Flight from an Iranian Prison | Nations


27th May 2024

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Flight from an Iranian Prison

Shamal Mahrefat lives in Athens, where he works as a translator with the humanitarian organization Bridges. He is empathetic, strong-willed, and possesses a sly, goofy sense of humor. He was, for a time, a refugee.

This is Shamal’s story, which he entrusted to us one night in the upstairs room of an Athens cafe. He carried these words with him from an Iranian prison, over the Turkish border, across the Aegean Sea and into Greece, through refugee camps, and finally to the city of Athens. Listen carefully; he is among those who will disciple Europe.

In 2015, Shamal Mahrefat was a young man living in Iran: Kurdish by birth, Muslim by name. As Kurds, Shamal’s family belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam. Sunni Muslims are a minority in Iran, where over ninety percent of the population is Shia. They suffer prejudice and persecution at the hands of the Islamic Republic. Shamal was a skilled soccer player, signed to play professionally in the Middle East. His father was a well-known local chef who ran a restaurant.

On an unremarkable evening, Shamal and friends were chatting and drinking—an act prohibited by the state. Shamal remarked on his love for the Kurds. “I love Kurdish people, my people,” he told his friends, swept up in the warm buzz of the evening. The conversation meandered elsewhere; Shamal never realized that one friend had memorized his words as a weapon to use against him. This friend worked as an informant for the Iranian police. He went to them and told them: Shamal Mahrefat supports Kurdish rebels. He’s backing the Kurdish army against the Iranian government.

At four a.m. that night, twenty police raided the Mahrefat home. They blindfolded Shamal and dragged him to the car, ignoring his demands for an explanation. He was interrogated at a local prison. Officers asked for information on members of the Kurdish army—where they lived, what their addresses were. A search in their database revealed that Shamal’s older brother had left Iran for Europe fifteen years prior due to political problems. This was all the evidence they needed to accuse Shamal of supporting rebellion against the government.

Shamal was held in the police center for two weeks, where he endured interrogations and mental torture. After two weeks, the police brought him before a judge. “The judge showed me two pens,” he says. “He said, ‘This red pen means hanging. This blue one, ten years in jail.’ The judge told me, ‘Tell me which pen you want. This one, you die. This one, ten years in jail.’”

Shamal had no lawyer. He wasn’t given a trial or the chance to see his family. His only option was to pick up the blue pen. He chose ten years in prison over execution.

The city’s prison where Shamal was placed contained two floors. The first housed violent offenders and drug dealers. The second housed political prisoners. Though Shamal was arrested for political reasons, the judge took one look at him—young, fit, in peak soccer shape from training—and sent him to the first floor.

Life on the first floor of the prison was riddled with drugs, rape, and beatings. In addition to violence at the hands of other prisoners, Shamal also received 74 lashes as part of his sentence. His hair turned white from the stress. His mind began to unravel. He was only 25, and as he peered down the tunnel of his future, he saw only darkness: an interminable stay in this brutal new world.

“I didn’t take any showers,” he says. “I didn’t sleep. I was afraid because people wanted to rape you. They wanted to put drugs in your body. [At any time] three, maybe four people could be coming for you.”

One day a political prisoner from the second floor was brought down for a meeting with the warden. As he passed by he caught sight of Shamal and called to him. The man, Hemin*, owned a local gym where Shamal trained for soccer before his imprisonment. They had been friendly; Hemin even helped coach Shamal. Hemin asked Shamal why he was there, and Shamal explained his arrest and conviction. “But you’re a political prisoner,” his coach said. “What are you doing on the first floor?”

He was only 25, and as he peered down the tunnel of his future, he saw only darkness: an interminable stay in this brutal new world.

Hemin pulled some strings, and two weeks later Shamal was transferred to the second floor with his friend. “He took care of me, so much,” Shamal says. “Maybe I wouldn’t be here right now if he hadn’t. Maybe right now I’d still be in jail; maybe I’d be taking the drugs.”

On the second floor, instead of hundreds sharing one space, Shamal shared a room with ten other men including Hemin. “Always he had hope,” Shamal says about his friend. “He told me, ‘Shamal, one day I’m going out of the jail. I’ll see my family and daughters again.’ Every morning at five o’clock he’d wake me up and say, ‘Okay Shamal, let’s go running, let’s go exercise.’”

