Why Iran’s Mullahs Bless Sex Reassignment

Iran has the death penalty for homosexuality but subsidizes sex reassignment surgery. BuzzFeed News looks at how Iran became a center of sex reassignment in the Middle East, and why many trans Iranians still find life impossible in the Islamic republic.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 26, 2016, at 11:52 a.m. ET

DENIZLI, Turkey — Sorena sought out the mullah after committing a sin she feared could not be forgiven.

It was the winter of 2014, and Sorena was just 17 years old. She lived with her family in Shiraz, a city of 1.5 million people in southwest Iran. Sorena had been to consult the mullahs before as they dispensed advice from tables in the city park, mostly about how to reconcile the beliefs of her mother — who belonged to Iran’s minority Sunni sect — with the teachings of Shia Islam, the faith of her father, and Iran’s official religion.

But never had she come to discuss something so personal — or so potentially dangerous.

“My desires are not matched with my body,” she told the mullah. “I think because I’ve fallen in love with someone who’s the same sex as me that I’m committing a sin.”

Sorena’s family had raised her as their youngest son, but she saw herself as a woman when she dreamed. She’d also recently had sex with a man for the first time, and the fear that she had sinned beyond redemption drove her into a panic that lasted weeks.

Sorena didn’t tell the mullah about having had sex; she just told him about her desires. But her revelation didn’t shock the mullah, even though homosexuality is punishable by flogging and execution in Iran. He did not denounce her as a sinner or a pervert.

Instead, he told her, “Don’t feel sinful … this is completely acceptable to us.”

In the Islamic Republic of Iran — unlike any other country in the Persian Gulf region — sex reassignment is not only allowed, but also subsidised by the government.

“You are transsexual, and you have to go for the surgery,” he pronounced. “It is accepted in our religion.”

Almost 30 years before Sorena went to see the mullah, a trans woman named Maryam Khatoon Molkara marched up to the armed compound of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, to seek his blessing.

Molkara, who was then 33 years old, was dressed in full compliance with the laws regulating how men should dress, including a full beard. Her breasts, which had been developed through hormone therapy, were tightly bound beneath her shirt. She’d been trying to get Khomeini’s permission for sex reassignment surgery for years; in 1978 she had unsuccessfully sought an audience with him in Paris, Khomeini’s headquarters during the last months that Iran was under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s last monarch.

The following year, a revolution toppled the shah and established the country as an Islamic republic. Khomeini returned from exile and was installed as the country’s supreme leader, head of a council of clerics that had veto power over any legislation deemed “un-Islamic.” Khomeini positioned the country to be a leader of Muslim nations in a battle against the United States — which he dubbed the Great Satan — and other Western nations considered imperialist enemies of Islam.

The new republic’s laws included rules for how men and women should dress and the death penalty for homosexuality. This meant trouble for Molkara, according to interviews she gave before her death in 2012. She lost her job at a TV station, was locked in a psychiatric institution, and was injected with male hormones against her will.

Still, Molkara believed that Khomeini would side with her if she only could speak to him directly. So in 1986, she went to his house in northern Tehran to try again. She carried a Qur'an and hung a pair of shoes around her neck, a Shiite symbol meant to convey that she was seeking shelter.

“You are transsexual, and you have to go for the surgery ... It is accepted in our religion.”

But Khomeini’s guards beat her when she insisted on speaking with the ayatollah. She was saved only because Khomeini’s brother, Hassan Pasandideh, happened to pass by. He called off the guards and invited her inside.

There she unraveled, Molkara told The Guardian in 2005. She began screaming, “I’m a woman!” She opened her shirt to reveal her breasts, and women in the room ran to cover her with a chador. Molkara was first given the chance to tell her story to Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, who she said was moved to tears. Then she was allowed to make her case to the ayatollah himself.

“The atmosphere, the moment, and the person were paradise for me,” Molkara said of the encounter. “I had the feeling that from then on there would be a sort of light.”

