No Man's Land


By Tim Murphy

After fleeing Iran, refugees begin the glacial process of applying for refugee status. The first stop is Ankara, where they register with the UNHCR. After registering, they'll receive an initial interview date that's often months away. After their first interview, they must wait several more months to see if they've been granted asylum. Once asylum is granted, they wait months more for an interview to determine which country they'll go to, then months more for a second interview, plus medical exams. Finally, most seem to fly to Los Angeles, Toronto, or Vancouver -- all cities with large Iranian communities. The whole process takes, on average, two years.

Meanwhile, they sleep and chain-smoke and do their best to slow down their lives so they don't miss too much of them. On cable TV, they watch salacious flesh- and booty-filled Iranian music videos, produced in L.A. but familiar from Iran, where they're watched on illegal but common satellite dishes. My handsome translator, Babak, has managed to secure a laptop and Internet connection -- a rare commodity for the refugees, who usually come here with not more than $1,000. Babak goes to the gym and earns money teaching English to Turks a few days a week, but his busy days are the exception. 'Payam and Arad sleep all the time, and it's not normal,' he tells me.

Danger and depression collude to hem the refugees in a claustrophobic stasis. Few bother trying to get jobs -- they're usually turned away when they inquire, they say.They don't like to leave the house because they're hassled in the street. Artin says she was with another trans person and a few gay guys one night when they were jumped by Kayseri guys. The day I arrive, apparently, Sheyda -- a stylish post-op trans woman who wears spiky platinum hair pieces in her red, curly hair -- was carted to the police station by laughing cops who tried to take cell phone pictures of her. She resisted, and they let her go. But Babak is especially worried about crop-topped, glum-faced Sahar, who had her initial UNHCR interview five months ago and still hasn't gotten asylum status. One afternoon around lunchtime, she cries quietly, afraid she'll be left behind.

Mostly the refugees stay at home, hidden from sight, up until 4 or 5 a.m. watching downloaded movies, then crashing until mid-afternoon in one bedroom packed with twin mattresses, where all five housemates sleep to save on the heat.

The long detailed stories that led to their exile pursue them, teeth bared and terrifying. Babak -- who, like most young Iranians, was still living with his parents -- was in bed with his secret boyfriend when his boyfriend's father, a member of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard military corps, walked in and found them. He furiously threw a vase at them and hounded Babak from Iran: Using his connections, he got him fired from his medical job, sent cars following Babak on his walk home, and finally called and threatened to kill him. Since leaving, Babak has asked friends about his boyfriend, but hasn't received any news.

Parsa was caught by his dad's friend having sex with his boyfriend in a car near his home, and locked in his house. After escaping to a friend's, his sister brought him money and a passport and told him not to come home again. Payam's boyfriend was secretly videotaping them having sex, then blackmailed Payam, saying he'd show it to the basijis, until Payam, terrified his family would find out, fled.

The stories in the small cramped bedroom are astonishing in the scale of their tragedy. Sheyda, the stylish trans woman, says she was engaged to a man whose family forbade the wedding because she was trans. So her fianc' killed himself and the family swore they'd kill her in revenge.

Kasra, a baby-faced, diabetic 31-year-old, was kissing his brother's friend at night in a Tehran park when they were confronted by two basijis. The friend ran, but Kasra, his sugar-level dropping, tripped and fell. The basijis took him to a house, raped him for 20 minutes, noticed his diabetic ID card, gave him some sugar water, then dropped him off at his home. A few days later, they showed up there to take him to be raped by three more basijis. Kasra asked for a moment to get ready, escaped out the back door, and grabbed a taxi to the bus station. 'I called my family and told them I'd left for a better life,' he says. 'They think I left for medical reasons.' He wants to go to Sydney, train as a psychologist, and build a pitched-roof house on the beach, like those in northern Iran. 'I'm thinking about the day I'll be in a better place, with a partner with his head on my shoulder.'

'Self-identification as LGBT should be taken as an indication of the individual's sexual orientation....In the assessment of LGBT claims, stereotypical images of LGBT persons must be avoided, such as expecting a particular 'flamboyant' or feminine demeanour in gay men, or 'butch' or masculine appearance in lesbian women.'
-- UNHCR Guidance Note

Outside the UNHCR building, Nima and I join a motley crew of about 30 other refugees. Theirs is a catalog of cruelty. While a group of veiled Somali women chat nearby, I talk with a family of Christians who fled persecution in Iraq. After Nima and the others are let in the high-security portal for refugees, I meet Eduardo Yrezabal, a Spaniard who heads the department that interviews refugees and decides their cases.

'We're overwhelmed,' he says. The number of refugee cases has spiked from about 4,000 a year to more than 18,000 last year due to a surge of fleeing Iraqis, but his staff has barely grown. Meanwhile, Turkey refuses to help its temporary refugees, leaving all the work to UNHCR. From 2008 alone, there are still 7,000 unresolved cases, and so days turn to months, then years. I take out Sahar's letter, and he pulls up her case on the computer. Will she be granted asylum soon? 'Inshallah,' he says -- Arabic for God willing. What about Arad, waiting so long to fly to Canada? He pulls up Arad's case. 'He's had bad luck,' he says. Apparently Canada's taken its quota for the year and won't consider new cases until 2010.

Yrezabal says that his interviewers have become more savvy and more sensitive about interviewing LGBT cases. Ultimately, they don't need to hear a horror story; they just need to believe the person -- especially a straight-appearing, straight-acting person, like Nima -- is truly gay and at risk of harm if he returns. They err on the side of caution; up to 90 percent of such cases are granted asylum, long waits in Turkey notwithstanding.

At 1 p.m. we go downstairs to check on Nima, who's been sitting for five hours in a locked, guarded cage with the other refugees. Yrezabal gets Nima into an interview within the hour while I leave UNHCR and go wait in a caf' where we had agreed to meet at day's end. Four hours later, Nima arrives, too worked up to be hungry. His interview was three hours long with one cigarette break.