It could have been the inspiration for the Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal,” where politics beyond his control place an eastern bloc tourist in New York – but only in the airport – for months on end. In this case, it was an Iranan woman and her children, stuck in a Moscow airport through the cold Russian winter.
Fleeing an unnamed prison sentence in Iran, where women are known to be convicted of “crimes” which the Western world cannot understand, an Iranian woman named Zahra Kamalfar and her two children, ages 18 and 10, were escaping with false papers via Moscow and Germany. Their trip ended in Moscow, at Sheremetyevo International Airport reports the CBC, returned by Germany because of false papers, and officials in Russia sought to return them to their home country.
While Moscow officials sought deportation, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees stepped in and prevented it, granting her refugee status in November, 2006. The Russian authorities complied, but the woman and her children were forced to sleep in public in the airport terminal, washing in bathroom sinks, for what turned out to be ten months.
Their ultimate destination, they hoped, was Canada, where the woman’s brother has lived for more than ten years as a refugee. Recent reports indicate that Canada’s growth is substantial because it welcomes immigrants. While Canadian policy provides for processing emergency applications and “women at risk” applications in 72 hours, according to the CBC, the woman waited and waited. Her pro-bono lawyers announced that the Canadian government would not give her any information, and Canadian officials responded that, because of Canadian privacy laws, they could not tell her what her status was.
The CBC quoted Kamalfar as saying “I want to go Canada because I want go someplace that is good place, that is good place for future [of] my child,” but on their extended journey she was most concerned about the welfare of her son, David, ten years old and needing books, always tired, and, she said, “Every day he cry and cry. He told me, ‘I don’t have hope.'”
The Hambastegi International Federation of Iranian Refugees site tells the story of Zahra Kamalfar and other Iranian refugees around the world. In the case of Kamalfar, they tell a story not reported in the papers, of a family desperate to go anywhere, “even Afghanistan,” they quote her as saying, and of the repeated pressure of advocacy groups required to move the UNHCR, the Canadian government, and others even to meet their own promises and process rules.
A small family in limbo, according to the report constantly under pressure by Aeroflot at the airport with repeated searching of their luggage and themselves, verbal mistreatment and frequent fears that changes in attitudes of their “hosts” might mean they were being deported back to Iran. The author of the report pointed out that, beyond the difficult political situations and bureaucratic hurdles of a refugee situation, it is, in the end, a matter of “values and human dignity.”
And so it went. Announcements in the last few days have indicated that she has received asylum status and will be traveling on, with her children, to Canada on March 14. Her oldest daughter is quoted in a CBC report as saying “Canada is number one in the world because person from Canada is very nice and they understand respect” during the time they waited, and now her attitude and her mother’s determination will pay off.