Molkara left the meeting with a hand-written fatwa — a ruling on religious law — giving her permission for sex reassignment. “God willing, sex reassignment, if advised by a reliable doctor, is permissible,” Ayatollah Khomeini wrote.

Hundreds have undergone sex reassignment surgery in Iran since Molkara’s meeting with Khomeini. Almost 1,400 people applied for permission for the process between 2006 and 2014, according to government figures published in Iranian media, and the country’s State Welfare Organization even provides some funding to help cover the cost of surgery. Iran has also become a destination for transgender people seeking surgery from other Muslim countries; most countries in the region persecute homosexuals and transgender people alike.

A major reason Iran’s rules on gender identity are so different from its neighbors’ is that Iran is Shiite, while most countries in the region are Sunni. That’s according to Iran’s most visible authority on the theology of sex reassignment, Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia, a cleric and legal scholar at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International University.

Sunni teaching holds that someone’s “true gender” cannot be altered, Kariminia told BuzzFeed News, but Ayatollah Khomeini’s understanding of Shiite teaching is that surgery reveals their “true gender” that may be hidden within.

In fact, Khomeini had ruled that sex reassignment was allowed by religious law two decades before Molkara showed up on his doorstep. He wrote about the issue in 1965, just after he was sent into exile by the shah for challenging an agreement allowing US troops to be stationed on Iranian soil.

“If they get the surgery, the gender will not change but [their] real gender that has [long] been hidden will become visible,” Khomeini wrote in a collection of judgments on religious law. Surgery is allowed if “a man finds in himself tendencies similar to a woman’s, or a woman finds tendencies [like that] of men,” he explained, but added that until the whole reassignment process is complete, “they [must] not act as the opposite sex does and has to, since this is haram [forbidden].”

The path to changing legal gender in Iran

But the legal and medical process can take years, and many Iranians — including government officials — often don’t see much difference between transgender and gay Iranians. Legally transitioning requires passing through 10 separate steps as well as obtaining approval from multiple government agencies, according to a new report from the New York–based LGBT rights group OutRight Action International. The surgery is expensive — especially if you want one of the few surgeons who know how to perform the surgery properly — and the government program to subsidize the procedure is chronically underfunded.

Until the process is completed, transgender people are constantly at risk of violence or arrest on accusations of being gay or for violating laws requiring gender-appropriate clothing. And despite the country’s official position allowing sex reassignment, transgender people often encounter roadblocks from authorities even though they’re following the country’s laws.

That’s what happened to Saman Arastou, an actor who became famous playing women in Iran’s state-funded film industry before transitioning in 2006. For seven years after his transition no director would hire him, he said, and he spent a year and a half battling government censors before getting permission to put on a play about his transition that ran in Tehran earlier this year.

“We are in a country where we have to be either women or men and nothing else,” Arastou told BuzzFeed News.

The authorities claim, “‘We give authorizations [for sex reassignment] and are proud,” Arastou said. “But it is not true — there is no support.”

Despite the mullah’s blessing, Sorena didn’t feel that her problems were solved by their meeting in the park back in 2014.

One of the biggest of those was figuring out whether she was trans, or if she was actually a gay boy. It didn’t make it easier that the stakes were so high: One path required major surgery she wasn’t sure she wanted; the other meant risking arrest or worse. (Sorena asked to be identified only by the name she used in her "gay life" out of concern for her security.)

Sorena began entreating God for help answering this question when she was 16. “God, please let me ... try to know myself,” she recalled praying.

She believes God answered by leading her to Facebook. Her family had just gotten the internet at home, where she could go online without worrying about someone peeking over her shoulder in an internet cafe. She used the new privacy to create a Facebook profile with the name “Sorena Gay Boy,” and within a month she went on her first date with a man. He was 30, and opened the whole world of Shiraz’s “gay life” to her.

“See, you’re not the only one like this,” he told her while showing her around Manjam, the gay dating site popular throughout the Middle East. Sorena remembered seeing thousands of profiles — many where users had posted pictures of their faces— and was “jumping inside” with the realization that “all of them are like me [and live] in my city!”

