These Are The LGBT Refugees Trapped By Donald Trump’s Immigration Order

“We are all gonna end up in this fucking Turkey … It’s hell. It's fucking hell.”

Last updated on January 29, 2017, at 1:07 p.m. ET

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on January 26, 2017, at 1:25 p.m. ET

DENIZLI, Turkey — A group of 12 queer Iranians in hiding in Turkey had gathered for a small party on Tuesday night when someone spotted the report that President Donald Trump planned to stop resettling refugees in the United States.

Several of those there that night had been waiting for their US visas, their cases having been referred to the US by the United Nations. Some had already been turned away from other countries. Others were still waiting to find out if they would ever get a ticket out.

All felt their dreams crushed as they heard the news.

“I’m going to die here,” said Hamid, a 36-year-old gay man who fled his home in northern Iran in 2014 and was referred to the US for resettlement in August 2016. He is one of many queer Iranians who have camped out in Denizli, a small textile manufacturing city in southwestern Turkey, to endure the years-long wait for a ticket to the West where they hope to build a new life.

“We are all gonna end up in this fucking Turkey,” said Soheil, a teacher also from northern Iran whose case is under review with the US, in a text message after the news had sunk in the next day. “Trump is signing the law that literally prevents all Iranian asylum-seekers from entering states except religious minorities. It’s hell. It's fucking hell.”

News of the order was first reported by Reuters earlier in the week, but the full details were not clear until President Trump imposed the rule on Friday. He did it through an executive order — not a law — that froze refugee resettlements for 120 days and then will admit only people from countries where cabinet officials certify “sufficient safeguards are in place” to vet refugees. It also suspends resettling Syrian refugees indefinitely, requiring Trump to personally sign off on resuming the program. It also cuts the number of refugees allowed to be admitted to the US in 2017 to 50,000, less than half of the 110,000 allowed under a cap set by President Obama.

The new rules makes clear that Trump could bring an end to the international cooperation that helps refugees reach safety. The US is not just one among many countries that resettles refugees; it has a special role because it resettles far more refugees to its shores than any other country. In 2015, it accepted 60% of all refugees resettled worldwide, according to the UN. Other countries allow much greater numbers of people to remain within their borders who arrive under their own steam, but no country voluntarily resettles more people than the US through the international refugee process.

There had long been bipartisan support in the US for refugee relief until Republicans began objecting to resettling refugees from war-torn parts of the Middle East under President Obama. This backlash helped propel Trump into the White House. Now he is shaking the foundations of the international system that help people fleeing war and persecution reach safety.

“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to ... provide safety to asylum-seekers.”

And it comes as this system is already stressed to its breaking point, confronted with more people seeking shelter than ever before in human history. Almost 65 million people worldwide had fled their homes as of 2015, according to the latest numbers published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Trump’s order also signals a major shakeup in priorities for the US refugee program if it does resume. Under Obama, the US made a priority of resettling people who were persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The order from Trump, however, makes a priority of resettling those claiming refugee status on the basis of “religious-based persecution.” This appears to prioritize Christians, allowing for the continued processing of religion-based refugee claims during the freeze on resettlements only in cases where “the religion of that individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other words, a Muslim from Iran might not qualify even if their claim is related to their faith.

The news caused anxiety among refugees throughout Turkey, where around 3 million people are now living after fleeing their homelands. Many who spoke to BuzzFeed News — including some who were in the process to be resettled to the US — appeared to be in denial. It seemed unthinkable to them that one man could bring a process to a halt that had been in the works for years under the auspices of the UN. Many believed Trump would only take action against undocumented immigrants.

“Those things concern the illegal immigrants, not the refugees like us,” said Ana, a lesbian from northwest Iran who was forced to abandon her then 7-year-old son and flee after her brother discovered her in bed with her girlfriend in 2014.

