Iran is one of several countries that allows the execution of individuals for homosexual conduct. As a result, some LGBT citizens choose to leave with help from an “underground railroad” spanning from Iran to Turkey and then across the globe, from Canada and the United States to Europe and Australia. Turkey, the first stop for many on this underground railroad, is a strange limbo for refugees. Refugees don’t know how long it will be until they’re assigned a new country by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and they don’t know where they’ll go next. After an initial interview that grants them refugee status, they wait for a second interview. After the second they wait for a third. Finally, if all goes well, they’re assigned a new country and a date of departure. The average waiting time is 18 months.
DENIZLI, Turkey — Growing up in Iran, AliReza hid the fact he was homosexual from almost everyone. At one point, his sisters confronted him.
“‘What’s wrong with you? If there’s a problem, we can fix it,’” he recalls one of them saying. Finally he broke down. “I shouted, ‘I’m gay! What should I do?’”
His sisters cried and said they would do anything to fix him — bring him to any doctor to help him change. “I told them, ‘If you really want to know me, go and search: find out what gay means. It’s not sick, it’s not a disease.’”
In time, AliReza's sisters accepted him, but much of Iranian society did not. AliReza now lives as part of a community of LGBT refugees in Denizli, Turkey, organized by the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees.
The Toronto-based organization founded by Arsham Parsi helps people leave Iran in search of somewhere safer. On this day, Parsi is in town and has organized an afternoon with refugees at a local park.
The city, located in Southwestern Turkey not far from Pamukkale, a mineral-rich town of hot springs and travertines popular among tourists, is also home to Pammukale University. The combination of university and tourists in the region makes life here a little easier for refugees, says Parsi.
The gathering in the park begins tentatively. The group finds a rare patch of shade in the grass and the two dozen or so men begin to go around the circle, describing what it felt like to leave families, homes and jobs; the strange mix of hope and hopelessness they feel; what it’s like to live in limbo.
Most of them don’t know how long they’ll be in Denizli and don’t know where they’ll go next. They don’t have the legal right to work in Turkey, so life is mixture of boredom and stress. They describe a daily routine of cleaning, Facebook, cooking, sleeping. Some are in touch with their family and friends back home, others are not. Some work illegally. Few speak Turkish, some speak English.
As evening nears, AliReza invites me to the apartment he shares with two other refugees the next afternoon. He didn’t feel comfortable telling his story in front of everyone, he says, but would like to share it.
He welcomes me the next day with tea and biscuits, a gesture that is repeated in every home I visit during my time in Turkey, and one that is all the more generous considering the precarious financial situation so many of the refugees are in.
AliReza, a 27-year-old photographer and graphic designer, begins by showing his artwork. He’s passionate about his career and ambitious. “I really hope I don’t waste my time here,” he says, adding that he has always thought of the decade between age 20 and 30 to be the most creative period of one’s life. “This is my biggest challenge right now, that I can’t do anything.”
Back in Iran, AliReza had a job he loved and his own photography studio. He left everything, from his favorite camera to his family and friends, in haste.
When I meet AliReza, he’s been in Denizli for only about four months. He misses home and dreads winter. His problems in Iran began about a year and half earlier, when he met up with a man he had chatted with over the internet. The man turned out to be an undercover cop.
AliReza was taken to jail and held for 10 days, assigned 170 lashings. “They gave me 70 lashings and said if they catch me again, they will give me the rest and then hang me.” AliReza returned home after he was released, still bleeding, and remembers that his father wouldn’t even look at him. For the next two months, he didn’t leave his room.
“Those were such bad days, the worst of my life. After that I wasn’t even a man, I wasn’t even a human. I was nothing in that time,” he says. “It took me a year and a half to construct myself again, to get stronger.”
During his ten days in prison, AliReza met two other gay men who had been jailed, also for internet activity. One had been whipped publicly. “If that had happened [to me] I think I would have really killed myself,” he says.
Things got bad again the next spring. It was AliReza’s birthday, and his family had left the house to him for the evening so he could throw a birthday party. Police showed up and arrested everyone. “I was really afraid after what had happened to me,” he says. One of his sisters came to the police station and posted bail, using her house as collateral. Not feeling safe, AliReza didn’t go home but hid at an aunt’s house. A few days later, he left Iran.
He didn't have time to pack.
“It was like a blink,” he says. “It was so fast.”
He has never told his story to anyone else, he says, explaining that he doesn’t want to burden other people with his story or for people to feel sorry for him. “I try to keep everything inside of myself,” he says. The worst part now is waiting, worrying and missing home.
“You construct a future in Iran, you destroy it, and then you come here,” he says. “If I wasn’t forced, I would have never left. It’s my homeland and I have everything there.”
Now, the only link to home is other refugees, Facebook and Skype. “Thank God for technology,” he says, describing how intense the loneliness can be. “It’s hard and harsh.”
One of the photographs AliReza shows that afternoon is a picture taken of Hafiz’s tomb in Shiraz, an eight-pillared pavilion surrounded by orange groves and reflecting pools. The photo brings to mind a poem by the fourteenth-century mystic poet:
“Once a young woman asked me, ‘How does it feel to be a man?’ And I replied, ‘My dear, I am not so sure.’ Then she said, ‘Well, aren’t you a man?’ And this time I replied, ‘I view gender as a beautiful animal that people often take for a walk on a leash and might enter in some odd contest to try to win strange prizes. My dear, a better question for Hafiz would have been, ‘How does it feel to be a heart?’ For all I know is love, and I find my heart infinite and everywhere.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Read the other profiles in this series:
From double life to greater freedom abroad
Resisting unwanted sex changes
From activist to outcast