The Iran Air flight to Damascus was fully loaded and prepared for take-off from Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport. In the front half of the plane, elderly pilgrims headed to a famous Shia Muslim shrine in Damascus were urged by their tour leader to say a group prayer. "Peace and blessings to Mohammad and the family of Mohammad," the tour group responded appropriately. The tour leader continued, pointing to the back of the plane, where an assembly of some 50 young men and a few women sat: "It is good to see our youth going on pilgrimage. May their pilgrimage be accepted by God," he said.
As the elderly pilgrims craned their heads back to nod approvingly at the young would-be pilgrims, the youth in the back of the plane chuckled sheepishly and squirmed in their seats. The collection of neatly-dressed young people were headed to Damascus on an entirely different sort of pilgrimage: an economic pilgrimage in search of highly coveted work visas. Their shrine is the Canadian embassy, and their goal is to pass the first round of acceptance in the visa process.
Bleak job prospects at home and a sluggish economy has prompted many of Iran's young graduates and mid-career professionals to line up outside foreign embassies in the hope of nabbing a highly coveted work visa. Canada has opened its doors to young Iranian professionals and the embassy in Damascus is the fastest way to get the process moving. A visit to Syria and a nervous wait outside the doors of the Canadian embassy have become a contemporary rite of passage for young Iranian college graduates.
Ali Foroughi, a 26-year-old computer science graduate, has mixed feelings about the visit to Damascus. "I know that Canada would be of great benefit to me professionally, but I do not want to leave Iran and my family, He says. "Unfortunately, I simply have no choice. Even if I were to get a job in Iran, the wages are too low to keep up with rising costs. If my father had some money to loan me, I could start a computer business, but he does not. So I must try to leave."
Leila, a 27-year-old pharmacy graduate, sees things differently. "I want to leave Iran and never look back," she said. "Iran has done nothing for me."
As the elderly pilgrims chatted in the front of the plane about grandchildren and religious shrines, the youth in the back exchanged rumors about immigration visas to New Zealand and recent moves by Germany to open their doors to foreign computer sciences graduates. Iran's unemployment rate, officially estimated at 16%, is closer to 25%, according to independent economists. More importantly, underemployment is the norm. Tehran's crowded streets are clogged with young, university-educated taxi drivers.
Even if unemployment fell, qualified professionals would still complain about low salaries -- exacerbated by persistent inflation. The average engineer makes approximately $150-250 a month, slightly less than the monthly income of a taxi-driver. Average monthly expenses for a middle-class family of four far exceed that salary range, leading many professionals to moonlight as traders or taxi-drivers. "I make more money driving a taxi than I do teaching physics," one disgruntled 35-year-old Tehran university professor said.
The problems are not confined to Tehran. In major cities, where the vast majority of Iran's population lives, there are not enough jobs to keep pace with the growth in Iran's youthful population. Two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25. The government estimates that 750,000 jobs need to be created each year. According to the latest government figures, only 40,000 jobs were created last year, ensuring that Iran's brain drain will continue. The exodus, which began after the country's 1979 revolution, has seen most Western-educated and elite Iran-educated technocrats go abroad.
One in four Iranians with college degrees work outside the country, according to an IMF report. Such high rates of brain drain have previously only been seen in a few African, Caribbean, and Latin American countries. The nation's economy -- struggling under the heavy weight of state control, excessive bureaucracy, widespread corruption, persistent inflation, and high unemployment shows few signs of recovery, despite a dramatic spike in world oil prices.
For young Iranian professionals like Hossein Dashti, a 33 year-old engineer headed to Damascus, the time for waiting has ended. "Every year, I told myself that the economy would get better and every year I waited. This year, I had a baby daughter. The first time I put her in my arms, I knew I had to leave. I knew I could not give her all that she deserved if we stayed."
The plane landed in Damascus with a thud. At the baggage claim, the young economic pilgrims exchanged phone numbers and wished each other luck. The next morning, many of the same faces lined up outside the Canadian embassy underneath a clear blue sky with cappuccino brown mountains in the background. Hossein the engineer was feeling introspective as he waited in
line to hand in his already completed form. "Look around you," he said, "these are some of the best and brightest young minds in Iran, and they are here lined up outside the Canadian embassy begging for a visa. This is so sad." Ali Foroughi, the computer specialist, joined us in line. "Can you please check my spelling?" he asked. "I do not want to have any mistakes." He was visibly nervous.
The new applicants were not allowed to enter the embassy. They were told to drop off their applications and check the bulletin boards posted outside the embassy the next day. As Hossein and Ali inched closer to the front of the line, a crowd gathered around the just-posted notice on the bulletin board. It was yesterday's crowd of applicants, huddled around the board. At first,
there were shrieks of joy and hugs as people spotted their names on the list.
The remaining crowd continued looking, scanning the lines, checking to see if their applicant number matched the one on the list. There were a few sighs of relief as two more applicants walked away from the board. The ones left behind continued looking, hoping to find something on that paper that simply was not there. A young woman wiped away a tear. A young man cursed loudly. Another young man insisted that there must be a mistake. "This is impossible," he said, "I am an accredited engineer! I am an accredited engineer!" He walked toward the embassy and had to be restrained by the burly, blue-eyed Syrian guard. As he walked away from the embassy, he shook his head and muttered "accredited engineer."
By late morning, Hossein finally dropped off his application. The next day, he was accepted for the second round of form-filling to be followed by a personal interview one year later. "I am happy I was accepted," he said. "I know that I still have a long way to go before I get the visa. I also know that it won't be easy if I make it to Canada. But this is a journey that I am making for my daughter. With God's help, I hope it is a successful one."
Afshin Molavi is a journalist based in Tehran, Iran. His work has appeared in the Washington Post.