(All of the refugees who spoke to BuzzFeed News asked to be identified only by their first names or nicknames because they feared violence for being identified as LGBT or because they worried about retaliation from migration officials for criticizing the process.)

Nienose, a 32-year-old gay Iraqi who came to Turkey in 2015 and is now in the final stages of being resettled to the US, said, “It seems [Trump] is doing something for which he doesn’t know the consequences.”

Nienose now lives in Sakarya, a city about 100 miles east of Istanbul. It’s the second place he’s sought shelter in Turkey; he said he had to leave Manisa, a city near the Aegean coast, after his Turkish neighbors discovered pictures on his Instagram revealing he was gay “and they attempted to kill me.”

“Maybe Trump would think I ran away because I’m a terrorist or want to do bad things in the USA,” said Nienose. “If I am here [in Turkey] any longer and the USA rejects my case, I believe I may kill myself.”

“Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”

Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM, an NGO that assists LGBT asylum-seekers, said he believes threats of suicide are credible. There have already been instances of refugees harming themselves after losing hope during the confusing and bureaucratic process to qualify for resettlement. He’s especially worried about refugees like Nienose, who were approaching the end of the process and were expecting to leave for the US very soon and now have no idea about their future.

“Refugees who have just been hanging on waiting to be resettled ... are going to become absolutely despondent — I expect people will commit suicide,” Grungras said.

A major slowdown in resettlements to the US could also have much wider consequences, Grungras warned. Turkey and the EU have been working very hard to try to shut down the sea routes to Europe that have brought more than 1 million people into the EU without permission. In March 2016, Turkey reached an agreement that allows the EU to deport migrants to Turkey, in exchange for cash payments and a commitment to resettle qualified asylum-seekers through legal channels.

But this has increased tension over migrants inside Turkey, and would-be refugees need some level of faith in the legitimate asylum process in order not to attempt the increasingly difficult sea crossing. Even if someone doesn’t want to go to the US — and most LGBT refugees say they prefer Canada or Europe because they fear gun violence, think the US is not LGBT-friendly, and want easier access to health care — most know another refugee who’s gone or in the process of going there. These resettlements were proof the process could work; if that stops, it could cause asylum-seekers to lose faith in the system.

“Turkey is ready to explode, and the refugee program is the pressure release valve — and the US led the system,” Grungras said.

The system is already bursting at the seams, derailing the cases of even the refugees who had the greatest reason to believe in a reliable process.

Two of those in this situation are a couple in their mid-forties from Iran named Alireza and Saeed. They had a comfortable life in the capital, Tehran, living together for 10 years in the building where they ran a graphic design and printing business. Then, around October 2013, Saeed’s brother hacked Saeed’s cell phone and attempted to blackmail him with a private sex video.

They first tried to pay a smuggler who promised to get them British visas, but he skipped town with their money. They then tried to get a Greek visa, but were rejected by the consulate. Finally they decided they needed to take the route familiar to many LGBT Iranians. Most know someone — or at least know about someone — who’s gone to Turkey, claimed asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation, and been resettled in the West, usually to Canada. The whole process usually takes two years, and Alireza and Saeed came to Denizli to wait.

They registered with UNHCR in March 2014, and learned in April 2015 that they had been referred to Canada for resettlement. They heard nothing else for more than a year, though they sent hundreds of emails and called each week trying to get an update. Finally, Alireza said, a UNHCR worker called him in November to say Canada was “closed”; they would not accept their cases after all. Instead, their case would be forwarded to the US, where Trump had just been elected president.

Trump didn’t worry them, they said in an interview on Monday just before news of his planned refugee order broke. “We knew Trump was the new president but that did not do anything to us,” Alireza said. “We are legal immigrants — that does not concern us,” Saeed added.

They were shocked when they learned of the report on Wednesday.

“We've been waiting so long the only hope that if Canada is closed, there was US. What can we do?” said Alireza.

