World Refugee Day: We are one

Mandy Maring | June 17, 2015

Refugees resettled to Durham partake in an ESL class and skills training. Photo: Kate Roberts

Refugees resettled to Durham partake in an ESL class and skills training. Photo: Kate Roberts

Sitting on the curb outside his Durham, North Carolina, apartment complex, James shares his mantra, “We are all one.” It’s an accepting and inclusive declaration, especially coming from someone who has faced unimaginable oppression and religious persecution.

His legal name is Mohammad Mirab, but he goes by James.  His father died while James was still a child growing up in Iran, and his mother was left homeless on the streets. James and his three brothers were sent to one orphanage while his sister was sent to another. The children received a living stipend, and his sister saved hers and bought their mom a place to live. After a few years in the orphanage, when James was old enough to start working, he too supported his mom.

Eventually, James applied to go to university. The application asks about religion, and leaving the section blank is not an option.  James explains that the Islamic Republic of Iran is run by a theocratic regime where Islam is the law. Even though James is Christian, he wrote “Muslim” on his application. If he hadn’t, he says he wouldn’t have been accepted. At Iranian universities, students have to reapply each year, so on his third year application, James wrote “Christian.”

“I just want to be Christian,” James had thought, “I don’t see why anything’s wrong.”
Then he received a call from what he describes as the “CIA of Iran.” James told them he changed his religion.

He was not readmitted to university.

During this time, James was also working at the orphanage as well as teaching tae kwon do at a gym. Someone accused him of working for Christians and reported him to the police. The government accused him of pushing Christianity on children, and people started watching him. He had been passing out bibles in his community and had started a small church, meeting with a group of Christian friends. He explains that locals around didn’t care about his religion, but the police and the government are a different story.

James was taken to jail where he was interrogated, beaten, and threatened. In Iran, religion and politics go hand in hand, and practicing Christianity is seen as promoting the opposition. They told him if he didn’t stop, they would throw him in jail.  This is when James decided to finally flee to Turkey.

Reflecting on his time in Turkey, James shakes his head, “bad memories, very bad.” He was registered and issued a refugee ID, but as a foreigner, did not have authorization to work. With no other support, he had no choice but to work illegally to survive. He had to change jobs every couple of months for fear of being caught and thrown in jail. He says Turkish people often report undocumented workers, so he changed jobs often to keep suspicions low.  He washed dishes, worked in factories, and did whatever jobs he could get given the limited Turkish he spoke. Sometimes he would be put to work in the back of a restaurant where no one would notice him. But, after a month of work, he wouldn’t get paid. “You can’t call the police. You can’t do anything.”

In early 2012, James began a process to resettle to the United States.  After two years of waiting and several interviews, his application was approved.  He was told his plan was leaving to land in New Jersey and then he would travel on to Durham, North Carolina.

He had never heard of Durham before. Nonetheless, he felt happy, “It’s good for me. Before, it was hard, waiting for an answer.”

James has been working at Duke University for eight months. He is ambitious, but nothing has been easy for him.  His college credits from Iran will not transfer to the U.S., and he has to start over here, but he’s making strides. He plans to start a GED program at Durham Tech in a few months. His English has improved, and he says life is easier now because he can access information just by asking people.

He will also receive his green card soon, and then he can compete professionally in tae kwon do. His passion is clear. He wants to open his own gym some day.

James reflects on his life in the U.S., and how it’s changed. He says in Turkey, they ask in the job interview, “Where are you from? What is your religion?” After ten months in the U.S., he only recently was asked these questions by a close colleague. “They ask you sometimes here, but it’s not dangerous to answer,” he says. “USA freedom.”

As told by James to Mandy Maring, Employment Services Coordinator