Bahman’s story

The story of Bahman, who arrived in Marseille in 2017, after a previous stay in Paris: “If I think about my journey since arriving in France, the first thing I would advise someone arriving today would be to try to find people to accompany them to their various appointments. For me, it’s changed everything!”

I was born in Iran, 33 years ago, into a modest family: we weren’t poor, nor did we have a middle-class standard of living, but life was easy for us, and we got by with what we had.

My father was born in a village and moved to the city in the late ’90s, when he found work in a factory in the aeronautics sector. He started out as a simple worker, but put a lot of effort into his career, quickly moving up the ladder to better-paid positions. As is often the case in Iran, men feel the weight and honor of having to improve the conditions for their families, and devote their lives to work. Wives, on the other hand, take a back seat, keep house and – in general – support their husbands.

Although over time I realized that I didn’t want to reproduce this model for my life (we’ll come back to that later), I recognize that my parents were exemplary in their commitment to enabling us to grow up in favorable and serene conditions. To this day, my father is a person I greatly appreciate and in whom I have complete confidence.

Childhood and adolescence in a camp

My father’s career in the aeronautics industry had a direct impact on my education and early experiences as a teenager: the factory – publicly owned – offered its employees company housing in a neighborhood that, indeed, should be defined as a ‘camp’.

Life there was rather strictly regulated, with schedules and prescriptions that – I would later come to understand – were not compatible with my personality and the period of life I was going through. A military philosophy, applied to work and productivity, affected every aspect of family life in these camps: to give you just one example, the lights were turned off for everyone at 9pm. What’s more, the surveillance imposed also translated into a reciprocal control that was unbearable for me: everyone kept an eye on their neighbors, their customs and their willingness to respect the rules of the camp, but also the dominant codes in Iranian society.

When the first camp was closed by the factory, we moved to another house, also located in a camp, which was more comfortable and, above all, less regulated. I was still a teenager, and I discovered at that moment that I’d lived the first part of my life submerged by a mass of codes that I’d inevitably integrated and reproduced. In this second camp, I began to glimpse the pleasure of living a freer life, surrounded by people who were more open-minded and less formatted by their environment.

The city, a new leap

Some time later, my father started building a small house in a big city. When it was finished, we moved in, leaving – at last – the workers’ camps adjacent to the factories.

Once again, I discovered a new, more open way of life. A year later, with very little money, I decided to leave my family to follow my studies in another city.

It wasn’t easy: I really didn’t have any money, so the only thing I could do was attend my classes and then go home… Sometimes I’d go and do a bit of sport, to move around a bit and get out without having to spend any money.

I was very interested in art, philosophy and mental well-being, but in Iran it’s not easy to follow your interests and chart your own course. Too many pressures and expectations force you to make choices that, in the end, are not your own.  And so it was that I found myself enrolled at the University of Chemical Engineering, with a course in petroleum studies! 

It was undoubtedly a degree that would have given me access to interesting positions, but I felt that I didn’t want to dedicate my life to making money and improving my condition. Instead, I was interested in issues related to mental well-being, balance and self-awareness, and I wanted to create something that would enable me to share these interests with my community, going beyond the limits imposed by the individualism in which we evolve in Iran.

My idea was to create something, an association, a project, that could really be a resource for my community, something I was starting to set up at the same time as I was pursuing my engineering studies.

The decision to leave, the need for a change of context

After working on this project for some time, and realizing how difficult it was to talk about these kinds of issues in my own country, something happened to me that I’d rather not talk about here, but which convinced me once and for all that it was impossible for me, with the energy I had at the time, not only to carry on with this project, but also to continue living in Iran. I now saw too many obstacles in the path towards a life like the one I’d dreamed of.

It was then that I decided to leave the country. The exile, the journey and the distance were all hardships to be overcome, not to mention the asylum application procedure in France, with all its complexity, slowness and series of appointments where you’re asked to bring new documents every time… It’s a really tough process, especially if you’re not lucky enough to be accompanied. Every day, you feel the pressure of the next appointment approaching: “Have I prepared my application properly? Am I forgetting anything? What are they going to ask me this time?”

At each stage, I’d go home with a sheet of paper covered in French words, with lists of supporting documents and other items I didn’t know existed, or at least struggled to understand. Personally, I was lucky enough to have people around me who helped me get through the procedure, interpreting what the French authorities expected of me.

Accompanying persons at appointments, an important presence

If I think about my journey since I arrived in France, the first thing I would advise someone arriving today would be to try to find people to accompany them to their various appointments. For me, it’s changed everything!

Having someone helping me, physically present at my meetings with the institutions, translating the forms I was given and explaining to me how to proceed really changed my perspective and my mind: I could finally see where I was going, I could see doors opening to my future in this country, rather than feeling crushed by the mountain I was being asked to climb.

Once refugee status has been obtained, you must become an "active person"

Once I’d obtained refugee status, I immediately started working in Paris, where I lived. I didn’t give myself time to face up to everything I’d been through, or to think about how I was going to get through it. After a few months, I realized that I didn’t have the serenity and balance to be an “active person”, and even less so in a tough city like Paris.

I faced all these difficulties at the same time as I was going through very delicate phases in my life: it was really hard. Today, after many long months spent gathering my energies and “rebuilding” myself, I feel I have the strength and the mindset to start reaching out to others again, seeking out encounters and telling myself that I’ll have something to give to others. I’m 33 years old, I’ve been through a lot of different contexts and situations, often difficult, and I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world: so many resources I can use to help others.

Occasional visits to Marseille, and then the decision to move there, also helped me in this process: here, I discovered other types of relationships with people in the street, reactions were much gentler than in Paris, people were much more relaxed, and it was really easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Not to mention the light, the sun and the sea, the nature that’s just a 20-minute bus ride away… and everything else they can offer you!

A new project, this time in Marseille!

That’s how I started to imagine things again : I talked to some psychologist friends about my idea of setting up an association to help migrants who, like me, suffer from the consequences of their migration, the traumas linked to the journey and the difficulties they discover when they arrive in France. The project is under construction, but I’ve already received positive feedback and endorsements from professionals.

When I arrived in Marseille, I really wanted to reset my counter, to get off to a good start. I started by asking for my Iranian documents and qualifications to be validated and recognized in France. It took almost three years, and the result was that only my driving license was accepted!

So I enrolled in a training course: I wanted to have a profession that would allow me to earn some money and dedicate some time to my project. I tried to get a hairdresser’s diploma, but I didn’t get it, because my level of French was too low…

Giving names to things we've been through

Humans tend to apply labels to people: “You’re a homeless person”, “He’s a hero”… It’s something that makes me uncomfortable, we’re all human beings, we are what we feel more than what’s stuck on us when a label is applied.

Each label carries with it a set of ideas – positive or negative – that have nothing to do with the person you wish to designate, and do nothing for him or her.

Another example: when I meet a new person here in France, I’m always asked about my origins. When I answer “Iran”, the reaction is often “Wow!”. This ‘wow’ is – also – racist, it contains all the ideas the person may have about my country, but has nothing to do with what I’ve been through and, above all, with the person I am.

There are so many ways to start a conversation, to show interest in others… Ask me how I’m feeling, or what I did this morning, rather than asking about my origins so that you can stick me with the ideas you have about Iran!

On the other hand, after experiencing all the difficulties linked to the context in which I grew up, and later to migration, I understood the importance of giving a name to the things you’ve been through. As long as I didn’t really say to myself: “You’ve just been through something hard”, or “What you’ve just done was difficult”, I wasn’t able to heal my wounds and, finally, turn the page.