Despite his relocation, Shamal’s mental health crumbled under the weight of his trauma. He tried consoling himself with plans for his future only to realize he had none. “Twice I tried to kill myself, but God stopped me, told me no.” After months in prison, the wardens allowed Shamal a call to his family—his first since the arrest. At that point his family didn’t know where he was, didn’t even know if he was alive. Different rumors had reached them: that Shamal wasn’t in the city jail and that he had died. When he first called they only wanted to hear about him. They assured him that they were fine. But after a few conversations they shared the news they had been hiding: Shamal’s brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, had died in an accident.

Shamal and his brother-in-law were close, around the same age. Shamal became suicidal again. “I had ideas about how to kill myself: taking the knife, taking pills in the bathroom. But God would stop me. And he sent me my friend, my coach.”

Hemin connected Shamal to a doctor in the prison who advocated for Shamal’s temporary release so that he could receive psychological treatment. The judge denied the request, so the doctor contacted his boss, an army physician. This physician ordered release papers for Shamal, which the judge finally signed on the condition that the Mahrefats provided collateral for their son’s return. They offered the family restaurant and their home. “If I didn’t come back,” he says, “the police would take everything.”

Shamal was given ten days outside the jail to receive treatment. Nine other prisoners were also given medical leave and each received a GPS watch to monitor their movements, restricting their travel to fifty kilometers beyond the prison walls. Nine of the trackers worked perfectly, but the GPS on Shamal’s was broken. He left the jail without a tracking system broadcasting his location to the police.

By the time Shamal returned home, eight months had passed since his arrest. “My father looked at me and said, ‘My son, what has happened to you?” And then his father made a decision.

“My father said, ‘I am giving you everything. You are leaving this country.’” Shamal resisted, knowing that his escape meant his family would give up the restaurant and their home. But his father insisted. He was willing to give up his livelihood to give his son his life back. So Shamal agreed.

“My father said, ‘I am giving you everything. You are leaving this country.’”

Shortly before Shamal left prison, Hemin was taken from jail in the middle of the night. No one knew where he had gone. But once Shamal returned home and had access to media, he learned what had happened to his friend. Despite Hemin’s belief that he would one day be free, he died a prisoner of the Iranian government. They executed him by hanging.

“I learned about it in the news,” Shamal says. “When I found out this man died, it was so, so heavy for me. When I saw it, I was crying, for him, for everything. At this time, I didn’t know God. What was God? But I still prayed: God, where are you? Why are you doing this to me?”

Shamal left his family and his country, carrying only a backpack and his grief. His father organized a car to take him to the Turkish border, and once at the border Shamal set off on foot, evading border checkpoints and police by following his own route over the mountains. He walked for days. When he didn’t return after ten days, the police did what they promised: “They took everything from my family.”

It was now nearly 2016. People from Afghanistan and Iran had begun streaming over the border. “At the time, a lot of Afghanistan people were coming to Iran to cross into Turkey,” he says. “Of these thousands of people, the police were catching hundreds.” After ten days Shamal arrived in Turkey, famished and depleted. He had survived the trek on two days worth of food. He stopped in a small village populated by Kurds. “I was so timid, but an old woman gave me water, nice food, everything. She told me, ‘Every day so many refugees are coming.’ She told me, ‘I know someone who can drive you to catch the bus to Istanbul.’” So Shamal set off for Istanbul, where he joined 55 people heading to Izmir with a smuggler.

The group traveled from Istanbul to Izmir by bus. After driving for seven hours they set out on foot, walking in silence through the night, knowing that police patrolled the area looking for migrants to arrest and send home. “I only carried a backpack with my phone. I had no identification—with my ID card it would have been too easy to send me back.”

After walking for two hours the group reached the sea. All 55 people got into a nine-meter boat. There were children and babies on board, but no captain. The smugglers told them to watch the light in the distance, and said that the light was Greece. “No one was steering, just floating,” Shamal says. “After a few hours water was coming into the inside of the boat because it was so heavy. People starting throwing everything over—backpacks, everything.”

From the dark water, Shamal watched the light draw closer. Now, he says, he understands this light as Christ. “But at the time I didn’t understand what the light was. I just felt a lot of peace.”

After a few hours a Greek patrol boat discovered the group. An officer on board asked if anyone spoke English. Shamal said yes, knowing no English at all, but feeling like the group needed a leader—a decision foreshadowing his eventual work as a bridge between refugees and Greek authorities. The officer spoke unintelligibly to him for ten minutes and then began motioning for people to board the patrol boat. Shamal turned to the group and told everyone to stay quiet and follow the officer: first children, then women, then men. “I was the last one to go,” Shamal says. “The Greek officer thought I did a lot to help, and when I got on the boat he was hugging me. I didn’t understand anything he said, but he thought I coordinated everything!”

