Upon meeting Azadeh Pankurst, a 32 year-old Iranian, with big bright eyes and an infectious smile, one cannot fathom the tragedy and life battles this young woman endured during her early childhood.
At the tender age of eight, Azadeh saw her father Ali, get arrested and jailed due to his political views.
“I remember walking down a long, dark corridor to visit my father in jail and spend some quality time with him,” she says in an interview with Neos Kosmos.
Although Ali had not been sentenced to death, the Iranian authorities decided to mass execute prisoners. Azadeh’s dad was amongst them. He was only 35.
Concerned about their safety and fed up with the constant harassment and questioning, Azadeh’s mum decided to flee Iran and escape to Turkey with her three children.
Once settled, the family turned to the United Nations seeking asylum to Canada. The UN initially approved their application, but it was revoked within a week.
“It was all due to a protest staged by the political party that my father had been involved with; they staged a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in Canada, and burnt the Canadian flag.
“Because of that, Canada rejected our case and the United Nations said they were going to deport us back to Iran,” explains Azadeh.
They all hid in a building in Ankara with around 300 other refugees, until Azadeh’s mum had collected enough money to pay a Turkish smuggler to take them across to Greece (by boat) with around 20 others illegal refugees.
“It was 3 a.m. and we found ourselves in a sinking boat splashing around with our hands thinking it was fun; although none of us knew how to swim, funnily enough, the thought that we might drown never even crossed our minds.
“I guess, when your life is at risk, nothing else is a risk. You are either going to go ahead and fight for your life or you will die anyway,” adds Azadeh who never felt scared back then because of her mother’s conscious effort to never impose fear upon her children.
As soon as the smuggler’s boat approached the Greek island’s shore, they were all ordered to jump off.
Azadeh sadly recalls how the boat behind hers sank whilst people were jumping off, with everyone drowning.
The Greek authorities collected the 20 refugees and transferred them to an old prison on the island of Rhodes. The locals were warm, kind and inviting towards them.
“They would continuously bring us food, necessities and even toys; if there is one thing I have always loved about Greek people is their beautiful hearts.”
The family stayed in Rhodes for a few weeks before being moved to Athens.
Once they arrived in the Greek capital city, Azadeh sold black market cigarettes in Omonoia Square while her brothers sold lottery tickets and polished people’s shoes.
“We used to say, ‘πάρε ξυστό, πάρε ξυστό’, and felt so liberated that we were finally allowed to work and make money for ourselves. We were never going to just sit there and beg.”
One day an older man, by the name of George, approached Azadeh’s mother with his wife. The couple offered to accommodate the family in their old restaurant in Kifissia, which was unoccupied at the time.
“They were genuinely such a beautiful family that gave us so much without ever asking for anything in return. And we consider ourselves the lucky ones for having somewhere to sleep and stay dry, but I know there would have been other people out there with bad experiences. Mum always says that if you are a good person, then you have good karma. I also feel that my dad is our guardian angel who looks after us during hard times,” says Azadeh who seems to have only fond memories of the people in Greece.
“One day, I was approached by an undercover cop who pretended he wanted to buy cigarettes from me. After he caught me, I said, ‘I don’t have a Dad, please let me go!’ And he was so kind that not only he let me off but he also gave me the cigarettes back.
“Another time, a man who bought a lottery ticket from my brother won a lot of money, so he gave us some and I also met a lovely social worker who took us shopping for clothes.”
After spending a few months in Greece, Azadeh’s mother approached the Australian Embassy in an attempt to migrate to Australia.
“All I remember the lady saying was ‘Welcome to Australia’ and six months later, we finally arrived in Adelaide; it sure was the most wonderful feeling to be free and not have that fear anymore.”
Azadeh undertook 6 months of English lessons and was then placed into Year 8.
“High school was really tough for me after having missed 4 years of school and not knowing how to speak the Aussie lingo, or how to play netball, so I got bullied quite a lot by the girls at school and the boys at the bus stop who, once even threw milk to my face thinking it was funny,” she remembers.
Azadeh’s mum decided to move her children to a multicultural school.
Azadeh did really well and managed to get into Commerce at university but soon realised that a commerce degree was not what she was after. She left university to start up her own business, Azalia, a women’s clothing boutique, which has now progressed into three popular clothing stores in South Australia, supporting predominantly Australian designers.
“I knew I could do it. Once you’ve run away for your life, there’s just no fear, so with the support of my mother and wonderful husband, I did it.”
I ask the now successful businesswoman and mum of two, whether she would change anything from her past, if she could.
“My past is constantly at the back of my mind, reminding me to be thankful for what I have, appreciate my family, and my mother especially, for all the things she has sacrificed in order for us to be here today. At the same time, I realise that everything in life happens for a reason and that my past is what’s shaped me and has made me who I am today.”
The successful businesswoman is still genuinely interested in the current financial turmoil in Greece.
“Having been through this, I understand both sides; I feel for the refugees that desperately try to survive and I feel for the Greeks who need to look after their people and save their country. But please keep in mind one thing; Refugees don’t want to leave their country, but they are obliged to do so, in order to save themselves. They are not all bad,” she says.
Just as I began to wrap up our interview and before I express my gratitude to Azadeh for all she was willing to share with me, she astounded me by summarising her life’s journey and gratitude for Greece in the most human and heartfelt word; her favorite Greek word; “Ευχαριστώ”.