A GAY IRANIAN’S TALE
Amir’s life wasn’t his own in Iran. It was difficult being a single man fielding and dodging questions from family and community members. Amir, a 30-something and gay Iranian, (using a pseudonym here to protect his privacy) couldn’t be out about his sexuality. Being out could lead to imprisonment or even death.
“As a gay person you have no life there because first and foremost being gay is a sin,” said Amir, about Iran’s Muslim government’s perspective of LGBTI people. “If they find out you are gay, they track you down and put you away – that’s the best case scenario.”
The punishment could easily entail being lashed during imprisonment, which is the best case scenario. The worst: execution, he said.
At first the stories of gay people being caught and detained by the police were about other people, but then they started to be about acquaintances, and then about his friends.
“I had friends who were caught,” who told him how they were treated, said Amir, who was born and raised in Tehran, Iran.
His friends’ stories about what happened to them made him feel like danger was encroaching upon him.
“(It) would make you feel even more frightened because as long as you see it happening to others, you see it in the media, but then you see it happening to your friend who would socialize with you until last month and now it has happened to him,” Amir said as he paused reflecting on those dark moments. “You just feel that it’s approaching you and it confines you even more.”
This is why Amir felt the need to leave everything he knew behind and flee into the unknown from his homeland.
The Need to Escape
Amir was never caught by authorities, but he was “outed” by his employer when his connection to his job left his position. Because Amir hadn’t served in the military as required by Iranian law, he was required to get a medical exemption card in order to continue working. However, there were only two exemptions allowed in order not to serve in Iran’s military: family caretaker for parents 65 and older and sexual deviation.
When Amir received his card and saw the mark “sexual deviation,” he knew his life was forever changed.
“I wasn’t aware that this would be noted on the exemption card, so when the card came in I realized that I was labeled forever,” said Amir.
“I was ‘outed’ and fired by my employer in Iran,” he said. “I lost my job and it was actually impossible to get a job if I were ‘out.’ You don’t have a job, you have no life.”
“After that the problem of having to live as a gay person in that society with all those restrictions where living as a single person is always an issue,” he continued. “Life is completely different there. It’s not like here. There, everyone’s life is everyone else’s business.”
“That is the reason I had to leave the place of my birth, Iran,” Amir said, pressing his lips together reflecting upon the tortured two years it took to make his final decision to leave. “It was the hardest decision of my life. I had to leave my family behind.”
Amir was lucky. He never had any problems with authorities, but social pressures eventually cornered him to the point that one day, he packed his bags, went to the airport, and flew to Turkey taking advantage of the visa waiver agreement between the two countries.
Life as a Refugee
Life as a refugee is one filled with uncertainty.
“This is a path with no clear and no foreseeable end,” said Amir. “You just embark on this path and no one knows where you might end up.”
“We have human rights activists who fled Iran and only got murdered in Turkey,” Amir continued. “We have LGBT people who committed suicide in Turkey and they never made it out.”
Once in Turkey, Amir stayed with a gay Iranian couple for a few of weeks until he found his own place to live.
“There are a lot of LGBT refugees living in Turkey. You are never left on the streets when you get there because there is always someone who is connected to you who is a friend of a friend,” said Amir. “We had this understanding to put each other up for a while until we can find a house of our own.”
In spite of the many LGBTI Iranians living in Turkey, it remains a temporary stop before many eventually move on because of the stance of the Turkish government towards the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees signed in 1951: Iranians are excluded by Turkish law from being considered asylum seekers in Turkey. The choice is to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or be deported back to Iran.
Turks aren’t welcoming of foreigners or visitors, unless they are tourists, he said.
Refugees are also not allowed to work in Turkey. Many refugees work as sex workers or at under-the-table jobs that pay low wages and sometimes – if not quite often – don’t pay their refugee workers for their labor. The refugees can’t go to the authorities because it’s illegal for them to be working. The situation is dire without even mentioning the squalor they endure if they are living in refugee camps.
Amir was fortunate. His English speaking skills were very good. He accepted a job teaching English.
“I was kind of lucky,” said Amir, recalling stories of people he knew who weren’t as fortunate as he was. Even so, the pay still wasn’t enough to live off of. He dipped into his savings to help him get through the two years and three months he called Turkey his home as he went through the UNHCR process.
Getting to Freedom
It was a long and short process for Amir, who was fortunate to be fast-tracked through the UNHCR refugee system because he’s openly gay. Under the current circumstances where refugees from the Middle East are flowing through Europe, many refugees won’t even begin to apply or to be processed for refugee status until 2025, according to Neil Grungras, executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration.
And even though a fast-tracking process for a few LGBT refugees is available, they still must endure long journeys across Turkey to get to required appointments made at the few UNHCR offices available, long silent periods of waiting for results from filling out hours of paperwork and interviews.
“You are living your whole life just hanging there waiting for the next thing to come up,” said Amir. “There are no set periods and no set intervals for those stages, so you never know. You actually have no idea what’s going to happen to you tomorrow.” Tomorrow finally came and it meant being put on a plane and flown to the U.S., his first choice for relocation. On April 15, 2015 he set his first steps on U.S. soil in the “Gay Mecca,” the San Francisco Bay Area. At long last, after a long journey to freedom, Amir has begun living his new life as a free openly gay man and is now happy.
*Featured picture is just for effect and does not include the person in this story.