The Life of Afghan Refugees in Tehran

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Afghan Shiites perform sinezani, hitting their own chest, on the night of Ashura, the day Imam Hossein, the grandson of prophet Muhammad, was martyred. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ushered in a nine-year war between a Russian-led army and insurgents fighting with support from the United States, Britain and Iran. The war triggered a mass exodus of Afghans from their homes and into neighboring countries like Iran in 1979.

Under the umbrella of constant threat from the warring factions, families fled from the aftermath of destroyed homes, rampant disease and unemployment. Thousands of Afghans landed in makeshift camps where they still reside today.

At the time, Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran, had welcomed them with open arms, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Basij Militia were assigned to cooperate with the Afghan’s immigrants.  

11_06_AfghanIran_02 An Afghan Shiite cleric leads a prayer for Iranians. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

It seemed at last a new peace was found, but with a new host and home came new problems. Nearly three decades later the Afghans still live as refugees trying to squeak out an existence with little assistance from Iran.

Under Iranian law, foreigners are prohibited from owning land, so Afghans have two choices: rent a house and or trust an Iranian citizen to put their name down as an owner. The trust has worked for some, but from time to time their benefactor sells the property out from under refugees, leaving them to pick up the pieces and start over.

After 30 years in Iran, the Afghan refugees are still regarded as temporary by Iranians. Hard numbers are a matter of debate, but Iran’s ministry of interior estimates there are over three million Afghans living in Iran, of which under 1 million are residing in accordance with the law.

11_06_AfghanIran_03 Davood, who came to Iran with his family as Afghan refugees ten years ago, visits his mother’s tomb in Behesht Zahra, the biggest cemetery in Iran. In 2011 Davood and his sister migrated to Germany and is now a German citizen. Every year he comes to Iran to visit his mother’s tomb. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

“We never accepted them as an Iranian citizens. We still call them refugees, not migrants, because we believe they will go back to Afghanistan one day,” writes photojournalist Abbas Hajimohammadi, who has been documenting their new lives in Iran.

“They have lived in Iran for 30 years. A lot of Afghan children have been born in Iran and have not seen Afghanistan, and they seek their future in Iran.”

Hajimohammadi’s images capture the world of two Afghans, those who live and work on vegetable farms or with livestock or took city jobs painting houses, janitorial and construction work; and then the more educated who moved to the cities to work for private companies.

Well-off Afghans are a small group, but expected to grow as a road map to assimilation becomes more alluring for younger generations.

“After 30 years although they can't have citizenship, but the Iranians are accepting them and they are getting jobs” writes Hajimohammadi. “Some of them are getting rich in a country which one of its biggest problems is unemployment.”

They’re finding a way in a country which never wanted the Afghans to settle down.

11_06_AfghanIran_04 An old Afghan woman refuged to Iran after 15 members of her family, including her father and husband, were killed during attacks by the Taliban on their village. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_05 Two Afghan carwash workers sleep outside as their room is too small for them to sleep. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_06 Afghan trash collectors collect refuse in Tehran and bring it back to their living area. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_07 Reza and Majid, two Afghan brothers, help their family pay bills by working in a kettle-making workshop. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_08 An Afghan music group practices in an acid making factory. They aren't allowed to perform in public. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_09 Afghans participate in a traditional wrestling ceremony on the new year in Tehran. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_10 Afghan Shiites mourn and pray on Ashura in Tehran. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_11 An Afghan shepherd prays in his pasture. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_12 Nemat, an Afghan refugee, lives alone and works in the vegetable fields outside of Tehran. He goes back to Afghanistan to see his family biannually. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_13 An Afghan Shiite family prays on Ghadr night, the 23rd night of Ramadan, in Tehran. On this night they stay awake until 2 a.m and pray. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_14 An Iranian-born Afghan girl shows her teacher a craft she made. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_15 Reza sells an Afghan headscarf to an Iranian woman who is interested in Afghan clothing. He runs an Afghan clothes shop in the Tehran Big Bazaar. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi

11_06_AfghanIran_16 An Afghan girl runs past a brick factory outside of Tehran. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi