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Love in a hopeless place – update

Mohammed and Parvaneh relax, hours before learning that he had lost his appeal and would be required to return to prison. Photo: Jodi Hilton

In issue #31 of Delayed Gratification, we told you the story of Mohammed Gholamipour and his bride, Parvaneh Khezernejhad, a Kurdish couple who had escaped their native Iran in order to elope. They dreamt of reaching a safe country where they could live a peaceful life together. Instead, they found themselves in a Kafkaesque nightmare, with Mohammed ensnared in Romania’s court system, protesting his innocence against charges of people-smuggling.

Several weeks after we left the couple in judicial limbo, writer and photographer Jodi Hilton returned to Romania to hear the outcome of Mohammed’s appeal and gives us an update on the couple’s situation.

At dusk on a crisp autumn day earlier this month, Mohammed Gholamipour said goodbye to his beloved Parvaneh and boarded a train at the Galaƫi station in Romania. It was the end of another chapter in their saga, which I’ve been following for more than a year.

Since leaving Iran their journey together had been long and arduous. First they had travelled to Istanbul, where the couple got married. But then, hearing that Parvaneh’s family were looking for them and fearing for their lives, they fled to Europe. Following a gruelling days-long boat journey crossing the Black Sea to Romania, Mohammed, along with two others, was fingered on arrival by police, who accused him of helping to pilot the boat.

A refugee consoles Parvaneh after learning about Mohammed’s sentence, outside the migrant camp in Galaƫi. Photo: Jodi Hilton

The three men were arrested, imprisoned in the south-eastern city of Constanƫa and put on trial on four charges related to people-smuggling. (Mohammed said that at the time of his arrest the police had told him: “We have to pick someone, so we picked you.”) The arrests took place in September 2017; in May 2018, the three were sentenced to three years, eight months in prison.

While appeals were lodged and Mohammed and Parvaneh awaited the next round of legal procedures, the two other suspects fled Romania and returned to their home countries. Mohammed and Parvaneh, though, remained in Romania, where Parvaneh had been recognised as an asylum seeker, and pursued the appeal, which is where we last left the couple.

During the appeal, which took place during the first week of October of this year, Mohammed pleaded with the two judges, hoping to convince them of his innocence. “What kind of smuggler travels with his pregnant wife? [Parvaneh suffered a miscarriage soon after arriving in Romania.] Who brings all his documents with him, including his passport?” he said to them.

But the appeal hearing concluded after about an hour, during which time Mohammed said the judges appeared indifferent during his testimony. One of them played with their mobile phone while he made his case, Mohammed told me. They knew the case wasn’t going well when one judge asked their court-appointed attorney, “Don’t you have any new evidence to show?”

Parvaneh and Mohammed walk along the Galaƫi riverfront. Photo: Jodi Hilton

The verdict was expected on October 18th, so I made the 600km drive from my home in Bulgaria to Galaƫi, Romania, to be with Mohammed and Parvaneh when they got the news. During that last day of uncertainty, we walked along the Danube riverfront, passing curious iron-slab sculptures left from the heyday of the shipbuilding industry, before the factories closed and the jobs were lost. At a waterfront restaurant, they ate seafood pizza as the sun began to set.

All day long, Mohammed wrote texts to his lawyer asking about the verdict, but finally was told, “Hold on brother.” The decision hadn’t been announced. When night fell, I returned to my hotel and Mohammed and Parvaneh turned in at the camp before curfew. (As a journalist and non-refugee, I was refused permission to enter.) An hour later, I received a call from Mohammed’s cousin in Canada. He had just spoken with the lawyer. The appeal had been denied.

Later, on the website of the Constanƫa Tribunal, the decision was announced: “Based on art.421 pt.b) of the Criminal Procedure Code dismisses as unfounded the appeals made by the defendants.” Mohammed, I was told, should expect to be picked up by police the following Monday, leaving him three days to prepare for three years behind bars. (The judges had removed eight months from his sentence for time already served.)

Mohammed and Parvaneh take stock of their situation next to an Orthodox shrine. Photo: Jodi Hilton

I returned immediately to the neighbourhood of the camp. As my car rounded the last turn, the lights shone on Mohammed and Parvaneh sitting on the cold stoop of an Orthodox Christian shrine, leaning into each other. Mohammed used the translate function on his phone to tell me, “I cannot go to jail. I’ll definitely run away. I have not committed any crime.”

But the next morning, when we met again, Mohammed seemed stoic despite a sleepless night. He told me he would go to jail after all, in the hope that he would receive early parole, which is common in Romania due to overcrowding in many of the country’s prisons. Together the three of us went by tramway to inform his boss at the Belgian-owned brewery, where he worked in the warehouse, that he wouldn’t be reporting for work. Mohammed thanked his supervisor and made arrangements for Parvaneh to pick up his pay-cheque later in the month.

At noon we parted ways. I didn’t hear from them for several hours, until around 4pm, when Parvaneh called me. Her voice sounded panicky as she told me Mohammed was at the train station. When we pulled up at the station, there was Mohammed, sitting on a bench wearing a thin jacket and carrying a small, red backpack.

The couple spent the next few hours pacing the station, checking and rechecking the departure boards until finally Mohammed purchased a ticket. Sitting on the entrance steps, Mohammed wrapped his arms around Parvaneh and held her. Soon, he would leave and start a new chapter of his life, as a fugitive. As the train pulled away an hour later, Parvaneh cried, trembling as I tried to comfort her.

Mohammed waits with Parvaneh for a train outside the Galaƫi train station. Photo: Jodi Hilton

The next day, Mohammed sent me a message from Serbia. After a 17-hour train trip, a taxi ride to a spot on the border and an hour spent crawling through a swamp in order to evade border guards, he promptly got ripped off by a local in a Serbian village with whom he was trying to exchange currency. After an expensive taxi ride to Belgrade, he spent the night sleeping in a park.

The next few days, he later told me, were terrible. He didn’t have money for food or lodging. He spent his days smoking borrowed cigarettes at a café popular with Iraqi Kurdish migrants trying to get to Western Europe, dirty and emaciated from lack of food. Parvaneh, worried sick, spent the days waiting for his phone calls. It soon dawned on him that he couldn’t spend the next years hiding out from police and surviving in Serbia, and he couldn’t go to any other European country, since he would almost certainly be sent back to Romania.

Finally, he borrowed some money and headed back to Romania where he turned himself in. He’s now in prison in Timișoara, 700km from the camp in which Parvaneh is living.

Parvaneh made the long train journey to visit him. They were allowed just over an hour to talk through bulletproof glass, during which time Mohammed told her that conditions were better than at the previous prison and he had got a job in the kitchen. For every two or three days of work, one day is taken off his sentence. After seeing him, Parvaneh told me it was hard to be alone again. “I cried so much that my eyes were hurting,” she said.

Mohammed hopes to have the chance to appeal his rejected asylum claim. There’s also a chance that as an inmate he may become a recognised refugee in Romania. Parvaneh is feeling relieved. “At least I know where Mohammed is,” she told me. “The situation in prison is not so bad, and there’s a chance he may be able to leave prison early.”

For the couple’s full story, and to see more of Jodi Hilton’s photography, read ‘Love in a hopeless place’, originally published in DG #31.


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