No one would probably call oak bark or acorns exciting. One’s a slab of wood and the other’s a nut with a soldier helmet. Neither really much to look at.
But for a long time, they were all Kaveh Khezro, then a young man in 2000s Iran, could think about.
Kaveh had a good life in there, a ‘very beautiful country, rich in history, culture and natural beauty with amazing weather’. His brother and three sisters agreed.
With a Master’s in urban planning graduate from Shahid Beheshti University, Kaveh knew how to squeeze out tannic acid, the Swiss Army knife of chemicals used in everything from treating burns to stopping bleeding, out of oak bark and acorns.
‘I hoped to start a factory in my hometown, creating 20,000 jobs,’ Kaveh, now 42, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘But unfortunately, my clever idea ended up being the primary reason for my downfall.’
Even after meeting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kaveh encountered problems. His dream of giving back to the country he loves hinged on officials rubber-stamping his plans, and those in his circles warned him that the ‘corrupt’ government would likely pinch his idea.
In 2009, an increasingly wary Kaveh supported progressive presidential Mir-Hossein Mousavi, only for him to lose to Ahmadinejad and set off peaceful protests that soon soured into violence.
At least 30 people were killed and thousands arrested in the wave of protests referred to as the Green Movement – which drew the largest crowds since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
All Kaveh could hear was screaming and shouting at first. Three days ago, he was having business meetings in Tehran while a demonstration rumbled outside.
‘The security services knocked on our door at 6am and told my dad: “We’re just going to take your son in for a few questions”,’ he recalls.
‘These “few questions” turned into four and a half months of torture. They held me in solitary confinement and broke my arm, nose and teeth. Every now and then, I would be forced to confess that I was financially supporting the protesters and that I was a spy for the UK and Saudi Arabia.
‘Before I was taken in, I was a healthy, energetic guy but the man they released was a total stranger. I had lost 18 kg and was mentally as well as physically broken.’
Government officials, Kaveh claims, ‘copied’ his idea shortly after his stint in detainment but still sought his help. He refused and his life curdled into a ‘living hell’ as the authorities confiscated his ID, passport, documents and pretty much everything he owned.
‘I would advise you to flee. Just leave,’ Kaveh’s lawyer told him while he was in hiding, he says.
And so Kaveh, his wife and daughter did just that, setting off on a journey that eventually saw the father end up in Britain at a time when Conservative politicians were doing everything they could to ‘stop the boats’.
But first, there was Turkey. Kaveh’s family applied for protection with the UN’s refugee agency while he picked up a minimum-wage job.
‘I kept asking myself, where did I go wrong? Was it my fault I ended up being a refugee?’ Kaveh says. ‘Nobody really chooses to give up on their country, job, family, achievements, house, car, or money and go to another country to start from scratch, unless they must.
‘And the worst thing is that everywhere you go, you have to explain it and convince everyone that despite having a nice life, you had no choice but leave.’
Just as Kaveh’s life steadied more than a year on, however, he found himself staring out a police station window at his wife’s desperate face. Turkish police had arrested him for being a member of the People’s Democratic Party, a left-wing, pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-Kurdish political party, and he faced years in jail and being deported back to Iran.
‘Leaving my family for a second time seemed even more difficult,’ Kaveh says, adding that he also now had a 14-month-old son.
‘But my wife told me: “Go, as it seems to be the only solution for our life. I am sure God will protect you and fate will bring us together again.”’
A bail release and some frantic phone calls later, Kaveh had to weigh the costs and dangers of what was really his only swift escape option: hiring smugglers.
Kaveh’s some 2,500-mile-long trip began – he can still remember the blisters and cuts on his feet as he and about 120 Syrian migrants walked for a week through Greece, which borders Turkey.
‘I remember feeling so powerless in the hands of the smugglers,’ Kaveh says, ‘they told me to act as a deaf/mute person, not to hear nor speak anything to anyone.
‘The journey was so long and difficult, on our way, we even passed two dead bodies from other groups that had tried to escape by the same route.’
After passing through Hungary, the group eventually ended up in an Austrian ‘prison’ of a refugee camp where Kaveh and other migrants encountered discrimination at the hands of guards.
‘I escaped by jumping out of a second-floor window,’ Kaveh says, adding: ‘When I spoke to other Iranians, they told me “leave if you can”. A message I’ve heard a lot in my life.’
Standing in Dunkirk, France, Kaveh paid more smugglers £2,000 – an almost inconceivable amount of money for someone who had spent months living on a shoestring wage – to help him cross the English Channel on April 14 last year.
‘If I had the chance to go to any embassy and apply for asylum there, why would I go and take this horrendous route to safety?’ he says.
