Fleeing Violence, Gay Iranian Refugees Find Safety in Toronto

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Fleeing Violence, Gay Iranian Refugees Find Safety in Toronto

“We're dealing with a lot of equal rights issues in Toronto, and there is still work that needs to be done, but we are in a better position than a lot of people around the world”

Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric has been on the rise everywhere. For Pride Month, Torontoist interviewed three gay Iranian-Canadian men about their lives, their communities, and their experiences as refugees and immigrants. 

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Arsham Parsi.

Arsham Parsi, director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees.

Arsham

Arsham Parsi is a 35-year-old gay Iranian-Canadian man who works at a legal clinic in Toronto. However, he considers being the director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees his true profession. His LGBT advocacy started back in his home country in 2001. Realizing that there were few outlets for people like him, Parsi created a queer online space that he referred to as Rainbow. The concept of Rainbow was simple: using Skype, Yahoo messenger, Gmail, and a chat server accessible in the Middle East called Pal Talk, Parsi created a contact list filled with Iranians who identified as LGBT. The contact list was then shared amongst members so that they could connect to each other.

The risk was great, and the potential consequences for co-ordinating this contact list were severe. To be outed as queer in Iran in 2001 would typically result in receiving 100 lashes. To be co-ordinating an LGBT group could result in the punishment of 200 lashes. This form of punishment continues today.

The spark that ignited Parsi’s LGBT activism despite these risks were the suicide deaths of two queer friends of his, Roshanak and Nima.

Parsi remembers Roshanak as a beautiful transgender woman who had gone through sexual reassignment surgery when they first met. In Iran, though being gay is illegal, being transgender is not. It is not uncommon for gay men and women to be pressured into gender reassignment surgery by their physicians and families so that they can pursue same-sex intimacy without “breaking the law.”  However, Iranian LGBs who undergo this reassignment surgery often regret this decision later in life. Many feel a sense of depression when they realize that they were pressured into a life-altering medical procedure to mask their sexuality. 

Parsi suspects that this was the reason that Roshanak decided to end her life by overdosing on opium; he believes that she was not happy with her surgery. The loss of Roshanak proved to be quite saddening for Parsi, who couldn’t help but wonder if she would be alive had she been allowed to continue living as a gay man.

Nima died as a victim of harassment. He was outed as gay to his parents by a friend. Following his outing, regular homophobic harassment, from both his peer group and his family, became a normal part of Nima’s life. One night, tired of the constant bullying he faced, he died by suicide by eating rat poison.

Parsi remembers feeling a lot of existential stress following the deaths of his friends.

“It was difficult wondering, why did they have to commit suicide? Why was there no one who could talk to them? Why were there no resources for them?”

In 2002, the Iranian regime became aware of the digital communication within the queer community. With this new realization came a series of attacks that involved luring queer Iranians out of the safety of virtual reality and into a public place where they would be arrested. All it would take for such an operation was the identity of one queer Iranian to be found by police. They then forced him to log onto personal online chat accounts and begin conversations with their contacts, asking them to meet up.

Scared for his life, Parsi left Iran and fled to Turkey in 2005, in hopes of claiming refugee status in Canada. The pathway to Canada was not easy for him. Parsi had $3,000 to his name when he entered the Turkish city of Kayseri. He and three other gay men, also refugees, lived in a two-bedroom flat. Their living conditions were poor, to say the least. Their apartment did not come with a shower or hot water. There was no oven or stove top in their kitchen, and they had to use a heater to cook. To take a bath, the four refugees would use this heater to warm water. Parsi also did not receive financial support from his parents during this time.

Six months into his stay in Kayseri, Parsi was attacked by a group of Turkish men in their 20s. One afternoon, around 1 p.m., on his way to buy some pastries with a friend, a group of young men jumped and beat them. Somehow, they were aware that he was gay. Though the pair managed to escape, Parsi dislocated his shoulder in the scuffle.

After running away from the group, Parsi and his friend found a police station. In response to their attack, the police laughed at them and claimed that there were “no gay people in Turkey.” Police advised them to stay home if they wanted to avoid such an attack in the future.

After the attack and his meeting with the police officers, Parsi headed to a hospital near his apartment, hoping to get medical attention for his shoulder, though he had no health coverage in Turkey. Doctors refused to help him. His shoulder eventually healed on its own. Nevertheless, to this day, if Parsi lifts his arm above his head, pain flares through his shoulder, a reminder of all he has been through. 

In May 2006, Parsi finally came to Canada. He calls the day he arrived his “second birthday.” In 2008, after living in Canada for two years, Parsi decided to continue his activism for gay Iranians. He became the director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees. The organization has helped more than 1,500 gay Iranians flee persecution and navigate the long journey towards refugee status.