The group landed on the island of Lesvos around three in the morning. In early 2016, asylum seekers still moved through camps with relative ease. After three days Shamal received police papers allowing him to pass to the mainland. He took a ferry to Thessaloniki and continued on to the Greece-Macedonia border, where he received a stamp saying he could cross into Germany and on to the rest of Europe. He waited to cross the border at Idomeni Camp with thousands of other migrants. But by this point, Europe had begun closing its borders—including Macedonia’s. Shamal was stranded in Greece.

“They told us, after next week [the border] will open. Then it was one month, two months, three. They kept telling us it would open, so people had hope. I was so angry at God at this time. I was praying to Allah, but I stopped talking to him.”

From the dark water, Shamal watched the light draw closer.

Within Shamal’s first month in the camp, 15,000 people arrived at the Greece-Macedonia border. There was not enough food or organization to support the flood of arrivals. It rained constantly and Shamal’s tent filled with water. His days consisted of searching for food. He was lucky if, by the afternoon, he ended up with an apple.

That spring the conditions at Idomeni worsened. Each day people snuck across the border by foot, skirting the police that patrolled the area. Hundreds made it to Macedonia and Shamal decided to try his luck. But while everyone else seemed to cross without detection, Shamal was caught on every attempt. In total, he tried to cross the Greece-Macedonia border more than 25 times. Eventually the police began sending him back to camp with a friendly, “See you tomorrow!”

One day in the camp he met a volunteer who struck up a conversation with him. She said, “I have a gift for you.”

“I was so excited,” Shamal remembers. “I thought it was food, maybe even chocolate. But it was just a Bible.”

Shamal accepted the Bible but never opened it. When he ran into the same volunteer weeks later, she asked him if he had read it. “I told her, honest to God, I’m not reading. She was laughing, asking, ‘Where is your Bible?’ I told her, ‘In the garbage.’ She said, ‘Just go read John 3:16.’”

Shamal considered the long stretch of his days and figured that reading at least offered a distraction. One night he woke up and began paging through his Bible to find John 3:16. He read the verse. Then he read the entire book of John. In the following days he read more and more. And as he read, felt peace steal over him. “God was changing me. I was not sad. Before, I was always angry, always cheating people, always taking food. But God was changing me.”

His excitement about the Jesus he found in Scripture grew, and he passed hours lost in the stories and parables. Two months after meeting the volunteer he had a dream. In it, a man in a white shirt stood before Shamal. “I am not sure if it was Jesus Christ, or Moses—I didn’t know anything then. The man told me, ‘Today, you go to church.’ I thought, What church? This is the border, there is nothing here.”

Shamal woke at 7 a.m. and shook off the strange vision, telling himself that it was only a dream. He stepped outside his tent to find an elderly Danish woman waiting for him. She told him she was there to take people to church and that something told her to wait for him.

In many ways, Shamal’s life might be divided in two from this point forward. It was not the beginning of his flight from Iran that marked the separation, but the point at which he met Christ. Even in a camp, he realized that he could be free.

In many ways, Shamal’s life might be divided in two from this point forward. It was not the beginning of his flight from Iran that marked the separation, but the point at which he met Christ.

That morning Shamal attended a Greek-English church in Thessaloniki. He met the pastor and received prayer from a group of people. He returned to the camp buoyant. For the next six weeks Shamal caught a ride from the camp to church. It was through the love of this pastor and congregation that Christ became real to Shamal, and in May of 2016 he was baptized.

With his conversion came a willingness to go where God led him. “After I tried crossing the Macedonia border so many times I said, ‘Okay God, I surrender. I am here. What do you want?”

What God seemed to want, at least at the moment, was to move Shamal. He was transferred to another camp outside Thessaloniki, one that housed about a thousand people, nearly all of whom were Syrian Arabs. Shamal was the only Christian there. He continued to attend his new church, now a two-hour bus ride away, and his pastor told him: “Shamal, you are light in the darkness.”

“I was excited. Every day I was traveling to church, two hours each way. I was growing. I had a lot of love for people. I was giving thanks to God, reading the Bible. This was not the old Shamal, it was a new Shamal. I decided I wanted to make a statement.”

The statement Shamal chose was a tattoo of the Arabic letter “n” on his neck, a signifier of the Christian faith. “It was my testimony. I wanted people to know: I am a Christian.”

