14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 20 February 2023 — Keivan Esfandiyar taught teenagers aged 13 to 16 years at a school in Tehran, and although he taught Experimental Sciences, he used to make comments in class and with his colleagues about human rights, democracy and civil liberties. One day he received a summons to appear before the Judiciary and he knew then that he could no longer remain in his country.
Born in Tehran in March 1988, Esfandiyar, in addition to being a teacher, has a degree as a nurse anesthetist. He is married, he lost his mother when he was very young, but the rest of his family is in the Persian country. In November 2018 he arrived in Havana and after spending more than four years, he can no longer tolerate his status as a refugee in Cuba and his main concern is how to emigrate to any country that is not Iran.
This week, Esfandiyar spoke with 14ymedio from a funeral home in Central Havana, a place to evade prying eyes and also a symbol of the fatalistic state in which he feels his life on the Island has become.
Question: How did an Iranian end up as a refugee in Cuba?
Response: The most logical thing was to go to Turkey, with whom we share a border, but right now there are more than three million Syrian refugees there and a growing number of Afghans who are fleeing the Taliban and the situation is very difficult.
Q: Did you know that the Cuban regime is a friend of the Iranian government?
R: I learned that later, but what I do know is that Turkey is friendlier than Cuba to the Iranian dictators. They have returned thousands of Iranian refugees, many ended up in prison and several were executed. Cuba hasn’t returned any.
Q: But, why Cuba?
R: A friend told me that at least 15 Iranian refugees had been received here and that they were protected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices. I then consulted the internet, read that in Cuba there was security and good health services and I entered through the airport in Havana with a tourist visa.
Q: Was it difficult for you to make the decision to emigrate?
R: In Iran, in every office, in every school or institution belonging to the government there is a man from the security forces. This man is responsible for surveilling, being aware and pressuring others to inform on their colleagues. They, in turn, inform their bosses at the political police. I was viewed as a bad influence on those young people, as an enemy of the government. They kill for those reasons. It was difficult to make the decision, but I had no other choice.
Q: You said that you spent two years as an “asylum seeker” and another two years as a refugee. You receive economic support for refugees from UNHCR which covers the basics. How has it been going for you in Cuba?
A: I live like a Cuban, with problems in the water supply, power outages, lining up to buy food and looking for medicine on the black market, but with the added difficulty that they see me and treat me like a foreigner who is here as a tourist, which makes people think I’m rich.
Not long ago I asked a man on the street to let me light my cigarette with his lighter. He was a middle-aged man with a respectable appearance who said, very seriously, “Give me 50 pesos and I’ll light your cigarette.”
Neither my wife nor I have a work permit, we spend the day in the small room we rent in a licensed private house, we do not have the luxury of doing anything fun like dining in a restaurant or going to the beach. The only advantage we have is that among Cubans we have not felt racism nor xenophobia.
Q: You place your hope in obtaining refuge in another country, especially the United States. What processes have you gone through or plan to undertake to achieve your objective?
R: I should say that UNHCR is not the problem, but rather the countries that should give us refugee visas. Canada does not receive any and the European countries have the idea that refugees who are in Cuba are the responsibility of the United States Embassy, but those offices have been closed for a long time and have not processed a case similar to ours through UNHCR. Now we have a bit of hope because they now have people working in the consulate.
Q: In August 2022 your daughter Viana was born in Havana; she is registered as a Cuban. Does that change the situation?
R: We decided to have a child now because we did not know if time would run out. We hope that with Cuban emigration [Directorate of Identification, Immigration and Foreigners] there won’t be a problem [for their daughter to leave the country], but they have told us that the Americans no longer provide refuge to Cubans and other countries have the same problem.
Q: How has it been for you with the free public health?
R: For the last year, we’ve had a card issued by the Red Cross, which states that it serves to “receive services at Health Units authorized by the Ministry of Health,” but the problem is that it is very difficult to obtain the medicine. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and I need to take pills called sertraline and for five months, the pharmacies have not stocked them. This issue is not viewed as serious enough to obtain refuge in other countries. If I were diabetic it would be viewed as an emergency situation.
Sometimes I believe they are waiting for me to go completely crazy to process my case.
Translated by: Silvia Suárez
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