Almost five thousand miles separated Saba A. from his future wife when he left Iran to pursue a degree in Estonia. He wasn’t looking for a relationship, but that changed once he met Rona A.
They were partnered up during a yoga class, and after Saba hurt his back, he posted the bad news on the group’s Facebook, hoping she would see it. She messaged him a few minutes later, and the two began a friendship that soon turned into a romantic relationship.
“What I liked about her was that she was being herself, and that caught my eye,” Saba said.
Photo by Angie Huang
After they started dating, Rona couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother about her Iranian boyfriend, afraid she wouldn’t approve of their different backgrounds. In the end, her mother had other concerns about the relationship.
“Her fear wasn’t his skin color or his culture; her fear was that I move away and go live off in another far country where she could not see me all the time,” Rona said.
Neither of them ever focused on their differences until about a year later, when things started to get serious.
“When I introduced [Rona] to my family, my mom started bringing up questions I hadn’t thought about before, [like] what if I want to marry this girl, and whether I want a Persian girl or not,” Saba said.
After almost a year of dating, they decided to get married. He no longer had any doubts about her, but instead worried about how their relationship would be received by Estonian society, where racism and discrimination are common.
One night, while they were out, a drunken man started swearing at Saba, making fun of his skin color and hoping for a reaction. Then he began to attack Agaate for choosing to be with someone who wasn’t Estonian. Saba grabbed Rona’s hand and rushed toward the back of a bus to escape the man’s anger.
The man followed them onto the bus and continued berating them in Estonian, a language Saba didn’t fully understand. In a “moment of shock,” Rona tried to defend Saba, but instead left him feeling helpless.
“I was mad at us, I was blaming her because she answered him,” Saba said. “He was very provocative — that’s why I didn’t want her to talk to him at all.”
Saba said he never expected that kind of backlash or racism from Estonian society, but it wouldn’t be the last time they dealt with discrimination because of their relationship. After several incidents of assault, Saba and Rona no longer felt safe in Estonia. Rona started carrying pepper spray, and Saba looked into taking martial arts classes.
“I don’t want to change the way I am because of drunk, racist people,” Saba said.
Since moving to the United States, Saba got a job in IT and Rona enrolled in UT’s Middle Eastern studies masters program. The couple said they feel happier and safer, especially when they meet other international or interracial couples.
“In the United States, we are never judged based on our nationality,” Rona said.