An Underground Escape

by Erin Biel:


“Just the other day, a boy ran past here, yelling, ‘top, top’ (‘faggot, faggot’) at me. It would have been slightly better if it had been a father doing the yelling, but a little boy?” asked Iranian refugee Ardeshir. Arsham Parsi, founder and executive director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, translated Ardeshir’s words from Farsi into English as he pointed to an empty parking lot that served as a marketplace during the week. Ardeshir’s face, normally marked by a convivial smile, had turned grim. The confidence he had exuded throughout the day, complemented by his Adonis-like physique, tight blue shirt, fitted pants, and diamond earring, suddenly disappeared. The 22-year-old gay man from Iran had suffered much worse during his life, but every day was a reminder that he still could not live his life openly.

At the end of May 2011, Parsi took a large group of LGBT Iranian refugees and supporters to Ankara, where they proudly walked in the “March against Homophobia and Transphobia” for the first time. This young Iranian man exuded pure pride and elation. (Courtesy Arsham Parsi)

Ardeshir fled to Kayseri, Turkey from Iran in November 2010 after men from the Basij paramilitary militia kidnapped him from his home. They raped him, filmed it, and blackmailed him, threatening to show the film to his family and others. “[The Basij] have connections to the government, so they could have had him jailed, if he was lucky, or worse: killed,” Parsi conveyed. Iran is one of seven countries in the world that maintains the death penalty for consensual same-sex acts among adults. Since 1980, the Iranian government has executed well over 8,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, according to a 2008 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report.

The Basij followed through with its threats; just days later, members gave a copy of the video to Ardeshir’s brother. Ardeshir recalled hearing other gay men in Shiraz talk about the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). The IRQR, based out of Toronto, Canada, could help Ardeshir obtain refugee status in Turkey and then potentially secure him resettlement to a third country. Ardeshir decided to leave Iran and crossed the border into Turkey to begin his own journey on this “underground railroad.”

Turkey would appear to be a safe haven for an LGBT Iranian individual seeking asylum. A visa is not required to cross the border between Iran and Turkey, and buses, trains, and planes run regularly between the two countries. Moreover, Turkey does not legally criminalize homosexuality. Unfortunately, Turkey’s policies toward refugees make life very precarious—if not outright untenable—for LGBT refugees in particular.

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Arsham Parsi, the 31-year-old founder of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, had no one to assist him with the refugee resettlement process when he fled to Turkey via train on March 5, 2005. Parsi had been a major target in Iran as an outspoken activist and vanguard of the Iranian LGBT rights movement. In October 2003, he organized a clandestine Yahoo chat group for queer Iranians called “Voice Celebration,” which was meant to provide communal support in countering LGBT oppression. There were a total of 50 participants, the majority of whom operated under aliases to avoid government detection. A few weeks later, the Iranian secret police raided a party held for the queer community in Shiraz that Parsi had attended. Several of Parsi’s friends were arrested, tortured, and coerced into providing information about other LGBT individuals in the city. The raids only increased over the ensuing months, and Parsi knew that he had to leave the country for his own and his family’s wellbeing. Parsi told his parents that he needed to go to Turkey to further his education. But he had no intention of returning. Instead, Parsi would spend the next 13 months in Kayseri, located in central Anatolia, before being resettled to Canada. Unfortunately, those 13 months in Turkey offered little reprieve from the harassment he had experienced in Iran.

Turkey is a party to both the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as well as its 1967 Protocol. However, the country entered a reservation to the Protocol that declares it will only recognize refugees coming from Europe. Of the estimated 22,000 individuals who seek refuge in Turkey, most are non-European; they are therefore denied long-term or permanent residency. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitates their resettlement, most are temporarily accommodated in small towns in Turkey’s interior. These satellite cities tend to be far away from the UNHCR headquarters in Ankara and are more religiously conservative than the larger cities—not an ideal environment for a queer individual, as Parsi soon found out.

“This is where it happened,” Parsi stopped abruptly in front of a small kebab restaurant in Kayseri. “I was beaten up in the streets, and I had my shoulder dislocated. I called the police, but they said, ‘You are gay, and you are Muslim, just don’t go outside,’ and so for months I didn’t go out. I asked friends to buy food for me.” Although homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, police and private individuals continue to persecute LGBT individuals with impunity. Refugees are also reluctant to come forth and speak about their vulnerabilities, because UNHCR interviewers, who are generally hired from within the local Turkish population, have been known to ridicule LGBT refugees for their sexuality, according to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration.

LGBT refugees experience double-marginalization; they are ostracized both for being refugees and for being queer. This discrimination makes it difficult to integrate into the local community, and resettlement to a third country tends to be the only viable solution. However, countries must voluntarily accept resettlement cases, and consequently less than 1 percent of all refugees in the world are ever granted the opportunity to be resettled—generally in the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. The entire resettlement process can take a year and a half to two years, on average, and the process is fairly difficult to navigate, especially for an individual who cannot speak the language of the country of first asylum, in this case Turkish. Once Parsi was safely resettled to Toronto, Canada in 2006, he vowed to make the resettlement process easier for future LGBT Iranian refugees.

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Parsi founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees in 2006, choosing the name as homage to the nineteenth-century Underground Railroad in the United States that served as an informal network to help black slaves escape to freedom.

