Fleeing Iran and Turkey

Nasser Jahan

As told to Cliff Williams

Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Nasser on November 27, 2023. His father fled to Turkey, from Iran, when he learned that he could be killed by the Iranian government. Nasser and his family joined his father in Turkey a year later, where they lived for nearly ten years. They then immigrated to the United States. Nasser was in his midthirties when we talked. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Leaving Iran

Nasser was born in the northern part of Iran, by the Caspian Sea. “I was raised by my mom in the Islamic faith, and I learned how to be a good Muslim. My dad practiced no religion. He wrote books and articles that got him into trouble with the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was imprisoned numerous times.

“When I was nine, my dad got in a lot more trouble with the government. I once saw him jump from the window of our apartment and run away from the cops, who had come to arrest him. When, eventually, he was arrested, he was put into Evin prison in Tehran, where we lived at the time. That prison had become internationally notorious for interrogating and torturing political prisoners.*

“For a long time, we had no clue he was there. When my mom found out, she went to my uncle and got the deed of his house to put down so that the prison would release my dad. He immediately fled to Turkey.

“This was in the late 1990s, before computers had become essential in regulating ground border crossings. The day after my dad crossed the border, the border crossing station received a letter saying that he was not allowed to leave the country.

“My dad lived in Istanbul for a year before the rest of us could join him. That year was a pretty hard time for us. It was very difficult for a woman in a Middle Eastern country to deal with everything. But eventually my mom was able to sell everything and get things situated so that we could join my dad in Istanbul.”

Refugees in Turkey

Nasser’s father applied for refugee status in Turkey. “He thought he could get it easily. But because his issue was political, it took much longer. He had heard that Syria was more helpful to refugees and that it was a lot quicker to respond to refugee situations. So after spending three months in Istanbul, we traveled by bus to Damascus in Syria, about a three-day journey.

“We went to the United Nations office there and applied for refugee status. They were, indeed, quick. Right away they told us to go back to Turkey. After a month, we did, to Ankara, the capital, where we would have to go the United Nations office. It is a city of more than four million.

“There was no refugee camp in or near Ankara. We were on our own, with literally nothing—no money, no ability to work, and nothing to do. When we arrived in Ankara, we sat in the bus terminal for twenty-four hours, not having any place to go.

“While we were at the bus terminal, my dad tried to connect with people he had come to know during the year he was in Istanbul by himself. Eventually he was able to find someone who would allow us to rent a room for a few weeks until we could move on, an Iranian who himself was a refugee. We couldn’t pay him any money up front, because we had none, but my dad was able to find a job as an electrician. I went with him, because I was not allowed to go to school because of being a refugee. Both of us worked illegally.

“My older sister, who was about sixteen or seventeen, began to be molested by the man we rented from. My dad intervened, and we found ourselves on the street again.

“The next place we lived was in a gecekondu, a tiny, mud house with concrete floors that had been built in twenty-four hours. At the time, the Turkish government allowed people to become owners of a gecekondu if they could build it on vacant property that belonged to the government. We found one, already built. It had two tiny rooms plus a bathroom but no shower.

“We moved into it with all of our belongings in two suitcases. The first night we slept on the concrete floor with one blanket under the four of us and one blanket on top. We woke to neighbors looking at us through the window. And the day after that, they practically filled our house with furniture. That was the beginning of four years of hardship and suffering, because technically we weren’t allowed to work or go to school. But we had to find some way to live until the United Nations gave us a response to our refugee application.”

Survival Mode

The first time the United Nations responded, it rejected the family’s case saying that it was not adequate. “But my dad couldn’t go back to Iran. He would be killed.

“Fortunately, most of my family was able to find work. But at times we were not paid for it because refugees legally didn’t have to be paid.

“After working with my dad as an electrician, I went to work for an advertisement company. I didn’t know Turkish at the time, but began learning it as I worked. This was before electronic printing, so my job was to hand print stickers that could be put on cars. I did that for a few months until I learned Turkish. Then I worked for a place that made bags that you could put rice and beans and other things in.

“My sister was working with me there, along with another Iranian family who were also refugees. The place wanted to fire them and keep me, but I said, ‘If you fire them, I’m leaving too.’ So we all left, and again I worked with my dad as an electrician. We did all the electrical work at a university in Ankara, and then we did the electrical work at another school in Ankara.

“That second place was an hour from where we were staying, so we found a way to stay overnight in the building we were working on. It was a brand new building that wasn’t occupied yet. We had to figure out how to find food and to stay warm when it snowed.

“I fell once and broke my nose, but we didn’t have money for me to go to a doctor. I still have the mark of that broken nose. Other things happened like that too. It was a life of simply surviving.

“We never went hungry, though that depends on the definition of ‘hungry.’ There were days when we only had bread. Others days it was lentils, some days beans, and some days cheese. We always had something to eat, not in abundance, but enough to keep us going.

