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‘There is no door open, no hope.’ The gay Iranian refugee that Canada abandoned

Amirhossein Zolghadri chose to file a refugee claim instead of hiring a smuggler. Now, he’s trapped in Turkey

Amirhossein Zolghadri is stuck in Turkey after Canada suspended his application, in order to prioritize Syrian refugees. After applying for resettlement in the US, his application was suspended just before his final interview due to President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Credit: Courtesy Amirhossein Zolghadri

Amirhossein Zolghadri regrets not trusting his smuggler. 

The gay Iranian man, who also identifies as queer, was supposed to be trafficked out of Turkey to Britain or Norway. But the shifty, burly man left Zolghadri with a bad feeling. He instead filed a refugee claim with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Canada selected him for resettlement.

“I got very scared of that smuggler. But now when I look back, I feel I made the most terrible mistake of my life,” Zolghadri says. “Now I feel this smuggler was much more trustworthy than the UNHCR and Canada, because they both have let me down.”

Zolghadri is among a handful of LGBT Iranians who have told Xtra that Canada had selected them for resettlement, before abandoning them to make space for Syrians.

The two main Toronto advocacy groups for LGBT Iranians — the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees and the Iranian Queer Organization — say they’re in touch with dozens in the same situation, and that most had been referred to the United States before President Donald Trump suspended refugee resettlement from seven predominantly-Muslim countries.

It’s the latest blow to Zolghadri, whose most terrifying hours were spent on Nov 18, 2014, inside Tehran’s international airport. 

After causing a scandal by sleeping with a preacher in his hometown of Karaj, 17-year-old Zolghadri was trying to flee to Turkey, leaving behind a broken life and a prestigious family that wanted to save face.

“As a gay person in Iran, whether you remain silent or decide to scream in protest, every day you are condemned to death,” Amirhossein Zolghadri says.
Courtesy Amirhossein Zolghadri

Passing through security checks manned by Iran’s revolutionary guards, Zolghadri worried they’d look through documentary tapes he’d filmed about gay Muslims. They’d see the clerics in the religious city of Qom, who had beat Zolghadri for asking about homosexuality. They’d hear about the time the preacher’s father almost sideswiped Zolghadri with his car.

“As a gay person in Iran, whether you remain silent or decide to scream in protest, every day you are condemned to death,” Zolghadri says in one of the tapes, now posted online. “I preferred to scream, than to die everyday in my community, at school and at home.”

If the guards searched Zolghadri’s name online, they’d see him recounting childhood bullying, which escalated into him running away from home, narrowly avoiding shock therapy and dropping from academic studies to shop classes.

“I think that was a miracle, that I somehow made it out of Iran,” Zolghadri, now 20, told Xtra in a video chat, his dark eyes peering through long, black locks of hair. After breaking off contact with the smuggler, he slept in dodgy hostels. He’s struggled to find under-the-table work, and scrapes by on cash transfers from friends and activists.

According Zolghadri’s UNHCR documents, which he provided to Xtra, he registered as a refugee on July 30, 2015. Canada started a third-country resettlement application on Nov 20, 2015. 

But almost a year later, in mid-November 2016, the UNHCR told Zolghadri that Canada had suspended his application, because it is only resettling Syrian refugees through the UN system.

Zolghadri provided Xtra with his UNHCR documents which show his case was moving forward in Canada and the US before being suspended in both countries.
Courtesy Amirhossein Zolghadri

The UN put his case back into its system, before the US started its own resettlement application on Dec 2, 2016. US officials interviewed Zolghadri on Dec 26, and planned a final interview before suspending his application after Trump’s executive order. 

Zolghadri believes he’d be in the US already if his Canadian application hadn’t languished for 11 months. “Why did Canada give me this false hope?” he says.

He passes the time painting, seldom leaving the vacation flat in Eskişehir, Turkey, that was offered to him by a stranger he met online, an Iranian living in the US who fled persecution because of his Baha’i faith.

While living in Turkey, both Zolghadri’s grandmother and estranged father have died.

Zolghadri dreams of coming to Canada and taking legal studies because almost everyone in his family is a lawyer. 

But for now, death is close to mind. He follows closely as Canadian parliamentarians raise the issue, but he’s worried about Turkey’s uptick of anti-LGBT violence.

“The options to me right now are either suicide or a hunger strike. Because they’re ignoring Iranian LGBT people in this situation,” he says. “There is no door open, no hope.”