Arsham Parsi: Currently in Canada writing about Iran

Posted on March 7, 2010. Filed under: Stories - from other sites | Tags: , , , , , , |

My name is Arsham Parsi and I am the founder and Executive Director of Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees. IRQR is an international queer human rights organization based in Canada. We help Iranian gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered refugees all over the world. We help when Iranian queers are threatened with deportation back to Iran. We also assist Iranian queers in obtaining asylum in friendly countries. IRQR helps these refugees through the process and, whenever possible, provides funds for safe houses through donations, because most of queer people are not physically safe in their transit country either.

Today, IRQR is the only active NGO that works on behalf of the Iranian queer (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) population around the world. It documents human rights violations, Iranian queer persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, provides letters of support for Iranian queer asylum seekers and refugees, and supports anti-homophobia/anti-persecution efforts. Its documentation is widely respected for its accuracy and credibility.

Also, I am co-ordinator and cultural ambassador for the Stockholm-based International Lesbian and Gay Cultural Network (ILGCN), official member of the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), the Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad group, and the Berlin-based Advisory Committee of the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation for LGBT Human Rights. In April, IRanian Queer Organization (IRQO), which was our former organization, was awarded Felipa De Souza Human Rights Award in2008 by the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). In June, I was recognized the Toronto Pride Award for Excellence in Human Rights.

I was born on 20 September, 1980, in Shiraz, Iran. After completing my basic education, I wanted to continue studying veterinary medicine at university; however, financial pressures forced me to stop my studies. While living in Shiraz and after coming to terms with my sexual identity, I began to do what I could, in a careful, discrete way, to help other gay people. Part of this work consisted of helping a doctor and doing research for a study on HIV among local gay and bisexual men. My advocacy work earned me the attention of the Iranian authorities, and I was forced to flee Iran on March 5, 2005, due to well-known fear of persecution for being gay. My train took me first to Turkey, where I was able to register as a refugee at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ankara. I was one of the fortunate few whose case was actually accepted by the Commissioner. Three months after arriving in Turkey my case was accepted, and two months later I was invited to the Canadian Embassy in Ankara. Eight months later, I arrived in Canada.
I began secretly working for the advancement of civil rights for lesbians and gays in 2001. In 2003, I helped organize a clandestine Yahoo chat group for gay Iranians. We called it Voice Celebration. In total there were 50 participants, making contact with each other and exchanging views on how best to achieve civil rights. What was most striking about these exchanges is that while people were emailing contact information, they were typing under false names, and nobody dared to actually speak out in public under their real names. We all feared arrest, torture and even execution if we were discovered. I am still amazed that, less than three years later, I was asked to speak publicly in Geneva, Switzerland, at the second session of United Nations Human Rights Council, and on the fourth anniversary all international media published articles about Iranian queers.

Though now living safely in a safe country, I still consider myself Iranian and never forget that I am in exile due to my sexual orientation. I consider this a big responsibility. I want to return to a democratic, open Iran, and am working actively to make that dream a reality. As I passed the border out of Iran, I promised myself and my country that I would one day return to a free, open country and until that time would work to achieve that goal. I consider the work I am doing today, as part of IRQR, to be an investment in a brighter tomorrow for all Iranians.

In August 2008, I travelled to Turkey to meet with Iranian LGBT refugees and plead their case with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights located there. As a result of that trip, I concluded that a new organization dedicated exclusively to helping sexual dissidents flee persecution in Iran was necessary. The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and mainly to Canada with the aid of abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause. In Canada, they had their freedom. In the past few years, one of our major activities was with asylum seekers who must escape Iran due to their sexual orientation, and we will continue this work under the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). We are working to create a simple structure and focus upon supporting Iranian queers to be safe on their journey and to arrive in a new country to live and be free.

I and my organization are now in contact with about 200 queer Iranian refugees currently in limbo and seeking permanent asylum. Many of them are in Turkey, which shares a lengthy border with Iran and where cultural and political homophobia is rampant, while the rest are scattered throughout Europe, including in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway. Many of them are in the United Kingdom, which has been extremely reluctant to grant permanent asylum to queer Iranian refugees, and where in the last several years two Iranians (Hussein Nasseri and Israfil Shiri) have committed suicide after receiving deportation orders back to certain torture and possible death in Iran. But there are many, many more queer refugees from Iran who haven’t yet been in contact with us and who also desperately need help.

One of our goals with the Iranian Queer Organization was to increase the level of awareness about the Iranian queer situation and the horrible persecution that goes on daily in Iran, and to provide a steady stream of information about homosexuality and the transgendered via the Internet into Iran, and I think we’ve had great success in doing that. But after several years of working with PGLO and IRQO, I had a lot more experience, and it was clear to me we needed a new organization with fresh blood and a structure dedicated solely to helping queer refugees, to help them flee Iran, to support them while they are still in transit countries like Turkey, to assist them in finding their way through the harrowing bureaucratic maze they face in order to gain asylum, and to help them get settled and cope with setting up a new life in gay-friendly countries.

Since being granted asylum in Canada, I have been able to make several international trips to help queer refugees and have built a relationship with other international organizations. I’m so happy I’ve been able to build a strong relationship with the UNHCR, which is now aware of the Iranian queer situation, and of our organization, and on each of my trips I’ve been able to secure international refugee protection status for more and more Iranian queer asylum seekers.

I spent many hours listening to Iranian queers’ stories that I am so concerned about their situation and future. My dedication to these refugees is fuelled by my own experience as an exile in Turkey. It was the hardest experience in my life to suddenly find myself in an unexpected situation in a hostile country without money, with no personal safety or security for 13 months. I cannot forget the day in Turkey when I was walking with Amir, another gay refugee who had been tortured and flogged in Iran. We were chased in the street by a homophobic crowd, which beat us hard and tried to kill us. Nobody helped. There were no police who came to our assistance and people were just standing around watching as we were beaten simply for being gay refugees in their country. I’ll never forget my refugee life in Turkey, and that’s why I’ve decided to dedicate myself exclusively to making queer refugees’ process as short as possible and to help them get to freedom in gay-friendly countries.

Martin Luther King, in one of his historic speeches in 1963, said “I have a dream”. On the 17th of May, the International Day against Homophobia, in Chicago, I, Arsham Parsi, a queer activist who must live in exile said “I have a dream, too.” My dream is that one day the rights of all queers will be recognized and respected. That one day no one will be executed, tortured, arrested, imprisoned, isolated by society or disowned by their family and community for being queer, a day when our sexual orientation will not deprive us of our rights. That is my wish for me for all those who can not speak for themselves. Although they have not chosen me as their voice, I declare this dream of mine, and I will repeat it and I’ll hope to one day achieve this dream of mine.

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