The Refugee Who Fell in Love With His Teacher

An Iranian atheist finds romance—and roadblocks.

Julia Pichl and Javad Ganjkhanloo
Julia Pichl and Javad Ganjkhanloo (Courtesy of Julia Pichl)

Like many young couples in love in Germany, Julia Pichl and Javad Ganjkhanloo post pictures of themselves on Facebook, go on dates to the park, and dream of moving into a small apartment together. Unlike other couples, however, they face an uncertain future that rests on a slow-moving bureaucracy and fluctuating public opinion. Pichl is German, but Ganjkhanloo is Iranian—one of an estimated 890,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany in 2015.

An outspoken atheist, Ganjkhanloo said he was subjected to lashings and the threat of imprisonment after the Iranian government seized his house and belongings. He has waited for almost a year for an interview to determine whether he can stay in Germany permanently. Until the German government approves his asylum status, he is in limbo, unable to leave and unable to stay as the government relocates him to various refugee camps around the country.

The number of people seeking asylum in Germany dropped dramatically last year, when public discontent prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to tighten borders. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, two-thirds of Germans disapproved of how the EU was handling the refugee situation. A rising right-wing, anti-immigration party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), has vocalized a simmering animosity toward refugees. Attacks by individual asylum-seekers, including one at a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people, has only increased the friction.

Aided by a translator, I spoke with Pichl and Ganjkhanloo separately about their experiences as an intercultural couple in a country rife with political and cultural tensions, one still struggling to come to grips with its new inhabitants. For the moment, this is a long-distance relationship: Pichl is studying at the University of Sussex in the U.K., while Ganjkhanloo remains in Germany.

When I spoke with them, they were anxiously preparing for Ganjkhanloo’s long-awaited appointment with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, where an administrator would determine if Ganjkhanloo would be granted residency in Germany. On December 1, Pichl reached out to me again. “Javad didn’t get granted asylum,” she wrote. “We’re working on an appeal, otherwise he has to leave the country in 30 days.” The date of his appeal in court has been set for next Monday. If denied, Ganjkhanloo will likely face deportation. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Isabella Kwai: Tell me about how you two became involved.

Javad Ganjkhanloo: When I arrived in Germany, they offered me a language class. On the third day, we were introduced to Julia, who was one of our teachers. After a while, I began to become interested in her. One day, very nervously, I asked her out.

Julia Pichl: I noticed him right away. He was very shy. When we talked there was definitely something there, but I thought he wasn’t into me. My class kept getting smaller [as people were sent away to other refugee camps], and I would try to comfort my students. I would do that for him as well. He was open about his political standpoint and it interested me. And then one day he asked if we could talk. I had taught [the class] before how to ask a girl out on a date, what to say, so I actually asked him if he wanted to ask me that. I was really nervous. I was already kind of drawn to him, so I said, “Yeah, sure, let’s do it.” Afterwards I sat in my car, and I [thought], “Oh my God, what are you doing? You’re his teacher, you can’t go out with him.” He seemed so Western, but I knew that he [was] still from an Islamic country. After that night he would walk me to my car every night, and we would meet up on the weekend.

Kwai: What was your first date like?

Pichl: We went for a coffee and he brought me roses. We couldn’t speak German so I thought, “What are we going to do? We can’t talk.” But he prepared well for the date. Afterwards, he told me he had studied for three hours. He had a lot of papers with things written down that he wanted to tell me. He was reading [out] what he likes about me, the way he respects me, that he really wants to be serious about it and get to know me.

Ganjkhanloo: The first days were hard. My language skills were poor—I’d only been learning German for a month—and I couldn’t speak English. I could only try to communicate my feelings. For the first two or three months, we only had those feelings. I had a translation dictionary, which helped us a lot.

Kwai: Javad, what was it like when you arrived in Germany?

Ganjkhanloo: When we arrived in Germany, we were taken to a large police station. From there, they moved us to the central refugee camp in Nuremberg. I stayed there for seven days, and then I was transferred to a temporary camp. I stayed there for four or five months. That’s where I began attending Julia’s language class.