Even though his friends at church warned him that it would be dangerous to get the tattoo, that standing out as a religious minority would cause persecution, “God gave me the respect of people.” People took notice of his transformation. “They looked to me and said, ‘Shamal is very different, Shamal has more love.’ And I told them, ‘This is not my love, this is the love of Jesus Christ.’ I ministered to people.”

Shamal remained in the camp for nearly a year before being accepted into a UNHCR asylum service that reunited family members. The service paid his way to Athens and put him up in a hotel while they processed his application to meet his brother in Luxembourg. For the first time in over a year he slept in a bed with a roof over his head. But despite the comfort, he missed his church family in Thessaloniki. 

A week after arriving in Athens, Shamal took a walk through the Omonia neighborhood. Passing by a nondescript building, he heard Arabic worship music coming from within. He walked to the door and saw Ilias Antouan playing his guitar as people sang songs in Arabic. He had stumbled upon Humanitarian Initiative Bridges.

Ilias and Voula welcomed Shamal in. “Ilias was hugging me, so respectful. They showed me so much hospitality. They invited me to sit and eat but I said, ‘No thank you, I have a hotel.’ Ilias told me there was a Bible study on Friday and invited me to come.”

Shamal returned to Bridges that Friday. At the time, no Sorani-speaking people had come to the organization. Bridges primarily served Syrians and Arabic was the only Middle Eastern language spoken. When Voula saw that Shamal spoke not just Sorani and Farsi but also English, having learned it in camps and at his church in Thessaloniki, she asked if he would be help them translate. With that, Shamal became the first Sorani and Farsi interpreter at Bridges.  

He began working part-time, sitting in on social service meetings and counseling appointments, acting as a liaison between Middle Eastern families and Greek asylum services. Slowly Kurdish people began visiting Bridges for humanitarian support and community. Soon after he began his job, Shamal heard back from the Luxembourg embassy: his application had been approved, and he was free to leave Greece. But the news that should have thrilled him instead sat like a weight on his chest. He told Voula that he didn’t have any peace about the move, or about leaving Bridges, where he was just starting to feel at home. He decided to stay in Athens.

“I was making plans but God rejected them,” he says. “Right now I’m looking at Bridges and I see fruit. Maybe these people needed me. When I came to Europe, I wasn’t coming to translate. When I came to Europe, my dream was to work for a restaurant and to be a big chef. But now I don’t have this dream. I want to stay with Bridges and work for God.”

Before Shamal showed up on Bridges’ doorstep, not a single Kurd had attended a Bridges service or Bible study. The week after he gave his rejection to Luxembourg, the first Kurdish person arrived. Now over half the people who attend services, which Shamal translates from English to Sorani, are Kurdish. Sorani-speaking families continue to arrive, asking for social services, and asking to learn about Christ and the Bible.

Shamal is now a legal resident in Greece. He was granted asylum and residency and can travel throughout Europe. He recently became engaged, and he and his fiancée dream of planting a church elsewhere in Europe. But for now, Shamal says, he wants to keep learning. “I want to take Bible classes so I can start a church in Europe, or maybe in Kurdistan. But this is up to God—I am listening for God.”

Just as God met him in the terror of fleeing Iran and the despair of refugee camps, Shamal believes God is meeting thousands of others in the same way. He sees evidence of this daily in his work at Bridges, which provides a spiritual home for sojourners. At Bridges, people find family and fellowship, and Shamal speaks to them in their own language about the love of God.

He sees the movement of individuals from the Middle East into Europe as a chance for God to reach people who have never heard the good news of Christ’s love for the world. Just as this Divine Love transformed him, Shamal believes God is working for the good of others who come to Europe seeking asylum.

“I want to take Bible classes so I can start a church in Europe, or maybe in Kurdistan. But this is up to God—I am listening for God.”

“God sent these nations, Kurdish and Arabic and Iranian people, to come and learn about Jesus Christ—because their countries do not allow it,” he says. “They are learning in the camps, in the cities, and then they are going out and teaching all over Europe, going back to their own countries and teaching.

“God is working for Kurdish people. God is working for Middle Eastern people. He is using them—Kurdish people, Middle Eastern people—right now.”

*Name has been changed to protect family’s identity.

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Annelise Jolley

Annelise Jolley

Annelise is a San Diego-based journalist and essayist who writes about food, travel, faith, and the terrain between. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing through Seattle Pacific University and her work has appeared in The Millions, Brevity, Hidden Compass, Sojourners, and Civil Eats, among others. She is the Editorial Director at Nations Media. View her work or say hello at annelisejolley.com.