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‘How many months can we stay alive?’: Meet the Iranian-Indian couple abandoned by Canada

Alireza and Kiran are struggling to survive in Turkey after Canada halted their resettlement to prioritize Syrian refugees

Since Alireza and Kiran were forced to resettle in Denizli, Turkey, they have been harassed, lived in deteroiaing conditions, have been evicted and struggle to make money. Credit: Courtesy Alireza and Kiran

Alireza and Kiran eat one meal a day. 

Since the gay refugee couple arrived in Turkey in November 2014, they’ve struggled to find paid work. 

“Every day we think: ‘This is our budget, how many months can we stay alive?’” Kiran says before their Friday evening meal. He has a notebook listing the cost of each vegetable and grain from the shops around town, because some ingredients cost a half-lira less (18 Canadian cents) at the supermarket across town.

Xtra previously reported on Canada selecting scores of LGBT Iranians for resettlement before abandoning their cases. But immigration department data suggests the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stopped referring almost any cases to Canada in 2016, instead opting for the United States, which has ceased virtually all resettlement since late January 2017. That’s left people like Alireza and Kiran languishing in deteriorating conditions in Turkey after fleeing violence in Iran and India, where the former is punishable by death, and the latter is illegal.

Shared struggles

The pair met online in 2010. Alireza was a student in Iran who made documentaries and blogs about LGBT issues, while Kiran worked as a fashion designer in his native India. They bonded over their art, as well as shared experiences of their families rejecting them and trying to force them to marry women.

Alireza’s problems started in the summer of 2004 when his family got wind of the low-key social events he occasionally held with other gay men in Tehran’s Mellat Park. Alireza’s parents drugged him and admitted him to a mental hospital for a month, he says. Then they kept him locked in his room, with visiting doctors that used counselling, pills and injections trying to make him straight. He pretended it worked, but occasionally dated men discreetly.

But problems persisted, especially after the country’s 2009 Green Movement protests, which Alireza photographed. When spies tracked Alireza’s friends, they asked about him. When a man he’d dated was charged, they put allegations of sodomy in Alireza’s criminal record.

In Mumbai, Kiran’s homosexuality led to bullying that made him drop out of college in 1998, while coworkers blackmailed him for money. When his mother suffered a paralyzing hematoma, Kiran’s siblings blamed him for the stress his homosexuality caused, leaving him as caretaker for her last four years. He says he was lured by men who mugged him for cash and kept his identification card, warning that if he complained to police they would out him.

Once, when he had gay friends over, police knocked on the door and threatened to charge him under the penal code. They took him to the police station.

“I was slapped several times, and the duty officer pulled me by my ears and took me to a room, kicked and hit me with his baton on my buttocks, saying ‘Now do you enjoy it?’” he recalls. His sister bailed him out with a bribe, after police made him sign a promise to not engage in homosexual acts.

Kiran moved across the country to a friend’s family home in Jammu for six months in 2010. But they too figured out he was gay, and started taunting him. In December 2010, Kiran visited  his other sister in Iran for two months and attempted to find work. He took the opportunity to meet in person with Alireza, who talked of moving to India, yet Kiran pushed him away. “I said, ‘let’s live our separate lives.’”

But Alireza was growing increasingly paranoid. Friends were getting arrested, while a hard drive disappeared from his private office. He moved to India to live with Kiran in 2011, earning an MBA in media management. But their gay friends were extorted and mugged, and Kiran started seeing psychiatrists for depression and anxiety in 2013. When Kiran’s sister sued her husband for domestic abuse in 2014, he retaliated by  following and harassing Kiran and Alireza.

The man threatened to have both arrested, after India’s highest court upheld the country’s law against homosexuality in 2013. The two fled to Iran, where things felt just as unsafe. On the advice of non-profit groups in both countries, they left for Turkey in November 2014.

Deteriorating conditions

Upon arrival, the UNHCR told them to wait 21 months for their first interview — a process that used to take less than a year. Like a lesbian couple who spoke with Xtra, the UN placed the pair in the conservative city of Denizli.

When they arrived, landlords turned them away, saying too many foreign “friends” turned out to be homosexuals. They heard the same complaints when they applied for jobs at textile factories, so they found part-time work at a café.

They’ve tried to find small gigs for money. Recently, Alireza and Kiran both ruined their pants while unloading furniture for a showroom manager, who disappeared without paying them. 

They’ve switched apartments multiple times, such as when their landlady burst in with her son threatening to beat them. She evicted them without returning three months of paid rent.

Because millions of Middle Eastern refugees have fled to Turkey in recent years, the country has struggled to issue social insurance cards. Alireza, now 34, and Kiran, now 39, waited 16 months for access to doctors, treating flus and colds with home remedies. 

“This is our life. We are not like two young gays who are being supported by their families to migrate to Canada and live a gay and happy life in Canada,” Kiran says. “That is not who we are.”

Turkey allows Syrian refugees to move around the country, but all others are assigned a host city where they must report to local police every week. The couple make a point of alternating their routes and timing ever since Alireza’s family started trying to locate him in Turkey. 

While he doesn’t know if they want to harm him or bring him back, Alireza’s friends back home say his family figured out he’s living in Denizli.

And though the couple read articles about other LGBT refugees in their city, Kiran says they’re hard to spot and ask for advice.

“It hurts me more when I meet them and see the conditions they are living in, the food they are eating, the way they are surviving. It’s terrible,” he says. “They really are depressed; it will take a lot of time for them to come back to life.”

When Kiran tried continuing his treatment for anxiety and depression, the UNHCR booked appointments, but with a counsellor who doesn’t speak English. When he found one in Ankara who does speak English, he was denied a permit to leave Denizli. It’s lonely there, Kiran says, because no one speaks English among the local Turks and the foreigners from neighbouring countries.

‘We’re being forgotten’

The pair provided UNHCR documents showing the agency granted them refugee status in spring 2016, and selected them for third-country resettlement on the grounds that they were particularly vulnerable in Turkey. The couple asked to be referred to Canada, where they have a few friends, on the advice of Saghi Ghahraman, who runs the Iranian Queer Organization in Toronto.

But the UNHCR told the couple that Canada was only taking Syrians — that Iranians and Iraqis might make a waiting list, but not for a few years.

Since arriving in Turkey, they’ve watched others arrive in Denizli then go abroad. “We are being forgotten because many other issues are happening in this region,” Alireza says. “What did we do, to be forgotten in this land?”

In September, the US took on their application, starting interviews and scheduling medical checks. But  America has twice tried to suspend all refugee resettlement, before being blocked by courts. With uncertainty from American officials, Kiran has written to Canadian lawyers, MPs and private-sponsorship groups. Those who respond say they can’t help. Recently, the couple withdrew their US application, hoping Canada or another country would take their case.

Alireza (left) and Kiran’s (right) UNCHR documents showing their case had been submitted for third-country resettlement to the United States.
Alireza and Kiran

Kiran is perplexed by a discrepancy between media images of Canada as a welcoming haven and the quiet shutdown of a program that brought hundreds to safety.“We want equal rights like other humans. We don’t want to be scared that we cannot go out of the house,” Kiran says. 

He admits the problems have put a strain on their relationship — but he also says their bond is a source of strength. If they make it to Canada, they plan to get married.

“The best thing is that we are together,” he says. “We wouldn’t have survived long if we’d not had faith in God, not believed in Him, that one day this will all be over,” he adds. “I am trying my level best to fight and not give up.”