Naturally, every person has certain fears in their lives. I was afraid that Julia wouldn’t accept me. I wasn’t in the best of conditions when I first arrived in Germany, in terms of money, language skills, and my social situation—all this made me afraid.

When I arrived in Germany, I didn’t want to stay. I wanted to end up in Norway. But when I arrived, I knew I’d arrived in the land of Nietzsche and Beethoven, and that made me happy. I’m an atheist, and sometimes I say my god is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Kwai: What did you have with you when you entered Germany?

Ganjkhanloo: I didn’t have a passport. I didn’t have anything. When I arrived, I only had travel documents from Austria and the other countries I’d traveled through. I’d enter a country and wait to receive the document before I could enter the next country.

Kwai: Were there moments in the asylum-seeking that were frustrating for you?

Ganjkhanloo: I was in a situation where I had to leave Iran as quickly as possible. The first place I arrived was Turkey. The most difficult part of my journey was crossing from Turkey to Greece on a small boat. About 50 people got on board a six-meter boat. I left Iran for self-preservation, but in those waters, I put myself in danger once again in order to try and reach safety.

During the rest of my journey, Greece and Serbia were places where I ran into hardship. I felt afraid and unsafe. I had to stay in Greece for five days. I stayed in the cold and slept in the forest. Then, in Serbia, I had to stand in the cold for 13 hours. Eventually, I arrived in Germany.

Kwai: What was frustrating for you, Julia?

Pichl: I can’t count how many moments there were. It started off with him being transferred to another camp. We were together for two weeks and we were both so happy, and then he got transferred to somewhere in Bavaria. I struggled a lot because of the long distance. He was in that camp for three months without getting a chance to further his language studies. He was getting so skinny in the camps because the food was so [bad]—they would give him fish every night in a can. He wouldn’t sleep very well. He was under a lot of stress. The first time he got there, he didn’t have an ID. I thought he could come back and visit me immediately, but then it took him four weeks to get a piece of paper with his name on it. Before he had that he couldn’t leave, so I went there instead.

Now he’s looking for a language course and a job and he’s had to do everything himself. And because he was far away, I couldn’t go and help him with it. His interview [to determine immigration status] is soon. We’re both very nervous about it. If it goes [well], he has a German passport. It’s crazy because everything depends on this interview. He was asking me questions that were frustrating for me, because I had no clue about them. If he takes my advice and it [is bad] then I’ll blame myself for it. He wants my opinion and I don’t want to give my opinion because it’s such an important process. I don’t know about law, lawyers, what to say and who to call.

Kwai: Julia told me a little bit about people looking at both of you in the streets. Did you personally notice that kind of thing?

Ganjkhanloo: I’m an observant person, and I always try to pay attention to things around me—but mostly to things that I feel are threatening me. When I first arrived in Germany, I was a little afraid of my surroundings. The fear I had in Iran was still following me. I paid attention to everything. But I never took notice of the looks of ordinary people. It’s generally not important to me how people are looking at me or what they’re thinking of me. Sometimes, though, it was hurtful, and I became aware of it.

Kwai: Some refugees in your camps have expressed jealousy about your direct connection to a German citizen. What’s your response to that?

Ganjkhanloo: The beginning of this relationship was hard for me. Until a month ago, I studied German three hours a day. None of the people around me, who might have been jealous, wanted to go through the trouble of doing that work, of studying the language. They just wanted to have a relationship.

Another thing is that having a relationship with a person from another culture is very hard. I liked Julia and I wanted to win her heart. But that’s not all it took: I needed her family to accept me and, at the same time, [I needed] to think of my own future and whether I’d be admitted into Germany. I shouldered all these worries and tried to find a solution to each.

Pichl: I definitely see that when other refugees and other people in Germany see us, we get looks and they think it’s weird. Of course, the relationship with me benefits him. His German is now, after one year in Germany, very good and better than other refugees’. But he has to talk to me every day in German and if you do that with any language you learn it very quickly. I thought that if I married him, everything [with immigration] would be sorted out, but that’s not the case. He still won’t get a German passport for another six years. The thing is, I’m also a student. I don’t have a lot of money, so we just split the bills. He says a lot that he’s very grateful to me and my family [because] we want to help him. He could use it more but he doesn’t.