But her joy turned to panic after they first had sex, and she ran out of the house in the middle of the night. Her boyfriend ultimately took her to a psychiatrist known as an advocate for gay men. The psychiatrist told her being gay was “natural” but encouraged her to leave the country because “your identity here is a crime.”

Leaving home was unthinkable for Sorena. She couldn’t sleep at night if she didn’t say goodnight to her mother, and was so close to her twin sister they were like “one person,” while her four older brothers “behaved like [her] fathers.” They even found her femininity endearing for most of her life. One of her earliest memories is being caught praying while wearing her mother’s hijab when she was 7 — her brother laughed when he saw her, “What is all this silliness?”

“We are in a country where we have to be either women or men and nothing else.”

But her family grew less tolerant as she approached the end of high school. “This is not how a boy behaves,” her father would scold her. They would interrogate her about plucking her eyebrows or shaving her body hair. She tried to convince them it was just teenage fashion, but the stress was becoming so unbearable that she dropped out of school.

When she couldn’t take it any more, she went to see the mullah. And then she decided to tell her mother what was going on even though she still wasn’t entirely sure herself.

“At that time, I wasn’t sure if I was gay or trans,” Sorena said. “I told her what that mullah had told me: that trans is accepted by Islam, so I told her I’m trans.”

The mullah’s words didn’t save her. Her mother suggested she go to another psychiatrist to be fixed; then her twin sister threatened to kill herself if Sorena transitioned. Her brother beat her when he discovered her makeup kit, and later her father — who’d never raised his hand to her before — smacked her across the face and kicked her out of the house in the middle of the night.

So as soon as she could, she left Iran. She felt like she would never be able to figure out who she was between risking arrest while living as a gay man or going through with sex reassignment over her family’s objections. In October 2015 — when she was just 19 years old — she left the only home she’d ever known to seek asylum in Turkey.

“I’m also confused about myself,” Sorena said in an interview, one month after she arrived in Turkey. “I think the atmosphere in Iran ... and the fact that I still think about my family doesn’t allow me to understand what I actually am.”

Sorena is now staying in Denizli, an industrial city in southwest Turkey that has become a kind of purgatory for LGBT people fleeing Iran in the hope of being resettled as refugees in Europe or North America.

She seemed at ease with herself when she first spoke to BuzzFeed News in November 2015, though the pain of being rejected by her family quickly came to the surface. She was then anxiously helping her boyfriend make arrangements to leave Iran and join her, which he succeeded in doing later that month.

In a follow-up conversation a year later, she said that the distance from home had “helped me to find myself” and she could finally “see my soul as a woman.”

But knowing herself better has not made her future any more certain.

She had hoped to be resettled as a refugee in Canada, which has a long history of taking queer Iranian refugees; she also believes the government health care system will make sex reassignment easier. But the waiting list has grown so long that many are having their applications referred to the United States, which flies out more refugees from Turkey than all other Western nations combined. Now the election of Donald Trump — who promised to stop refugee resettlement and bar Muslims from entering the US — threatens to close that escape hatch, too.

“I was ready to die to do the surgery.”

Sorena first spoke to BuzzFeed News in the small apartment that was home to two other refugees who’d arrived a year earlier, who Sorena quickly began calling “Mom” and “Dad” after they met. “Dad” is a 35-year-old trans man named Danial from a city in northern Iran who spent years fighting to stay in the country. (Danial asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his security.)

Danial had tried to play by the rules: He got permission for sex reassignment, went through with multiple surgical procedures, and tried to change his gender on all his legal documents. But he met nearly impossible hurdles at every turn, which is why he eventually left Iran. His story seemed to confirm that Sorena had also made the right decision to flee.

When Danial went for breast reduction surgery in June 2013, he knew his doctor was a butcher. But he let him operate anyway, because he feared a delay could mean he’d be killed by his family. A mangled chest seemed a small price to pay for freedom.

