, but that doesn’t mean the people of Iran are bad.”
Afshin migrated to Colombia, where he befriended a pastor in Bogota. He began attending church and decided to be baptized. “Life in Colombia was really good for me,” Afshin says. “I finally had a supportive group of friends. I was going to church, and I loved the people.” He applied for asylum in Colombia, but there too he was denied. “I had to leave Colombia [after I lost my case] because I knew I could not live there undocumented and risk being deported to Iran.”
Afshin continued north, enduring immigration detention in Central America and in Mexico, and finally sought asylum at the U.S. border.
“When the Border Patrol officer heard me say I was from Iran, his behavior changed completely,” Afshin says. “He became very serious and angry, and he told me, ‘Sit the f-word down!’” Afshin recalls that another Border Patrol officer tried to provoke Afshin by getting in his face and saying, “You got a problem with me?! You got a problem?!” Other officers asked Afshin if he was a terrorist. He was shocked by the treatment he received due to his nationality.
The Border Patrol placed him in a holding cell. “The conditions were horrible,” Afshin recalls. “I arrived in February. At night it was freezing cold, and they only gave us an emergency aluminum blanket to keep us warm. A lot of people were crowded in the small area, and we couldn’t even wash our hands.”
After five days, Afshin was transferred to immigration detention—a massive, prison-like compound in the Arizona desert. “There are two types of guards [in ICE detention],” he recalls, reflecting on the treatment he and the other immigrants endured. “There are neutral people who behave neutrally, and there are some bad officers who try to abuse their power.”
Afshin noticed a Florence Project flyer on a bulletin board at the detention center. He requested our legal support, and Florence Project attorney Rachel Lerman and legal assistant Natalia Salazar responded. Over the course of six months, they developed Afshin’s asylum case together.
“Rachel did her job awesomely and working with Natalia always felt like I was talking to a friend,” Afshin says. “When you are in detention, your hands are tied. You don’t have many options, especially if you don’t have someone in the U.S. It’s hard to fight a case or get access to legal information. I think that the way Florence Project helps [people who are detained] is really helpful and valuable.”
Inside the detention center, people shared the statistic that only 5% of detained individuals win their immigration cases, while 95% are denied. “Without having someone like an attorney,” Afshin says, “it’s almost impossible to win a case in detention. This is what I saw.”
Many friends that Afshin made in ICE detention, including fellow Iranians, were deported. He felt fortunate to have Florence Project advocates by his side at his final hearing. The judge granted asylum. Now, with a loud sigh and laughter, Afshin recalls that moment: “Rachel was beside me. She looked at me and smiled. I felt comfort and freedom actually for the first time after three years of being without legal status in 11 countries.”
“After that I laughed, but not in front of the judge—in the visiting room, outside the courtroom with Natalia. She was really excited. She jumped. I think she was more excited than me,” Afshin says with a chuckle.
Natalia says Afshin made her a better legal assistant by educating her on the situation in Iran and by researching and asking questions about their legal strategy. “He was truly the leader of his case. He shaped the way his story was told and was just an amazing advocate for himself,” Natalia says.
Afshin relocated to North Carolina after connecting with a friendly people there through his church community in Colombia. “I have found really good friends and met a lot of good people,” he shares. The photo above was taken at a lakeside retreat. Afshin plans to earn a GED and apply to universities and continue his education.
“That guy can do anything,” says Natalia. “If he became an astronaut and went to some new planet that we have not yet discovered, I would not be surprised.”