“During the winters, we were able to stay warm a good share of the time. In some of the old houses in Turkey, there was a coal heating stove called a ‘soba.’ Coal was very expensive, so we weren’t able to get as much of it as we needed. It heated the house for five or six hours, and then we had to stop burning the coal so we could have enough for the next day. The hardest part about that was that there were no hot showers. Sometimes, though, we warmed up pots of water and used a bowl to pour warm water on top of ourselves.

 “I didn’t have much of a normal teenage life during those four years. My best friends were forty years old, and I began to indulge in the things they did, such as drinking and cussing. Whatever they did, I did with them.

“In the process of our suffering, one of the conclusions I came to was that my dad was right: There is no God. If there was a God, he would not allow a child to go through the things I was going through.”

To Istanbul

Four years after living in Ankara, Nasser’s father got an offer to work in Istanbul, a city of sixteen million. “He went there ahead of the rest of us. While he was walking on one of the busy streets, he bumped into the son of one of the families he had met when he had spent a year there alone. My dad had sent that family to a Christian church in Istanbul, not because he or the family were Christians, but because the church was Iranian. At times my dad had gone to that church as well so that he could be around other Iranians and refugees.

“When the two—my dad and the son of the family—bumped into each other, they said, ‘Hey! I know you.’ And because the Iranian culture is a culture of honor, the son said, ‘Come to our house.’ So my dad went to their house.

“The whole family was excited to see my dad. They said, ‘You sent us to a church, and we are Christians because of that. You led us to Jesus, to Christ and salvation. We want to help you. Go get your family, and we will find you an apartment in Istanbul. We will take care of you.’

“So my dad came back to Ankara, and we packed everything we had. We found someone who was driving a truck to Istanbul, who took our stuff there while we traveled by train. The family in Istanbul found us an apartment on the fifth floor of a building, which we had to walk up to because the building had no elevator. And they also found a job for my dad and me renovating the 125 year-old church building where the family had been going to church. The church gave my mom the job of serving coffee and preparing cookies at the end of Sunday morning church services.”


Nasser and his family converted to Christianity. “Again, because our culture is a culture of honor, my dad said to me, ‘I don’t want you to be an idiot working for the church. Take this New Testament and read it, so you know what they are talking about.’

“I read Matthew. It was a beautiful story, but I didn’t believe in it. To me it was just a story. Then I read Mark, the second book in the New Testament. It was the same story. So I thought, ‘I don’t need to read it.’

“That night, as I was getting ready to go to bed, the phone rang. It was my older sister and her daughter. They had decided to come visit us in Istanbul from Iran. But they had gotten arrested at the border between Iran and Turkey, not on the Iranian side but on the Turkish side. That was not good—a single woman with her daughter. I felt desperate.

“I prayed. I said, ‘Jesus, if you are God, I need you to do something.’

“At seven o’clock the next morning, the phone rang. It was my sister. She said, ‘They let us go.’ I said to myself, ‘Okay, that was really quick, Jesus. Let’s work this out slowly. That was too fast.’

“Later, my parents had another girl. She was born with a hole in her heart. On a Sunday morning shortly after she was born, she went black in the middle of a church service which my family was at. She wasn’t breathing.

“My dad had to carry her to the nearest hospital, because the church was on a street where no cars are allowed. He ran. The doctor there said, ‘It’s not good. Prepare for the worst.’ My dad called my mom, who was still in the church service. He said, ‘The only thing I can think of is to have people pray.’

“My mom started crying, and the people at the church service surrounded her. The pastor came and prayed.

“A few minutes later, my dad called my mom and said, ‘She’s fine.’ The Muslim doctor said to my dad, ‘I don’t know what God you had your wife pray to, but whoever this God is, make sure you tell her to hang onto it.’

“My whole family began to believe. We had seen miracles and healings and other wonderful things. I had also had a strange experience some years earlier, when I was nine.

“One night I had a dream. In it, I woke up in the middle of the night and had to go to the bathroom. A ghostlike man was standing by the door of the bathroom. I wasn’t frightened as I normally would be. I asked him, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am the Holy Spirit.’ I had never heard anything like that in my life, and I had no idea what he meant. I simply said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He replied, ‘I have always been with you.’ After I woke up from the dream, I didn’t think anything about it until I was sixteen, when my family started going to the Christian church.”

Kicked Out

Nasser and his family moved to a house. “Someone in the church gave a picture of Jesus to my mom, which she hung on the wall of the house.

“One day, the landlord came for tea. He walked right in—the custom in Turkey is that a landlord can just show up at your house. He saw the picture of Jesus on the wall and asked, ‘You people are Muslims, right?’ My mom said, ‘No, we are Christians.’ The landlord nodded and said nothing. But when he got home, he called us and said, ‘You have two weeks to leave my house. Otherwise, I will throw all your stuff out.’