Danial had run away from home three weeks before his chest surgery. He’d spent the previous four years jumping through the legal hoops required to get a permit for sex reassignment behind his family’s back. His family came down on him hard after they discovered years earlier that he would change into men’s clothes after he left the house. There was little he could do to resist his father’s authority as long as he was a woman on paper — a father is his daughter’s guardian as long as she is unmarried in Iran.

“They thought I was homosexual and they wouldn’t accept me changing my sex ... [telling me], ‘You have to be executed,’” Danial said. After his escape, he’d heard his father had ordered his brother, “Go find him and kill him and I will pay for it.”

Becoming legally male was his path to freedom, and he had to complete all the surgical procedures first — that technically meant removal of all female organs and the implantation of a genital prosthesis. And he didn’t have much money, so he couldn’t afford to go to a private hospital with a skilled surgeon. Instead, he went to a public hospital and took an appointment with the first available doctor. And he rushed into the chest surgery just 15 days after having a hysterectomy and was quite weak.

Other trans men warned him not to let the surgeon operate on his chest: They’d showed him how the doctor had left their chests like a pair of deflated balloons that got infected and caused constant pain. But Danial didn’t think he could wait.

“They didn’t realize I had no choice,” Danial said. “I was ready to die to do the surgery.”

His chest turned out as terrible as he’d been warned. The skin where his breasts were is now shrivelled and scarred, and he lost the tip of one nipple to an infection that went untreated because he couldn’t afford a doctor. His recovery was rocky because he had to take a job as a laborer just 15 days after the operation to pay for the hostel where he was staying during the recovery.

Things started looking up after he completed the paperwork to change his legal gender, and he was able to marry the woman he’d kept up a secret relationship with since high school. But, like with all trans people, his paperwork said he’d been excused from military service because he was “mentally disturbed,” which meant he couldn’t get a driver’s license. Employers would see that and turn him away from a job.

And he continued to live in so much fear of his family that he’d turn and run whenever he saw a car that resembled one driven by a relative.

Finally his wife said to him, “You can’t keep living like this in Iran — everywhere you go you have to tell everyone your story.”

So they left for Turkey in early 2015 and settled in Denizli. Danial has managed to find decent work, but health care is a struggle. He brought a stash of hormones from Iran, but he’s had to cut his dose in half to make it last and he worries about serious complications without having his therapy monitored by a doctor. The couple recently gave up on their hope to be resettled in Canada and they are now waiting to learn if the US will accept them for resettlement.

But even this limbo is better than being in Iran, he said.

“I used to love Iran, regardless of all the bad things … I didn’t think I could survive somewhere else,” Danial said. But it was only after leaving, he said, that “I felt like being free — and now I can be myself.”

Soheil Akbari and Soudeh Rad contributed to this story.

Why One Man Sold His Kidney To Escape Iran

Danial risked his life to get to Turkey, trusting that the refugee system would look after him when he got there. Instead, it was just the beginning of his problems. J. Lester Feder reports for BuzzFeed News.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 16, 2015, at 1:26 p.m. ET

DENIZLI, Turkey — There was only one way Danial could think of to get out of Iran: He would have to sell his kidney.

He got the idea from fliers offering cash for organs, which he had seen pasted to walls in the northern Tehran neighborhood of Tajrish. Danial had vague memories of them tacked near the bus stop where he’d get off to go to his painting classes. Those classes were how he kept his dream of becoming an artist alive, despite the fact that he’d never been allowed to go to school.

His situation felt hopeless. His mother had confronted him about being gay one December morning in 2013. By noon he had fled the family home, taking nothing but the clothes on his back and 50,000 rials — about $2 — in his pocket. His boyfriend lived in the city of Isfahan six hours to the south, but it wouldn’t be safe for them to stay together even if he could afford a bus ticket. Danial had a job at a glass factory in southern Tehran — he still has scars on his emaciated body from where the furnaces burned him — but it didn’t pay enough for him to rent an apartment on his own, let alone escape across the border into Turkey.

“I had no way forward, no way backwards — I just wanted to escape from that place,” Danial said.

