A migrant worker on a construction site in Iran.

Letters from Iran (2)

By Ehsan Omid

Sohrab, 23, is from the Herat province. This is his second time coming to Iran, both times crossing the border illegally. He was only 16 the first time he came to Iran. “I wanted to study, but I couldn’t because of my family’s financial difficulties.” Everyone thought this was a path to a better future, he told me of the vibe at the time around teenagers coming to Iran for work. 

Like most immigrants from Afghanistan, he was working a construction job. They had to carry most of the construction materials by hand to the upper floors. “Dragging cement and sandbags up several floors was our daily routine,” he said. It took a while before it dawned on him. The work itself wasn’t difficult, but dealing with his lost dreams was. “Imagine a 16-year-old boy carrying a bag of cement up to the sixth floor of a building, while seeing young people, just like us, heading to school with their books and supplies.” The job was myriad with frequent insults and verbal abuse. He returned to Afghanistan after five years with a modest saving.

After Sohrab returned, his family was quick to plan the rest of his life. In three months, he was engaged. The wedding was to follow. His father said they had to borrow nearly AFN 200,000 ($2,500) to cover the expenses, which he assured him that they could easily borrow and repay after the wedding. But he knew it would be on him to repay the loans.

The wedding was held and the expenses exceeded the estimates, leaving Sohrab’s family with a heavier debt than anticipated. To preserve their social standing, they had to maintain an appearance of wealth. After two weeks, one of the lenders unexpectedly demanded his money back earlier than the six months they had agreed.

Sohrab had to come back to Iran for work in order to repay the loan. It has been two years since. His former employer reluctantly gave him a job as a security guard at the construction site where he used to work in his previous illegal stint in Iran. But there was a condition. He had to work double shifts for the salary of one shift. He made 8 million Tomans ($180) a month for 16 hours of daily work. His employer constantly complained about his performance and his payments were irregular. One day, he screamed at him in front of other workers and said that he would throw out Sohrab’s belongings. He wanted to walk away from all of it, but he couldn’t. He had to work enough to pay his debts.

Recently, I asked Sohrab if he missed his home and wife. He let out a deep sigh as his eyes welled up with tears.  “Of course, but what choice do we have? We are left with nothing but to work until we die.” He paused for a moment, his voice heavy with emotion. “I have left my home and wife in God’s hands. We have no one else to turn to. Our income is low, and no matter how hard we work, nothing seems to change.” 

Sohrab cannot visit his family because he has neither a passport nor an Iranian visa. He would have to risk his life again to come to Iran. The government in Iran has escalated its crackdown on refugees, deporting thousands everyday to back to Afghanistan, where they face Taliban oppression and lack of economic opportunities. “For now, I endure all the hardship with the hope that one day I will pay off my debts and return home to my wife,” he told me.

Ehsan Omid is a migrant worker from Afghanistan in Iran. This letter is edited for length and clarity.