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Innovating In Iran: Afghan Immigrant Wins Praise In Tehran, But 'Home' Still Beckons

Afghan immigrant and inventor Foruzan Faghiri has lived in Iran since she was a small child. (file photo)
Afghan immigrant and inventor Foruzan Faghiri has lived in Iran since she was a small child. (file photo)

Foruzan Faghiri was 3 years old when her family fled war in Afghanistan for neighboring Iran.

The Faghiris found shelter and education while at the same time coping with the discrimination and restrictions that Afghan refugees routinely face in Iran.

Yet Faghiri persevered, becoming a conspicuous success among Afghan immigrants to Iran.

The 29-year-old physicist's work was recently highlighted in the government daily Iran, which suggested that the young woman's creativity and technological prowess could help Tehran combat its stubborn pollution problem.

There are an estimated 3 million Afghans living in Iran: 1 million of them registered and around 2 million of them undocumented refugees living in legal limbo.

They frequently face discrimination and resentment among other Iranians who blame them for joblessness and other social ills, and are thought to have been recruited by the hundreds for combat duty in nearby Syria, where Tehran ally President Bashar al-Assad has been waging a 7-year battle for survival.

"It wasn't just a few," Faghiri says of the problems she encountered growing up as an Afghan in Iranian society.

'Starting In Minus'

At one point, Faghiri said, she was expelled from middle school over her nationality. Her parents managed to get her enrolled again two months later, she added.

He parents "did all they could to distance us from the problems so we could achieve the main goal, which was to study," she said. "Yet I still have some vague memories from those times and the problems."

She said she learned to put problems "behind the door" and focus on her work.

It has left her with the feeling that she has had to far outwork her fellow Iranians to succeed.

"I have always told myself that there are problems and I have to find a way to cope with them," Faghiri said. "For us, life didn't start at zero, it started in minus, so we've had to work harder to make things normal."

She said she eventually found her calling in physics, which she first saw as an "unreachable" subject.

"Since I always like to conquer difficult things, I started to study physics," she said, adding that she came to understand and love the field.

But even recently, she said, colleagues at Azad University, where she has an office and conducts research, reacted with hostility at the prospect of an Afghan success story.

"Some friends who learned of [my achievements] from the news even stopped answering my calls," she told RFE/RL in June.

Iranian women wearing face masks wait at a bus stop in Tehran, which has long been plagued by a pollution problem. (file photo)
Iranian women wearing face masks wait at a bus stop in Tehran, which has long been plagued by a pollution problem. (file photo)

Faghiri has been hailed for her design for a pollution monitor that she says is cheaper and more sensitive than similar, foreign-manufactured devices.

"It's a small device; its sensors are designed based on the weather in the Middle East," she said. "It's highly sensitive, and it's portable, and it's the size of two [tissue packets]. And to make it easier to use, I've designed an application for mobile phones."

The Iran daily reported that the device was being considered for use in Tehran's Tohid Tunnel, which stretches under the capital for around 3 kilometers.

Sense Of A Homeland

Faghiri is hopeful that it will find widespread use in Tehran, a city of 8 million that often suffers choking levels of pollution that close schools and leave residents hospitalized.

"Anyone can have one of these at home, [or] it can be used at hospitals, for elderly people, children, and those suffering from heart and respiratory problems," she said. "It can help people decide whether they should stay home or not."

But Faghiri, who is considering pursuing a doctorate, recently spent three weeks in Afghanistan that left her in love with her country of birth.

Her work was praised at a seminar attended by senior Afghan officials including Afghan Minister for Higher Education Najibullah Khajeh Omri and Kabul University Dean Hamidullah Faroughi.

She said she witnessed the "destruction" and suggested women face more restrictions in Afghanistan than in Iran.

Yet Faghiri felt "home" for the first time in years.

"I would meet someone I didn't know in the street and feel he's my brother. People were so kind -- it was different from here," she recalled.

She said she sees her future there despite living most of her life in Iran.

"I had always missed the sense of a homeland, there was a vacuum, but I found it in Afghanistan," Faghiri told RFE/RL in June. "I will definitely return to my country and work there."