Everyday Golshahr

Afghan Refugees Stories on Instagram told by Afghan Refugees in Iran

The narrative of the world’s refugee crisis is often told through the lens of outsiders. Frequently European and American photographers and journalists work on a story for a short period before jumping onto the next big breaking event. As a result, some reporting lacks authenticity and fails to tell the whole reality on the ground.

When it comes to telling the story of migrants and refugees, there is no better source than individuals’ own voices. Everyday Golshahr (@everydaygolshahr) is such a project. As a visual documentary endeavor created by second-generations of Afghan refugees in Iran, their goal is to record their own lives in their own voices.

@EverydayGolshahr has been on Instagram since the Spring of 2015, after starting out as a photography group on the messaging app Viber.

Golshahr is a working class suburb of the city of Mashhad, Iran, about 250 miles from the border of Afghanistan. Afghans of the Hazara ethnicity predominantly populate the Golshahr neighborhood. Afghan refugees first came to Iran during the invasion of the Soviet Union army in the late 70's. After The Soviets left, another wave of refugees followed with the rise of the Taliban.

Decades later, Afghanistan is still fighting an internal war with the Taliban and other extremists, a conflict then as now fanned by regional and international geopolitical interests, while the refugees continue to arrive in Iran on their way to Western Europe. Since Iran doesn’t have naturalized citizenship laws, Afghan refugees have been living with limited rights as stateless individuals even after a second or third generation.

Before Everyday Golshahr began posting images on Instagram following the footsteps of the Everyday Africa model, they shared their photographs and stories on a messaging app called Viber. Viber used to be very popular in the Middle East and they used it in a similar fashion to Instagram. Reza Heidari-Shahbidak, a second-generation Afghan refugee, is the main curator of Everyday Golshahr. Heidari-Shahbidak whose parents escaped the Soviet Army invasion, arrived in Iran as a child refugee. Heidari-Shahbidak studied film and photography in Mahshad and has a family of his own now.

Left: An Afghan girl opens the window and puts the curtain in order to clean the home. Photo by Atefeh Heidari. Right: Afghan boys play in a canal to beat the summer heat in Golshahr in the city of Mashhad in Iran. Photo: Reza Heidari-Shahbidak.⠀

According to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, there are currently about 1.5 million to 2 million undocumented Afghan refugees living in Iran. While the Iranian government recognizes the Afghans as refugees under the United Nations mandate, they have never had a long-term solution to distinguish them as permanent residents. A recent resolution by Iran allows Afghans to obtain a residency visa, which requires renewal every 12 months.

The visa provides them some liberties such as working and obtaining business permits, but purchasing and owning property is out of question. Heidari-Shahbidak laments, “we have very limited rights as residents of Iran.” Since the government controls all forms of telecommunication they can’t even purchase a SIM card under their own name. When Afghan couples get married in Iran they have to obtain licensing from an Afghan consulates in their area, as Iran does not provide official documentation of their marriages from the government.

What makes the situation of Afghan refugees in Iran unique among all other refugees in the world is the formation of a military division known as Fatemiyon Division by the Revolutionary Guards Corps. In a controversial move, the Iranian government has organized thousands of young Afghan refugee men of Shia faith to fight in Syria. In return the Afghans are promised financial support among other benefits, but they will not receive a change in residency status.

In 2015 The Guardian reported that Afghans were dying while fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. Others are coerced into joining the Division with threats of deportation. Some recruits are under 18 years old.

Funeral of an Afghan Shahid (martyr) killed during the Syrian Civil War in Mahshad, Iran. Photograph: Mujtaba Jalali

The Everyday Golshahr Instagram has managed to highlight Afghan refugees’ daily lives in Iran and bringing to light their challenges as stateless individuals, even when they are asked to fight a war they may or may not want to support. We hope to find and share more projects like this in the near future.