With its rapidly developing economy and participation in the Schengen Area, Lithuania has become a desirable destination for people across the Middle East. Some 120 Iranians now call Lithuania their home, Josh Askew reports in Vilnius.
‘What I saw here and what I had on my mind were completely different’
Other than “where it was on a map” and that “basketball was the most popular sport”, Behrouz Isfahani confessed that he knew very little about Lithuania before he took a post-doctoral research position in Vilnius.
A resident for a little over a year, he said: “Lithuania is a good stepping stone for migrants.”
“Compared to bigger countries like Germany or the UK, here is a very easy place to start a new life. It is affordable and small. Life isn’t so complicated,” he said.
Still, not everything was rosy. Behrouz complained that he faced many “expensive, time-consuming and difficult” obstacles, especially in the migration process. For example, his documents needed super legalisation, a stringent procedure of authentication, despite already being officially verified in Iran.
“This is discrimination. If I were British, for example, I would not have to do this. Things would be easier. But why? I am a researcher, not a criminal or a terrorist,” he said.
But Behrouz believed the situation was improving.
“The Lithuanian society is opening up, it is changing so fast. Younger people are very open-minded and are introducing themselves to the world,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be better in the coming years.”
‘I just wanted to move’
Having arrived in 2018, Aafreen Pour and her friend built their Persian restaurant from scratch, even bringing decorations from their homes in Tehran, the Iranian capital.
From its humble beginnings as a one-room café, Termeh has grown into a hugely successful business with stellar reviews. The idea behind it came from Lithuanians. “We invited our friends for dinner and they loved it,” Aafreen recalled. “They said you must open a restaurant.”
“We’ve made so many friends through Termeh,” she continued. “Lithuanians like Persian food, they eat so much.”
Aafreen left behind a privileged life in Iran because, she says, “I wanted to do things for myself”.
“Originally I was scared. But I had to try. If I didn’t go, it would always be one big why in my head,” she said.
Far from friends and family, Aafreen often struggled with a lack of support. “In Iran, we face everything together. Here I must act alone, think alone, solve problems alone,” she said.
Yet, this self-reliance gave her immense satisfaction. “Even when I bought my own vacuum cleaner, I was so happy,” she laughed.
Aafreen’s biggest challenge, however, was leaving behind her young son until she established herself in Lithuania.
“It was so hard to make this decision, [because] I had never been far from my son. I wanted to open doors for him, I didn’t want my son to stay in Iran because there is an unknown future there due to all the sanctions and economic problems,” she said.
“In Iran, there is one way – the way your parents want you to go. I didn’t want this for my son. I wanted him to choose what he wanted without thinking about what his parents wanted.”
Now that they are reunited, Aafreen recalled that in the first year her son came, “he was so upset because there was no snow”.
“Actually, I like the weather in Lithuania,” her son added.
‘Life has led me to Lithuania’
20-year-old Saba Ahmadi came to Lithuania last November to study for a bachelor’s degree in economics and politics, just one week after the second coronavirus quarantine.
“It is better to be a student here than in Iran,” she said. “The lecturers try to make us critical thinkers and question what’s going on in society.”
Yet, due to the timing of her visit, she “has not even seen the university yet”.
Growing up in the “chaotic” Iranian capital, Saba said her first impression of Vilnius was that it was “so still and so so quiet”.
“It was a big shock. Every twenty minutes there was only one car passing by,” she said. “I wasn’t really adapted to a calm city, I guess.”
Saba loved the nature in Vilnius. “I don’t think there are many capital cities in the world where you can see this much wildlife and green without mankind’s touch.
“I think it is really special,” she continued. “I hope they don’t destroy it.”
Despite initially feeling like she was coming from a “different planet”, Saba soon learnt to appreciate the freedom Lithuanian society offers.
“Migration is not necessarily about reaching the biggest goals, like having a fantastic career or making lots of money, it covers all aspects of life. Where I come from, we are struggling for even the simple things.”
“Wearing what you like, drinking beer with your friends or going on a trip – you know, the stuff that gives you happiness in life – all of that is difficult in Iran.”
With anti-immigrant sentiment rising across much of Europe, Saba thought that “Lithuania was really welcoming to international students and workers”.
“This is also about the improvement of their country”, she added. “Immigration is a mutually beneficial experience, both for me and the people who are here.”
Some of the names have been changed.