When asked about the xenophobic rhetoric that has been directed towards Iranians as of late, Parsi says that he is disappointed in the media and the American public. However, he is also hopeful for the future and feels compelled to share a message of inclusivity through the work that he does.

“We are all here in North America for the same reason,” he notes. “We or someone in our family wanted to have a better life.  We believed that we deserved a better life.  And I think it is our duty as Canadians, particularly as people who live in the most mosaic city in Canada, to contribute back to this place that is now our home.”

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Mohammed with puzzle pieces painted by his now-fiancé at Pride in 2016.

Mohammed (Mo) Riazi with puzzle pieces painted by his now-fiancé at Pride in 2016.

Mo

Mohammed Riazi (a.k.a. Mo) is 31 years old. He was born in Germany to Iranian parents, and first arrived in Canada in 1998 at four years old. He attended elementary and secondary school in the GTA, and completed an undergraduate degree at Ryerson University. He currently works as a human resources specialist, but also works with Parsi as the treasurer of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees. One of his most memorable experiences with the organization was speaking about the experience of the gay community in Iran at Toronto Pride last year.

“I remember volunteering with the IRQR and talking about the LGBT community in Iran, and what was happening there,” says Mo. “Everyone was just like, ‘I had no idea.’”

A lesbian couple Riazi spoke with during the IRQR’s educational event sticks out in his mind. The two women were laughing and speaking joyfully when they approached his booth. Upon explaining the difficulties that Iranian queers go through as refugees, the couple began to cry. In addition to poverty, poor housing, and constant threats of attacks, many queer refugees require specific medical attention that is unavailable to them as they await to be processed in a foreign country. HIV is common among IRQR applicants. Despite the best efforts of charitable and non-governmental organizations, many refugees don’t survive the time that it takes to be processed.

“We’re dealing with a lot of equal rights issues in Toronto, and there is still work that needs to be done, but we are in a better position than a lot of people around the world,” notes Mo.

Nevertheless, the queer Iranian population of Toronto still faces its own set of difficulties. Homophobia inside the community is still a problem, and for many Iranian-Canadians, coming out can be a uniquely challenging experience.

For Mo, coming out to his family was a two-part process: First, he came out to his mother, and then his father. When he was 22, Riazi had just gotten out of a relationship and was saddened by the break up. His mother, a firm but loving Persian-Canadian woman, could tell that something was bothering him. She continued to ask him what was wrong to see if she could help. Nervous about how his mother would react to his homosexual relationship, Riazi repeatedly asked her to simply “let it go.” Nevertheless, one night, after one too many questions from his mother, Riazi revealed that his heartbreak was over a boy and that he was gay.

At first, his mother was quite angry. In hindsight, Riazi believes that his mother was hurt over not being told earlier. After a few months, Mo’s mother came to accept his sexuality and identity.

Coming out to his father was a much more difficult process.

“I would ask him questions about LGBTs in Iran, and I would say these questions were about my paper. And I would ask and things like, ‘How would you feel if I was gay?’  just to gauge his response.”

At 23, Riazi finally let his father know that he was gay, and the news was not received well. Riazi was not allowed to invite boyfriends to family get-togethers. Any discussion of his personal life was taboo. Eventually, Riazi decided to move out, tired of facing hostility. He gave his father an ultimatum: he would no longer communicate with him if he did not learn to accept this part of his life. Today, their relationship has greatly improved.

Riazi remains a spirited, optimistic person, despite the challenges that he’s faced. He stresses that his parents’ initial difficulty with accepting his sexuality does not mean that they were or are bad people. The hope is always that, over time and patient conversation, family begin to understand and accept.

Recently, Riazi proposed to his boyfriend, and his parents have been supportive of the union. He is quite thankful for this, since the two had been together for two years prior to their engagement. They enjoy participating in community events together, and they opened an escape room in East Chinatown, off Broadview and Gerrard, for fun, although it was only in operation for three months.

Mo’s proposal in December 2016 was romantic. His fiancé is an artist, a huge Van Gogh fan, and was looking forward to the AGO’s exhibition of his work. Eager to give him a memory that he would never forget, Riazi planted several handwritten notes around Toronto at different significant places in their relationship. Each letter was painstakingly sealed with hard wax “so that they looked like they were from the 18th century,” says Mo. Eventually, the letters lead Mo’s boyfriend to the AGO’s Van Gogh exhibit, where Riazi was waiting, with a ring in his pocket, in front of Starry Night.

Without hesitation, Riazi looked at his boyfriend and got down on one knee.

“I said it simply. I didn’t want to be too elaborate. I just said, ‘Will you marry me?'” he says, smiling at the memory.

