Being an undocumented child in Iran

By Bahar Shoghi,
and Setareh Masoumbeiki. 

Setareh and Bahar and Gita are part of a team of independent artists and practitioners based in Tehran, Iran. In the last several years, the team has used visual and performing arts, storytelling, and creative-writing, as a medium to tap into children’s creativity and enable them to develop a critical mind. As freelancers, they hold their workshops in the setting of different organizations working with refugee, street and working children with the general aim of encouraging children and youth’s intolerance for injustice, while building a strong sense of selfworth and a deep sense of compassion and respect for humanity.

In January 2011, in a dark basement of a community-based school in South of Tehran, we sat together with a group of Afghan refugee children to hear from them what it really felt to be ‘undocumented’. Suneeta, a fourteen year old undocumented Afghan girl living in Iran for the last ten years said, ‘Most of the time I feel as if I’m invisible, even worse, that I belong neither to Iran nor to Afghanistan’. This was not the first time Suneeta said something worth considering, nor was she the only child developing such an insight.

“Most of the time I feel as if I’m indivisible, even worse, that I belong neither to Iran nor to Afghanistan”

– Suneeta 

More than one million undocumented Afghan refugees live in Iran. Afghan children in Iran suffer from inconsistent policies for educational services. Until recently undocumented Afghan children could not attend formal school. Presently, those attending formal school cannot obtain certifications. On the other hand, there is a community of Iranians who do not hold identification documents due to different legal issues. Both groups face discrimination in their daily life and have no access to social services. As a result, many of them follow non-formal education in some NGO supported and self-run Afghan schools.

A few months ago, through some friends, we found out about an excluded community who lives in hand-made plastic tents in a sub-urban area near Tehran, under horrible conditions. We discovered that they belong to families who have survived the historic devastating 2010 floods in Pakistan and were forced to leave their country and take refuge in Iran. In addition, a community from Zabol that lies on the border with both Afghanistan and Pakistan has become internally displaced due to the drought and now live in the same area. Most of them do not hold any sort of identification. These communities live in extreme poverty, without even access to water, let alone education of any kind.

In late 2010, we decided to develop a video participatory project titled ‘I am undocumented’. Our initial thought was to enable a condition where undocumented children in Iran could speak out about their experiences. As we believe that these children are misrepresented by mainstream media, we aim to provide a platform for these children to visually express themselves and narrate their story. Creating their own narratives is empowering as it does not only stimulate creativity in children but gives them a perspective towards their problems, needs and hopes. In addition, the project encompasses an interactive aspect in order to engage audience from different backgrounds. The interactivity aspect extends from navigating through children’s stories to responding visually to children’s narratives by sending videos. We believe that change initiates when people undertake a process of understanding.

Negin is from Zabol and now lives in tents in sub-urban area near Tehran.
The first time she took a camera in her hands, she took this photo from her mother.

By taking this approach, we hope to raise a concern among people (who are not affected directly by displacement) about a marginalized community.In this process the insiders and outsiders (documented and undocumented people), will find a common ground and move towards mutual understanding, opening up a space for a change in the current situation. In December 2011, our team had a performance in Amsterdam with the general aim of raising awareness about the situation of undocumented migrants around the world. We performed before a diverse group of audience. Among the audience, some were undocumented themselves or had experienced for a while how it was being undocumented in Europe. We focused on issues such as migration and social invisibility and we asked for input from the audience. Through participatory artistic techniques, we tried to create a space where everyone felt safe to speak about their experiences.

Description made by Hengameh about this photo :
“This is Khodabakhsh. He lives upstairs. During the day when his mom and dad are at work, he is alone till seeta and suneeta come back home from school. Sometimes when he is scared, he just screams. I go and hug him whenever I can.”

Back in that dark basement- where children spoke and we listened- we heard similar, different, heartbreaking and joyful stories all at the same time. While the children learned to document their surroundings, we learned how rich their experiences were. We were moved by their stories and touched by their sharp, critical mind. Their ability to speak and to reflect inspired us. They trusted us, and we trusted them by letting them help us see everything through their eyes; we became motivated to share their visual stories with as many people as possible all around the world.

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