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Train Bandits and Sinking Ships: The Longest Journey of His Life

By the time Morteza Pourdanandeh was 10 years old, he and his family already had been thrown out of one war-torn country, fled another country in the middle of the night, avoided being robbed by bandits on a train, almost sank on a fishing boat in the Baltic Sea, and spent nearly eight months living in refugee camps.

"I don't have a normal life story," he says as he recounts the details of his childhood.

That is an understatement. Pourdanandeh, who was born in Baghdad, Iraq, to an Iranian family that later settled in Sweden, is a junior studying politics at Linköping University in Sweden. He came to Willamette University this fall through a one-year exchange program.

But the story of how he got to Sweden is complex and amazing. It's a story that makes one wonder how he made it through childhood without being completely traumatized. But his youth actually was an advantage, he says. "I just turned 10 a couple weeks after we made it to Sweden," he says. "It was pretty much an adventure for me, so I wasn't afraid. I heard my parents talk about it or warn me to be careful, but I didn't think about it much."

A Long Journey
Pourdanandeh was born in Baghdad in 1983, in the middle of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in which Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Iran following a long history of disputes between the two countries. Pourdanandeh's grandparents originally moved their family from Iran to Iraq in pursuit of jobs. With the war raging, Hussein sent all the Iranians back to their home country -- including Pourdanandeh's family, who went to Iran soon after he was born. He hasn't been back to Iraq since.

They lived in Iran until Pourdanandeh was almost 10, but even though it was their home country, his parents wanted to move him and his four siblings elsewhere. There were too many restrictions on people's freedoms in Iran, Pourdanandeh says; the government did not allow freedom of speech or free elections, for example. His brother was almost 18 at the time, on the verge of mandatory military service -- a "gruesome" prospect in Iran, Pourdanandeh says. "My parents wanted us to have more freedom, more choices. It was a case of my parents wanting the best for us."

But moving to another country was not as simple as buying a plane ticket. The paperwork they needed to travel from Iran to another country was complicated. And more important, "if they knew that you were going to leave the country permanently, they wouldn't let you do that," Pourdanandeh says. So the family fled the country secretly in the middle of the night to avoid being caught, leaving behind all ties to their Iranian citizenship. Luckily, they had the financial resources to make their escape -- the trip cost several thousand dollars per person. "It costs a lot to flee the country because it's illegal, and they charge you a lot because you're so desperate," Pourdanandeh says.

Their goal was to relocate to Denmark. Not all of them could leave together. Pourdanandeh's 18-year-old brother had to go on his own and take a different route. His father could not leave right away because of things he needed to take care of in Iran; he joined the family three years later.

That left his mother, who was pregnant with her fourth son at the time, on her own to make the trip with Pourdanandeh, his other brother and his sister. First, they took a bus into neighboring Azerbaijan, then into Russia, where they rode on crowded trains. They traveled only at night to avoid detection. Pourdanandeh vividly remembers securing their compartment door with two heavy locks so that bandits who often stopped the trains could not get in and rob them.

They finally made it to Latvia and had to take a boat across the Baltic Sea to Denmark. Pourdanandeh recalls helping his family dig a hole under a fence so they could make it out to the harbor in secret. They crowded onto a small fishing ship with about 100 other refugees; each bed was shared by three or four people.

At that point, Mother Nature stepped in. A storm brought high waves their little ship couldn't handle, and they almost sank. Their rescuers: the Swedish coast guard. Pourdanandeh's first memory after being picked up by the coast guard was of them giving him a cup of hot instant soup. "I remember that because the soup was warm, and I was so cold," he says. "I felt a little safer."

About five months after they first left Iran, they finally landed on Swedish soil, and that's where they stayed. They lived in two refugee camps for about eight months until the government gave them permission to stay in Sweden. Six years later, they obtained their Swedish citizenship. Pourdanandeh's recollection of the refugee camps mainly includes playing with other youngsters. "I was just a kid and there were a lot of kids there," he says. "Children make friends quickly."

Meanwhile, when his father heard about their boat almost sinking, he was so distraught that he had a small heart attack. Six years later, he died of cancer, and the family thinks it was partly attributed to the stress of the attack.

Adjusting to Willamette
Pourdanandeh is a friendly, upbeat young man who has easily made friends at Willamette and can be found most days hanging out at the Bistro coffee shop on campus. It's hard to guess from meeting him that he went through so much during his childhood. But he says he doesn't dwell on past events; if he did, it would be hard to live a happy life.

This is his first time visiting the U.S., although he has been fascinated by the country since he was in middle school. He was worried he wouldn't be allowed to study here because of his Middle Eastern background and the increased security measures put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, his visa application was approved quickly.

Pourdanandeh is fascinated by international politics, and one day he hopes to work for an organization like the United Nations, "somewhere where I hope I can make a difference." He has strong opinions on the Iraq War -- he believes sending in troops is not the best way to start a democracy there -- and he says his most interesting Willamette class so far has been American Ethnic Studies, where he has been learning more about U.S. culture and history.

Pourdanandeh also is looking forward to sharing his views with Americans, whether it's by talking about current international politics or drawing on his childhood experiences as a refugee. "I think it's probably interesting for other students to hear a non-American perspective," he says.