For most Iranians, getting to Turkey would be as simple as buying a plane ticket, which can cost less than $200; a few hundred LGBT Iranians make this trip every year because it’s an easy jumping-off point to a new life in the West. Iranian passport holders don’t need a visa to enter Turkey, and the United Nations fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable.

"I just wanted to escape from that place."

But Danial couldn’t get an Iranian passport. He was the son of an Afghan, one of the estimated 3 million who have come to Iran since the 1980s, fleeing decades of war and looking for work. The Iranian government wants them out; it generally doesn’t grant their children citizenship and deliberately makes it hard for them to access basic services — that’s why Danial hadn’t gone to school. Without documents, Danial could only get to Turkey by hiring smugglers to sneak him across the border, which would cost a seemingly impossible amount: around $1,000.

Selling his kidney turned out to be harder than Danial had hoped. He initially marched into a government-run clinic on Valiasr Street in the heart of Tehran and announced he wanted to sell his kidney, but they wouldn’t even let him past the front door because he had no ID to prove he was an adult.

Then he got a break, of sorts. A man followed him out of the clinic and introduced himself as the uncle of an 8-year-old boy who needed a kidney transplant. They had a short conversation establishing that Danial had a compatible blood type, and the man offered him 50 million rials, about $1,700.

“I had no other options, so I accepted,” Danial said.

Like millions of other refugees from across the region, Danial saw going to Turkey and then on to the West as his only path to the future. But as their numbers have grown — from around 25,000 to over 2 million in just four years — the system for processing refugees in Turkey is being strained to breaking point. Danial sold his kidney to get to Turkey, trusting the system would take care of him once he got there. Instead he discovered that he had to fend for himself, navigating a system so complicated that the refugees with the fewest resources can easily fall through the cracks.

Danial had met his boyfriend, Parsa, at a birthday party for a mutual friend about two years before he fled his family. (Both men asked to be identified by their nicknames out of fear for their safety.)

Parsa, a 21-year-old aspiring musician with an electric, angular smile, was DJing, and he chatted Danial up about a painting of a flower he’d made as a birthday present for their friend. Parsa was about four years older than Danial and had also struggled to pursue a career in the arts after his family forced him to abandon his studies. They started dating soon after but could see each other only occasionally. When they couldn’t be together, Danial and Parsa traded text messages every night before bed.

“I could not go to sleep without those messages,” said Danial, whose high cheekbones make him look pixieish when he smiles. He suspects the messages were what tipped his family off to their relationship. “I kept every single one.”

So Parsa was alarmed when he hadn’t heard from Danial in the month after he left his mother’s house. Danial finally broke the silence with a short message telling Parsa to meet him the next day at a hospital in Tehran. Parsa was frantic when he arrived, convinced Danial had been in an accident.

But Danial looked perfectly healthy when he found him. Parsa was furious when he learned what he planned to do.

"For how much money did you put your life in danger?"

“For how much money did you put your life in danger?” he recalled shouting at Danial. He started arguing with the doctors: "With what authorization would you operate on someone who has no one with him and cut a part of his body — how could you let him decide to do such thing?"

Danial had known Parsa would react this way, which is why he kept the plan a secret until all the arrangements were made; he’d even rented a motel room for his recovery. Now it was too late to back out. The buyer had already invested around $350 for medical tests to confirm Danial’s kidney would match, and they had no way to repay it. The couple also felt for the child who was due to receive his kidney, whom they saw being wheeled into surgery.

“He was a very small boy who had so many scars all over his body — his kidneys were failing since he was born,” Parsa remembered.

Danial realized what a terrible mistake he’d made immediately after his surgery. His stitches became infected, and he burned through some of his profits to have them treated. Months flew by and he was still not well enough to travel; the bill for his room was beginning to add up even though he was paying just $14 per night.

After six months, he had just about $1,060 left, and he was still very weak.

“I had no way back to undo what I had done,” Danial said. “I realized I had even more problems.”