The city of Kayseri has since become the common hub for LGBT Iranians as they seek resettlement, following Parsi’s lead. Although the IRQR is based in Canada, Parsi is in constant contact with the Iranian queer community in both Turkey and Iran via the computer and phone. Five volunteers work with Parsi in Toronto, and another 10 colleagues are in Iran, Turkey, and some of the Western resettlement countries, assisting Iranian queers with various aspects of the resettlement process. The IRQR office in Toronto fields over 100 emails per day; those seeking help range from Iranian LGBTs who are still residing in Iran and preparing to flee, to those already in Kayseri who need help understanding the UNHCR and other resettlement forms, which are generally in English. Perhaps most importantly, Parsi maintains direct contact with the senior protection and refugee status determination officers at UNHCR Ankara, who have come to trust his ability to flag particularly vulnerable refugee cases. As UNHCR Ankara assesses roughly 8,000 new asylum cases each year, the UN entity generally welcomes Parsi’s detailed knowledge of the LGBT Iranian caseload.

Refugees seeking resettlement are not rightfully entitled to legal counsel; therefore, having an advocate like Parsi who is well-versed in the resettlement process is a unique advantage—and some would say a necessary one—given the particular vulnerabilities that LGBT refugees experience. In looking at the numbers, it is evident that Parsi has a very strong track record. Out of the 400 individuals whom he has assisted since 2006, 185 of them have been resettled to a third country, generally either Canada or the United States, far exceeding the 1 percent resettlement statistic for refugees worldwide. Another 72 have been granted asylum and are currently waiting to be resettled.

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When Parsi traveled to Kayseri in May 2011, Armaghan and Fereshteh were two of the refugees still awaiting resettlement. Parsi paid the lesbian couple a visit while on one of his four annual trips to Kayseri to personally check in on his resettlement applicants. The two women were living in an apartment that consisted of a dim and oppressively hot seven-foot by five-foot living room/bedroom and an even smaller kitchen. Gaunt and exhausted-looking, the women explained that they had been assigned a date to leave for the United States. However, just days before they were set to depart, they received notification that their case had been put on hold. No additional information was provided. The women had already promised their place to another incoming lesbian couple, so all four women were now sharing the small, dank space.

Armaghan and Fereshteh explained that they had been in Kayseri for two years and three months. They were in dire financial straits, and they had no opportunities for employment. As Parsi later explained, “According to Turkish law, refugees can apply for work if there are no Turkish people who could do the same job. In other words, they can’t work.” This forces refugees to live off of whatever money they originally came with, but they do not know how long it will be before they are resettled to a third country, if at all, leaving them in a very precarious state. Armaghan had worked illegally for a short while at a tailor’s store but quit after her boss made sexual advances toward her. Now the women rarely left the apartment unless absolutely necessary. They looked worn, mentally and physically.

Armaghan displayed her wrists, palms up. They were covered in scars. She had made more than one suicide attempt. So had the other three women. Parsi chimed in forlornly, The constant threats, sexual violence, family rejection, and other trauma that Iranian queers experience commonly result in severe bouts of depression only exacerbated by the anxiety caused by the unpredictable resettlement process.

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Parsi acknowledges that much of the resettlement process is outside of his control. For instance, the United States, which accepts more refugees annually than all other countries combined, has numerous security checks that generally prevent timely resettlement. In Armaghan and Fereshteh’s case, Parsi later learned that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had introduced an additional set of security checks, which was why the women’s cases were unexpectedly put on hold. Given the vagaries of the resettlement process, Parsi’s dual role as an advocate and as a source of support is key in offering LGBT Iranians a semblance of hope during the long and tedious process.

In May, Parsi took a large group of Iranian refugees to Ankara, where they walked in the fourth “March against Homophobia and Transphobia.” It was the first time that an Iranian queer contingent was present at the march, and they chanted: “Ahmadinejad, we’re here!” The following month, Parsi led a group of over 35 fellow Iranian queers for the first time in the Toronto Pride march.

It is evident that the oppressive laws and social stigma associated with sexual orientation in Iran will not fade away any time soon. But Parsi’s vocalism has helped to foster some more pragmatic advances. A number of Western resettlement countries, including the United States, are placing more focus on LGBT refugee protection issues. These governments, along with numerous refugee-related NGOs, are working in conjunction with UNHCR to train all UNHCR employees how to interview and interact with LGBT refugees sensitively. While this sensitization process will take a few years to become firmly entrenched within the UNHCR system and trickle down to all levels of the organization, Parsi stated that over the past year he has heard significantly fewer complaints from LGBT Iranians after they undergo their UNHCR refugee status determination interviews.

Since Parsi’s visit to Kayseri in May 2011, there have been other positive developments in his caseload. Ardeshir was referred to Canada for resettlement; Fereshteh and Armaghan left Turkey for the United States on June 21, 2011; and 20 other LGBT Iranians started their new lives primarily in the United States or Canada, all thanks to Parsi’s help. This long and winding “railroad” to freedom is nearing its final destination for some of the 200-plus refugees whom Parsi continues to oversee in Turkey.

“They are in urgent need right now,” Parsi said. “Just as when you have hundreds of starving people, a food aid agency can’t just say, ‘You are hungry today but we cannot help you.’ These people are hungry right now. Similarly, refugees need help right now. Every day is life or death.”

Erin Biel ’13 is a Global Affairs and Ethnicity, Race, & Migration double major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at erin.biel@yale.edu.

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