Kwai: What was the most challenging thing about your cross-cultural relationship?

Pichl: The language was a problem. At the beginning if I wanted to tell him something, I needed to look for 10 minutes in a dictionary, just to explain to him a basic thing. Also, there were misunderstandings at the beginning, where I didn’t want to go public [with our relationship] and I think he [did]. I think he thought I’d just want to date him and not have a relationship. I didn’t know if [the misunderstandings] were cultural, or if the language barrier made it harder. Sometimes you just have to explain manners and traditions and how you do things in Germany and how you do things in Iran.

Ganjkhanloo: My culture, of course, is very different from the one Julia grew up in. The biggest thing that was hard was our values. We had to try to align our values. The kind of relationships Julia has with others is one example. In Iran, for example, my girlfriend would never go out with another guy for a coffee or touch my friends when greeting them—it just wasn’t done. But here, it is, and I had to accept that this culture is this way and there’s no problem with it.

Kwai: Were there also things Julia needed to get used to?

Ganjkhanloo: Yes, there were some things that were hard for her, too. For example, when she went out, the clothes she sometimes wore were a little hard for me to get used to. But in Germany, it’s normal. She was willing to compromise and not wear certain clothes that I might not like.

The Iranian culture is very family-oriented. So naturally, I had to make a lot of time for my own family, who are still in Iran, to talk with them, chat with them, and this was new and sometimes strange for Julia.

Kwai: What do you both connect over?

Pichl: We have the same ethics and moral beliefs and a similar worldview. His [view] is more left than mine, but when I’m done with university maybe I’ll be like that, too. And also his character, he’s very tolerant, he wants to help people, and I do as well. We want to do something with purpose. We’re looking for the same things, like a family, and we both want to travel.

Ganjkhanloo: When we were first getting to know one another, the first thing I told Julia was that I don’t believe in any god and that I’m not a part of any religion. My only god and judge is my own conscience. She feels the same way. Our touchstone, our god, the framework for our life is humanity. Humanity and only humanity.

Kwai: Why do you think that both of you are this way, despite your differences in cultural upbringing?

Ganjkhanloo: Because we’re similar and our thinking is similar. Here’s a funny example: Since I was young, I’ve been attracted to blonde women with light eyes, and Julia, since she was young, has been attracted to guys with dark hair and eyes.

Kwai: Have you introduced Julia to your parents on Skype, or do you have plans to?

Ganjkhanloo: Not yet. But once, she left a voicemail from my phone for them in Farsi. It was great. In the future, I definitely want her to speak with them.

Kwai: There are, of course, people with negative attitudes toward refugees. How do you feel about that sentiment?

Ganjkhanloo: My answer to those people is that less than 100 years ago, during World War II, many Europeans became refugees in various corners of the world. Today, it’s the opposite. Many people are running here from war.

Pichl: It’s terrible and I can see it. Before my parents met him, they were like that as well. They were worried. But they met my boyfriend and now they’re not so worried because they see it’s a person, it’s not a problem. They see [from] his example that he wants to integrate, he wants to work, he doesn’t want to benefit from the state, he just wants a better life. If more people had that perspective, they’d think differently.

Kwai: What does the future look like for you both?

Ganjkhanloo: Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I will: I think there’s a lot of places we still need to go, a lot of things we still need to say, many ways we can feel happy, and, eventually, maybe there will be some kids.

Pichl: I’m going to do my master’s degree in the U.K. and then move back to Germany. We’re going to move in together, which is exciting because we’re sick of [the] long distance. We’re both very serious about this relationship. I don’t want to go too far but we’ll probably end up married in a couple of years. For him, he wants to work just any job until I get back to save up some money. Until then, he wants to try to figure out what it is that he really wants to do, but he’s limited. We want to find something in the middle of what he really wants to do and what he can do. That’s what I’m wishing for him, for a good job that makes him happy. For me, I want to keep working with refugees.

Kaveh Waddell contributed translation to this article.