Many LGBT Iranians who seek asylum in Turkey simply fly to Ankara and go straight to the office that registers new refugees. Iranians make up the majority of the 700 LGBT people currently in the pipeline for resettlement who have identified themselves to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). One NGO that supports queer Iranian refugees reports getting an average of 30 new requests for help every month.

Hundreds of LGBT Iranians have been resettled in the West — especially in Canada — over the past several years, and many arrive in Turkey with a good deal of information about how to navigate the process. It now generally takes about two years for them to get a ticket out of Turkey even though UNHCR considers LGBT people especially vulnerable and fast-tracks them for resettlement. Many LGBT Iranians have had friends who’ve already been resettled or at least know the general outline of the process; some save up for the wait before they come or even have support from their families, making the wait easier to bear.

But Danial had to travel before he was really ready. If he waited any longer to recover his strength, he wouldn’t be able to afford the smuggler’s fee. Parsa would have to meet him in Turkey. He was an Iranian citizen and so would be able to fly to Turkey legally, but it would take a little time for him to get his passport issued.

In early August 2014, two smugglers guided Danial and a few others on a four-day trek through mountains and forests from the Iranian town of Maku to Van in southeastern Turkey. At night they would sleep in clearings in the brush. Despite Danial's fragile condition, he had to run in places where they might encounter border patrols.

In Van, the smugglers put him on a bus to Ankara. As the bus left the station, he realized that he was now totally on his own and had very little idea about what would happen next. He could speak no Turkish. He didn’t even know that Turkey used a different currency than Iran and got cheated out of half his remaining cash when a money changer took advantage of his ignorance. He had a sheaf of papers documenting his kidney surgery, but nothing to prove his identity. He couldn’t even definitively tell refugee officials how old he was — his best guess was around 21 or 22 by that point — because his family never told him his birthdate.

“The only thing I knew was there is something called the ‘United Nations,’” he said. “I thought because we are gay and we are different, there is nothing to be scared of.”

Danial followed a group of other refugees from the bus station in Ankara to the office of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), an NGO that registers refugees on behalf of UNHCR.

Others who passed through that ASAM office around the same time described it as an off-white building in a well-off residential neighborhood that appeared to have been built for the time before Turkey became one of the world’s top destinations for refugees. Iranians and Afghans waited alongside Syrians and people from a number of other Arab countries in chaotic lines that streamed out the front door. Refugees choked the narrow hallways inside, waiting to be summoned for processing. The walls echoed with the cries of screaming children and exuded the smell of the thousands who had passed through the building in a desperate search for shelter.

Danial wound up in line with a bunch of Afghans, who advised him to say he was Afghan when his turn came to explain his case. “They told me Afghans are being accepted easily [as refugees], compared to Iranians,” he said. “So I just said I was Afghan and gay — I had nothing else to say and I had no documents.”

"They told me Afghans are being accepted easily... So I just said I was Afghan and gay."

This proved to be a serious mistake, according to Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which assists Iranians with the refugee process and ultimately took up Danial's and Parsa’s cases. Most of her Iranian clients leave the ASAM office with a date for their first face-to-face meeting with a UNHCR official — called a pre-interview — but Danial left without any appointment at all.

It’s impossible to know for sure if Danial’s case would have progressed differently if he’d said he was Iranian. But a number of refugee advocates told BuzzFeed News that UNHCR appears to have generally put all Afghan cases “on hold,” largely because the countries that take refugees from Turkey allocate very few slots to people of Afghan origin.

Danial “didn't get a pre-interview date at that time because he said he was Afghan,” Ghahraman said.

Selin Unal, spokesperson for UNHCR-Turkey, did not comment directly on this case, but she denied that the agency is treating Afghan refugees differently than any others in an email to BuzzFeed News.

“UNHCR continues to process vulnerable Afghan asylum seekers and refugees, and provides protection assistance to those in need in collaboration with the Turkish government and NGOs,” she said. But, she said, “Resettlement opportunities depend on quotas [set] by resettlement countries.”

Parsa, who showed up at ASAM on Dec. 18 with an Iranian passport, sailed through the system compared to Danial. He had his first interview with UNHCR on Jan. 27, was granted refugee status by the agency in April, and his paperwork was with the Canadian government by the end of June to be considered for resettlement.

