Summer 2018. Andrea (22) travelled on her own through Tajikistan, where she met Ehsan via couch surfing. They kept meeting each other in unexpected places and started doing a lot together. When Andrea visited a Syrian refugee camp in (Kurdish) Iraq for a photo-reportage a couple of months later, Ehsan took a 24-hour bus journey to meet her there. Not an area without danger, because IS fighters are never far away. Despite all this, they became much closer.
“The situation in a refugee camp isn’t really one that makes you want to start a relationship. But actually those intense conditions lead to strong connections between people. Once I arrived home, I missed Iran and wanted to see Ehsan. So I flew to Iran again and travelled with him across the country for four weeks.” That was the ‘holiday of her life’. They fell in love. Ehsan lives and has a rug shop in the capital city, Tehran, and Andrea flew out there again for the Iranian New Year, met his family and a few months later, he asked her to marry him. Andrea said yes.
“It was a real jump in at the deep end, but it was a chance I wanted to take. I didn’t have much time to decide. It was a question of now or never, and for me ‘never’ wasn’t an option”, she explained. Andrea did make clear to Ehsan that she did not want to move to Iran to play the role of a traditional Iranian housewife. “And I’m also not converting to Islam”, she told him. “But he had every respect for this.”
Once back in Antwerp, she tried to obtain a visa for him so he could visit her friends and family. She wanted Ehsan to see Belgium as he had never been in Europe, and wanted him to meet her family. But that proved far from easy: America intervened. “The situation with Iran escalated under Trump”, explained Andrea. “They became the black sheep of international politics. That’s partly why the Belgian government doesn’t want to admit Iranian nationals. They’re afraid that Ehsan won’t go back. And my visa to Iran has also been refused twice. They thought it was suspicious that I went there so often.”
All this has affected Andrea. “I became extremely upset about this, but also really angry. We tried everything and guaranteed to meet all the requirements, but it sometimes feels as though the government doesn’t trust us.”
When she thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, Andrea’s Hotmail account was blocked and her Etsy online shop, where she sells Persian rugs, was shut down. Again, the US threw a spanner in the works. “They want the Iranian economy to crash, so all trade is being blocked”, stated Andrea. After America withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018, Iran also started stepping back from the deal in May this year, which led to further counter-reaction in the form of political and economic sanctions. “This has had destructive consequences for the country itself, but also for individuals such as Ehsan and me”, stated Andrea.
Her contact with visa management company VFS Global resulted in her e-mail account being blocked. “According to Microsoft, by contacting this company I was violating American foreign policy”, Andrea explained. “That was a real shock: all my personal and business e-mail runs via that account.” The fact that she had asked questions about journeying to and from Iran was sufficient reason for Microsoft to block her account. She signed a protest and five days later was able to use her e-mail again.
Her online shop was also shut down in a similar way. “But that even went a step further”, stated Andrea. “Ehsan has a rug business and taught me a lot about rugs. So I’ve developed a bit of an obsession for Persian rugs and started earning some extra cash with a second-hand shop. I wanted to do that via Etsy, a platform that’s great for purchasing vintage and handmade products.” She searched for Persian rugs in the Netherlands: luxury products that were sold with a certificate of authenticity. “But at a certain point I received a notification that my adverts were being deactivated, because they needed to investigate whether my shop was in line with their policy. A few days later they took all the rugs offline because I was selling ‘prohibited products’.”
Andrea is convinced that blocking her Etsy account is not permitted. After all, she didn’t export anything to the US and didn’t import anything from Iran, which is prohibited because of economic sanctions; she simply trades within Europe’s internal market. “Just like Facebook needs to adhere to European privacy legislation, Etsy also needs to adhere to European trade legislation.”
She decided not to accept the situation and started a lawsuit: “Of course, I don’t have the money to pay for an expensive European trade lawyer, because these people charge three to four hundred euros per hour. So I started looking for a pro-bono lawyer. My website is still offline. If you consider that I used to sell a couple of rugs a month, that’s some four to five hundred euros I’m missing out on every month. I’ve discussed this with a European law lecturer and with someone who is studying relations between Europe and Iran. And they also say: ‘This is crazy. It’s not allowed, sue them.’”
What Andrea doesn’t understand is that a few whims of ‘Mr. Trump’ have consequences that extend far outside the country of Iran itself. “They remove your right to see your boyfriend and your right to earn money with products that originate from that country. And I have family in the US that I’m no longer permitted to visit”, stated Andrea.
She does admit that she’s sometimes on the brink of despair. “I start thinking: what on earth should I do? Is there anything else I can do?” Those close to her often don’t really understand her situation and think she needs to be ‘cautious’. “People ask: ‘What if he’s a terrorist? What if he locks you up and you’ll have to pray five times a day?’ Or they say: ‘He’s only using you for your passport.’ People throw that one at me constantly. I think it’s so small-minded”, explained Andrea. “Sometimes I do wonder whether this relationship is worth it. But most of the time I think: ‘Goddamnit. I’ll show them.”
Married for paperwork
A quick wedding would solve a lot of problems. “But the last thing I want to do is to get married for the paperwork”, stated Andrea. “It sometimes feels as though I’m living in two worlds that are incompatible.” If they get married, Ehsan can come to Belgium under the pretext of ‘family reunification’. “But I don’t want that”, stated Andrea. I don’t want to marry purely for practical reasons. Moreover, Ehsan has never been to Belgium. “How can you know that you want to live somewhere if you’ve never been there?”
But sometimes she feels she has no choice. For now the situation is all about sitting tight and hanging in there. Andrea: “Ehsan and I call each other a lot, and we really support each other. He’s an amazingly calm person. When I start ranting, as I often do, he puts everything in perspective. And I need that sense of calm.”