‘The next morning, when some of the passengers refused to get on the boat, they threatened them with a knife and said: “Either you get on this boat, or you lose your life.”
‘I knew I could not go back, as I could not think of any other places and had no money left to explore my other options.’
The 350-mile-long Channel was all Kaveh could see on the rickety ship when they set off to Britain. ‘There were a few females among us who kept begging me to take care of them, as they could not swim, and you could tell how terrified they were from the look on their faces,’ he says.
Even after the boat’s motor quit, even as the 37 other passengers began crying, screaming and praying, even as parents kissed their children goodbye, Kaveh wasn’t too worried.
He wasn’t that worried about the lack of lifejackets during the four-hour-long journey. Or how the engine spluttered in the same spot where a dingy carrying 30 migrants sank in November 2021, killing 27 passengers.
Nor was he that spooked when the lifeboat crews pulled him to shore, wet and shivering, in what was his first tenuous toehold in Britain.
‘What I was really terrified of was the Rwanda plan and what would happen to us even if we reached the UK,’ Kaveh says of the proposal to off-shore some migrants to the East African nation announced the very day he crossed the Channel.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The House of Lords passed the government’s hardline Illegal Migration Bill in July that allows officials to detain people like Kaveh who arrived at British beaches by small boat to send them to Rwanda or another ‘safe’ third country.
For Kaveh, the Bibby Stockholm, a hulking metal barge intended to house up to 500 asylum seekers, is the latest chapter in this.
According to a Home Office fact sheet, the vessel, which docked in Portland along the southern coast last month, was ‘designed to be as self-sufficient as possible in order to minimise the impact on local communities and services’.
It will ‘provide non-detained accommodation for single adult male asylum seekers aged 18 to 65 who would otherwise be destitute’ as ministers try to cut the cost of accommodation for asylum seekers.
Results released just days after the arrival of the first migrants revealed the presence of Legionella bacteria on board. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), meanwhile, has described it as a ‘potential death trap’ with fire exits and overcrowding a top concern.
Home secretary Suella Braverman said she is ‘very confident that this barge is safe for human habitation’ and officials ‘followed all of the advice and protocols in anticipation of embarkation.’
But given his own experiences of getting to Britain, Kaveh questions how migrants will fare on the barge. ‘Those who have had the most difficult journey and have been already through so much, and finally got to the UK, now get to be housed in the most difficult place in the world,’ he says.
‘Those who have crossed the Channel are traumatised. I remember after the crossing it took me so long to digest what had happened to me.
‘It is difficult to be floating on the sea, on a very unreliable boat, with people who have no idea where they are and how to save themselves, in a place where you know other people have drowned. Are they planning to re-traumatise people?
‘If they are, I have to say well done, they are on the right track. These people are not going to be the same human being after the asylum process.
‘They will be damaged mentally for sure if not physically. I am sure I would not be able to live like this.’
Small boat arrivals accounted for 45% of the overall asylum claims in Britain last year, many fleeing from war-torn countries, poverty, persecution and worse.
Of them, about 60% eventually received refugee status, according to an analysis from the Refugee Council, a charity that supports migrants.
Some don’t make it to land at all. A 2020 report by the Institute of Race Relations found that at least 300 people died trying to cross the Channel in the 20 years before.
In total, 45,755 migrants crossed the Channel last year.
‘If there was a safe route, if there was an embassy that they could go and get a visa, why would they not go?’ Kaveh adds, echoing calls from campaigners.
‘The problem is within the UK immigration system but instead of trying to figure out what the problem is they keep making new plans for how to torture the people who are here to seek safety.’
LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are particularly at risk of harm and even violence inside the ship, Leila Zadeh, the executive director of the LGBTQ+ refugee group Rainbow Migration, says.
‘It is extremely dangerous to be held in large institutional accommodation sites that resemble detention centres,’ she said.
‘Imagine making it to a country where you hope to rebuild your life in safety only to be placed in an overcrowded barge in the sea while you wait for your asylum claim to be processed – which can take months or even years.’
Zadeh worries that inside the ‘overcrowded’ and ‘prison-like’ conditions of the barge, LGBTQ+ people are ‘likely to experience discrimination and harassment from other people seeking asylum, and will be cut off from LGBTQ+ community support’.
Kaveh, who now lives in Manchester, knows this feeling of isolation all too well.
These days, he finds himself worrying once again. Politicians seeing refugees as a burden, seeing border control as a zero-sum game, at its core, affects people who just want to live.
‘When the government looks at us as criminals, how can I expect my neighbour to feel safe around me,’ Kaveh says, ‘let alone hear my story and be my friend.’
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