“My dad found another place for us to stay, but it was a dump. It was in a building that was 150 years old and had about six hundred square feet. It had old wallpaper on it, and when we pulled it off the walls so as to paint them, thousands of cockroaches ran out of the wall. The apartment was infested with bed bugs and mice. Living there for the next year and a half was a disaster. We were in survival mode again.”

Getting a U.S. Visa

“Istanbul is a highway of refugees,” Nasser said. “They go to Istanbul to try to get refugee status at the United Nations there or to travel through it illegally from one country to another. The church I went to had a ministry to refugees, and I volunteered to be in it. It was for women and children, but after I volunteered, we extended it to men as well. We acquired clothing, food, and other items to give to the refugees who passed through Istanbul. Along the way, I learned both Turkish and English.

“One day, a young woman who was a missionary from Tucson, Arizona, showed up. She had come to Istanbul to teach English to Muslims and refugees. We soon began working together in the refugee ministry, and during the next two years I fell in love with her. We married in 2007, in Turkey.

“I was now past the age of eighteen, which meant that I was no longer under my parents’ refugee status. My Iranian passport was about to expire, and the Iranian consulate told me, ‘We are not going to renew it for you. We know you converted to Christianity. You have to go back to Iran to get a new passport.’

“I don’t know how they knew I had become a Christian, but somehow they had figured it out. My wife and I decided I would apply for a U.S. visa. We didn’t think I would get it, but I applied anyway. We were scheduled for an interview a month later.

“We traveled to Ankara and went to the American Embassy. The interviews were taking place in an open room where you could hear them. We arrived at 7:00 a.m., and all I heard was ‘rejected,’ ‘rejected,’ ‘rejected.’ Our turn was at noon.

“The woman at the embassy said, ‘Your documents.’ I handed her my documents, and she said, ‘Approved.’ I said, ‘But I have documents,’ thinking that we were rejected. Then I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘You are approved.’

“Two months later, I had a visa to go to the United States, which was a miracle on its own, because for Iranians, it usually takes six months to six years for all the paperwork to get done.”

Parents Getting a U.S. Visa

Before Nasser obtained a U.S. visa, his family was rejected three times by the United Nations for refugee status. “We were rejected a second time when we were in Istanbul and then a third time as well. Once your case is rejected three times, they will usually not reopen it. At that point, our choices were either to go back to Iran and die or to stay in Turkey, where we wouldn’t have much of a future.

“Not getting refugee status didn’t mean that we were staying in Turkey illegally. We still had our passports, and we renewed our visa every three months. At least, we tried to. We had to go to the adjacent countries of Syria or Georgia or the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea to renew them, which was very expensive. Out of the nearly ten years we lived in Turkey, we were illegal only three of them.

“As my wife and I were getting ready to go to the U.S., after my family and I had lived nine and a half years as refugees, all of a sudden my parents got a call from the United Nations. They said that they had decided to reopen my parents’ case and send them to America. Another miracle.

“In December of 2007, my wife and I moved to Tucson, Arizona, and in September of 2008, my parents moved to Fresno, California.”

Differences Between the U.S. and Turkey

One big difference between living in Turkey and the U.S., Nasser says, is the abundance of everything. “The blessings in American are beyond comprehension. The very fact of having hot, running water is a blessing, plus having vehicles to drive and the freedom to work and do various things. The abundance of food is amazing—everywhere we go there are food and drinks. In Turkey, we had to pay for water. You couldn’t just go into a store and ask for a glass of water.

“At the same time, the high quantity of luxuries in the U.S. is disturbing, because there is enough to go around for the whole world. 

“The hardest part about coming to the U.S. has to do with spirituality. The Americans I had known in Turkey were mostly religious people. I had no idea how godless this country was until I moved here. That almost brought me to a breaking point.

“My wife and I had gone to a number of different churches in the U.S. But they all seemed despicable because they were so different from what I was accustomed to—the way people dressed, the way ministers preached, the way churches did worship .

“One Sunday morning I was sitting in a church angry and wondering why God had brought me to America. At once I felt God speaking to me: ‘No, sir. Your problem is that you want people to be what you want them to be. Love people for who they are. Then your attitude will change.’

“My attitude changed. I began to see Americans and Western culture for what they are. I was able to get involved in doing ministry again because of that moment. With two other couples, I and my wife were able to start a new church, where I am now pastor.”

* For information about Evin prison, see “Torture, Detention, and the Crushing of Dissent in Iran,” Part V, “Detention Centers and Ill-Treatment,” Human Rights Watch, at https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/iran0604/5.htm, plus numerous other sites.

© 2024 by Cliff Williams


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