Saturday, February 27, 2010

Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (2)

I've blogged about the IRQR before. This morning I attended a brunch meeting at Ottawa City Hall in support of this relatively new NGO (it started up in 2008 and was incorporated in 2009). I am pleased to report that it had to be moved to a larger room because attendance exceeded expectations.

The mission of the Toronto-based organization is to assist gay and lesbian refugees from Iran who have ended up in Europe with no money and no resources, to help them obtain Convention refugee status, and to get them to places where they can live their lives without fear. They have helped, or are helping, 250 or so refugees at the moment, providing information, moral and material support.

I had the opportunity to meet the incomparable Arsham Parsi, IRQR's Executive Director. He's been through a lot, but it doesn't show: he's affable and open and very willing to talk. A recent Iranian refugee himself, he first fled to Turkey in 2005, where he was beaten and had his shoulder dislocated by homophobic toughs. When he went to the police, they told him to stay indoors.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire. To add insult to injury, when refugees eventually leave Turkey, as they must by law, they are charged huge exit fees.

Parsi has developed an amazing network, dealing directly with UNHCR officials, Canadian cabinet ministers, and well-heeled donors. How did he develop these contacts? I asked. "Internet and telephone," he said. "Particularly the Internet. "

Europe, as it happens, is resistant to taking refugee claims based on sexual orientation seriously. Even though Iran's penal code explicitly punishes homosexuality with death--sometimes graciously allowing the condemned to choose between hanging, stoning, being cut in two or being dropped from a height--European countries seem unable to accept the stark reality of life in a theocratic state.

Parsi spoke of one young man in Norway who tried to claim asylum there, then in Denmark and then Sweden. Refused in all three countries, he is presently in a Norwegian detention centre--waiting to be deported to Iran.

As an aside, I asked Parsi about the seemingly paradoxical openness in Iran to transgender surgery. He shook his head sadly. "The religious authorities believe in two rigid gender classifications," he said. If you believe you're a woman in a man's body, or vice-versa, he said, better to have the surgery than engage in sexual activity that appears homosexual.

"45% of those having the surgery are gay," Parsi said. They just want relief from persecution: if a man feels attracted to other men, he said, it's safer to be surgically changed to a woman. "But women have no rights in Iran," he continued. The suicide rate among transgendered Iranians is very high.

Parsi, safe and sound in Canada, cannot forget those he left behind. His decency and concern will not let him rest. Yet, somehow, he retains a sunny disposition and enormous optimism. I hope it is justified, and I wish him--and the IRQR--continued success in the future.

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