His boyfriend, hoarse with a cold, croaked out a yes. Close by, a mother and daughter dashed up to the newly engaged couple and congratulated them. Then, friends of theirs from the States, whom Riazi had arranged to meet them there, came out and offered the couple congratulations.

When asked about the current climate of xenophobia, and if this has made him and his fiancé feel less safe in Toronto, Riazi simply laughs.

“Unless you’re Native American, we’re all immigrants. In that sense, we’re all the same.”

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Mehdi

Mehdi Habibagahi.

Mehdi Habibagahi.

When you first meet 37-year-old Mehdi Habibagahi, you’re immediately struck by how dapper he is. His hair is neatly cut, and he wears a fashionable grey wool trench coat and black-framed glasses. He describes himself as extremely social, and defines himself as an “introvert by nature, but an extrovert by choice.” You’d never guess from looking at him, that he used to be a refugee from Turkey.

“I think it was one of the most intense experiences of my life,” Habibagahi says.

Habibagahi claimed refugee status in 2007, at the age of 27. Before that, he was a clandestine participant in Iran’s gay scene.

What sparked him to claim refugee status was the arrest of his then-boyfriend. Habibagahi says the Iranian police arrested his boyfriend, raided his house, and went through his computer to find other LGBT contacts. Though Habibagahi was never arrested, he did have a close call with police once when he was in university. Walking with a group of friends in Isfahan, Habibagahi was singled out of the crowd because he was wearing a colourful shirt. He was taken to a temporary holding cell at a police station. A friend of his was directed to rush home and find him a new top. After a new shirt was given to him, Habibagahi had to sign a waiver, promising that he would never repeat his behaviour ever again.

Before leaving Iran, Habibagahi packed a single suitcase full of essentials, obtained a three-month vacation visa to Turkey, bought himself a plane ticket, and headed to the airport. He had a contact in Turkey (also a gay Iranian refugee), who introduced him to a large group of men and women, all refugees because of their sexual orientation.

Habibagahi’s family was not aware that he was gay when he left. To cover up his reason for leaving, Habibagahi told his family that he had obtained a work visa, and would be moving countries so that he could eventually end up in Canada. To this day, Habibagahi’s parents have no idea that he is gay, or that he has lived as a refugee, though his three siblings are aware of this. He claims that coming out to his very conservative parents would only lead to stress and heartbreak. He does not plan to out himself to his parents in the future.

While living in Turkey, Habibagahi and his roommates were the targets of homophobic slurs and attacks. Like Parsi, Habibagahi lived in Kayseri, and was once targeted by a group of Turkish men for being gay. Thankfully, he managed to run away and escaped a physical fight.

Habibagahi also faced intense bordeom while living Turkey, waiting for placement as a refugee. As an “alien,” he was not allowed to work or go to school. He had little money for entertainment, was separated from his friends and family, and was immersed in a country where he didn’t speak the language.

“You cannot do anything, basically. You just have to sit and wait. You just have to survive.”

After a year of living in Turkey, Habibagahi was finally given an interview by the UNHCR to be accepted into Canada. The questions that Habibagahi was asked to during the interview were intensely personal. Everything from his childhood to his sexual history was explored. Finally, six months after that initial interview (for a total of 18 months spent as a refugee), Habibagahi was given an opportunity to come to Toronto.

Rebuilding a life in Toronto was no easy task. An engineer in Iran, Habibagahi’s refugee status forced him to restructure his life from the ground up. He enrolled in English classes at George Brown University, and later became an instructor there. He applied for job after job in the city, but repeatedly found his credentials deemed inadequate by Canadian employers. At one point, Habibagahi was living in government housing in the west end of Toronto.

“I look back on that period of my life, and I sometimes wonder, ‘How did I even survive?’”

Today, 10 years after first arriving as a refugee, Habibagahi has a full life that is defined by a variety of things outside of his refugee status. He works in administration at the University of Toronto. He loves taking photos in his spare time, and last year three of his pieces were featured in the Toronto Contact Photography Festival, as a part of a show called “Freedom of Speech.” He considers himself a film buff, and his recent favourites are Paterson, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Lobster. He’s on the board of directors of the Iranian Women Organization of Ontario and is a part of an initiative that aims to change the perspective on sexual identity within the Iranian community and diaspora. He also still has a love for Iranian culture and the Iranian people. He loves listening to Persian music, and always looks forward to catching with his siblings and parents. Despite his hardships, or perhaps because of them, he is a vibrant individual who strives to give back to his community.

When asked about the xenophobia, Habibagahi stresses that anyone around you, who looks perfectly “normal,” may in fact have been a refugee at one point in their life. He ultimately hopes that refugees can be accepted as a key part of North American identity.

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