Iranian students in Malaysia tell their stories

Some young men who joined the brain drain out of Iran talk about their experiences and challenges with adapting to Malaysian culture and society.

By Grace Chen for Khabar Southeast Asia in Kuala Lumpur

April 12, 2014
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Tehran native Kiarash Maerefatkhah came to Malaysia six years ago in search of a better life.

  • Iranian Kiarash Maerefatkhah has been studying in Malaysia for six years, enjoying its more open society despite immigration hassles and occasional discrimination. [Grace Chen/Khabar]

    Iranian Kiarash Maerefatkhah has been studying in Malaysia for six years, enjoying its more open society despite immigration hassles and occasional discrimination. [Grace Chen/Khabar]

"I decided to leave Iran because I no longer felt stable. So I looked to Malaysia as a safer ground," the 23-year-old guitar and melodeon major at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur told Khabar Southeast Asia.

Kiarash plans to stay here, yet he and other Iranians studying in Malaysia say their experiences have not been easy. They cite problems such as xenophobia and bureaucratic delays in validating their immigration status.

"Near my university, some houses state very clearly they will only rent out rooms to local students," Kiarash said.

A 2011 Malaysia Insider article quoted an Iranian embassy official saying many as 70,000 Iranians are pursuing higher education studies in Malaysia.

Cultural similarities, relatively more social freedom and favourable foreign exchange rates have driven the influx, some Iranian students say. Plus unlike Iran, Malaysian society does not require Muslim women to wear the hijab, or to attend female-only schools.

Many Iranian expatriates were dismayed by the Malaysian government's decision last year to end a policy allowing Iranian visitors to obtain visas on arrival. The government justified the move by saying human traffickers and drug smugglers were taking advantage of the policy for illicit activities.

In Kiarash's case, he surrendered his passport to UCSI University officials while he waits for his latest visa application-- submitted months ago-- to be approved.

In the meantime, his only form of identification is a university letter stapled to photocopies of his passport pages. It acknowledges his status as a student.

Botched paperwork

Pooya Khorramvar, 29, a second-year student at University Putra Malaysia (UPM) in Serdang, saved for seven years in order to further his study of music.

He enrolled in a private Malaysian university through its representative in Tehran, who promised all his legal documentation would be in order upon his arrival.

But the university so botched his immigration– including losing his entire dossier– that eventually the former IT manager transferred to UPM, sacrificing the RM 27,000 ($8,360) he paid for a foundation course at the private university.

Despite his frustration, Pooya plans to stay on.

A changing atmosphere

Farzad Sedaghat Nia, a Kerman native who studies at Melakda's Multimedia University, said he came because favourable exchange rates made Malaysian tuition fees more affordable.

"Malaysia was also seen as an ideal platform for easier access to European and American universities for further stages of studies," he said.

Still, the Malaysian experience soured for him. Unlike Kiarash and Pooya, who plan on spending at least another RM 700 ($217) to renew their visas, Farzad said he made up his mind to return to Iran.

"Good, well-paying jobs are hard to come by for foreigners, as the atmosphere is no longer as friendly," Farzad told Khabar.

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