His case may have been accelerated because they enlisted the help of IRQO’s Ghahraman shortly before he registered. Danial said they learned about IRQO by chance when they struck up a conversation with some trans refugees they overheard speaking Farsi in a public park, and it took a couple of tries before they convinced Ghahraman about the urgency of their case. Her intervention also nudged Danial’s case forward — UNHCR brought him in for his pre-interview in January, after she described his case to an agency contact.

But in the months after Parsa learned he might go to Canada, no call came telling Danial he was going too.

They had spent much of their year in Turkey on the edge of homelessness. Danial had followed other refugees he met at the ASAM office in Ankara to the city of Denizli, a fast-growing city of about 600,000 people nestled at the feet of dramatic mountains in southeastern Turkey. Turkey bars refugees from most countries from living in major cities like Istanbul, and Denizli had become a major hub for Iranians — especially LGBT Iranians — awaiting resettlement. Denizli's downtown is clean and new, but its economy is built on textile manufacturing — allowing refugees who are prohibited from working legally to eke out a living under the table in sweatshops.

The work was hard on Danial, whose urine sometimes turned red from internal bleeding at the end of 12-hour days hauling bolts of fabric that could weigh more than he did. Sometimes the bosses wouldn’t pay the wages they owed, and Danial and Parsa were thrown out of one apartment after another.

Danial became convinced he would never be freed from this purgatory and worried Parsa would give up his chance to go to Canada in order to stay with him. He grew so weak that his dark black hair began falling out in patches, making his scalp look almost leopard-spotted. UNHCR referred him to a psychiatrist, who said he couldn’t do anything to advance his case and instead offered him a prescription for anti-anxiety pills.

“My case will not end up anywhere and [Parsa] is stuck because of me,” Danial remembered thinking to himself one night when Parsa went out to buy bread. “I knew that if I have to stay here, he will stay with me and not leave.”

“I wanted him to go and live free,” Danial said, “so I took all of those pills.”

Danial was unconscious when Parsa found him. Parsa frantically searched for a neighbor who knew the number to call for an ambulance and spoke enough Turkish to give them the address. The paramedics would not let him ride with Danial in the ambulance, and he had to be careful about how he showed his feelings because they lived in a building filled with other Iranian refugees who they were terrified would figure out they were a couple.

“It was like a nightmare,” Parsa said. The doctor said that Danial could die anytime within the next three days — but if he survived that period he would live.

Danial survived, but when the couple spoke to BuzzFeed News two weeks after his suicide attempt, he was feeling more alone than ever.

“No one can ever help us,” Danial said. “What does U.N. believe in? Why does U.N. exist? ... When they don't help me, who are they helping?”

"What does U.N. believe in? Why does U.N. exist?"

On Oct. 12, Danial finally got a piece of good news: He would also be considered by Canada for resettlement.

Their problems aren’t over yet; it often takes about another year from this step in the process before a refugee actually boards a plane. But at least the end is in sight.

But their story shows just how easily the most vulnerable refugees can fall through the cracks in the system that should be trying to help them most, said Ghahraman. If they hadn’t found an advocate with contacts inside UNHCR, Danial might never have even learned that it was a mistake to say he was Afghan, let alone had a chance to correct it.

Many of the people who work in UNHCR are doing it for all the right reasons, Ghahraman said, and she has seen individuals leap into action when they learn of a refugee who needs extra help. But the system as a whole is set up to comply with “the policy and the rules and laws —nobody helps somebody out just based on humanity,” she said.

Danial is still painting while he waits — mostly pictures of flowers — though he was using up the last of canvases and had no money for more. Other than his medical records, just about the only other things he brought with him from Iran were 12 small tubes of oil paint.

“It's more than a year that I am waiting in Turkey; for someone who is in good situation, this might not feel like [even] a month, but for me it feels like years — I cannot take it anymore,” Danial said. “My art is painting and I really can't do anything else.”

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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