“We feel like unwanted guests,” said Saeed. “Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”

Alireza and Saeed are not the only ones in this situation. Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Iranian Queer Organization, a Toronto-based group that supports asylum-seekers in Turkey with the resettlement process, said she has received more than 30 reports from people whose cases were pending with Canada who were informed their cases would be referred to the US instead.

With Trump in office, Ghahraman warned, “I think they are trapped there in Turkey.”

Neither UNHCR nor Canada’s immigration agency responded to questions about these cases. But migration experts say the global scramble to find spots for the overwhelming population of Syrian refugees has meant it is becoming harder for non-Syrians to be resettled.

“I would not be surprised if Syrians were crowding out Iranians in 2016 as the government was clearly prioritizing Syrians over everyone,” said Howard Anglin, who was chief of staff to Canada’s immigration minister before Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister in 2015.

LGBT Syrians have actually had a relatively quick path to safety in recent months. Many countries have given priority to resettling Syrians in response to public outcry as refugees of a war that’s estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people and displaced almost 5 million has reached European shores. And UNHCR considers LGBT Syrian refugees at particular risk of violence in Turkey, especially after a 23-year-old named Wisam Sankari was found decapitated in Istanbul in July.

Since then, ORAM says it has been able to help clients facing threats of violence access a small number of spots UNHCR reserves for “emergency” resettlement that can get them out of the country in less than a year, while the process for people who are not deemed high risk can take many years. Most of these fast-tracked cases go to European countries, because the US’s extensive legal and security reviews are generally considered too slow for urgent situations. The US already maintains some of the most extensive vetting procedures of any resettling country.

But even the European countries that resettle the largest number of refugees take far fewer than the US, which resettled 98,873 refugees from countries around the world in 2016, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. The UK, which resettled the most refugees of any European nation that year, took just 5,213, and many European countries stopped accepting new cases in 2016, according to ORAM, while there are 1,500 self-identified LGBT refugees in Turkey registered for resettlement.

The best-case scenario for those awaiting resettlement under the Trump order is that the US fully resumes its resettlement program after the 120-day freeze. But even then, there will be 60,000 fewer slots to the United States at a time when millions of people are hoping to be resettled from conflict areas around the world. Canada, which resettled 44,741 refugees in 2016 making it second to the United States in the number of refugees it resettles, was already refusing new cases from Turkey in late 2016.

Australia was the recipient of the third-largest group of refugees in 2016, taking 11,388. The country’s internal politics make it unlikely for it to increase resettlements to pick up the hole left by the US. The issue of resettlement is highly controversial there as well, and the country is locked in a years-long battle over a couple thousand asylum-seekers who are confined to remote Pacific islands after attempting to reach the country by boat.

A US retreat on its refugee commitments could have a domino effect, worries Begüm Başdaş, who works on asylum issues for Amnesty International Turkey.

“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to shirk obligations under international law to provide safety to asylum-seekers," Başdaş said.

And if asylum-seekers lose hope in getting to safety through the official resettlement process, she believes more will risk their lives by crossing the sea in smugglers’ boats.

“If these [international] commitments [to shelter refugees] fail, the refugees who need a better life will do whatever it takes to reach areas where they think it will be safe and a future for their children,” she said. “People will die — that’s what it means in plain English.”

UPDATE

This story has been updated following President Trump signing the executive order on Friday.

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.”

This Is What It's Like To Be An LGBT Syrian Fleeing For Your Life

LGBT refugees from across the Middle East flock to Turkey, escaping Islamist militias, sexual assault, and death threats. But what they find there leaves many in despair. J. Lester Feder reports for BuzzFeed News

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 22, 2015, at 1:22 p.m. ET

ISTANBUL — M was standing at a bus stop on the outskirts of Damascus when a group of armed men pulled up in a car and ordered her to get in.

M wears thick-framed glasses and her black hair cut just above the ear. She stood out in a largely devout neighborhood where most women wore headscarves, making her a target that day in July 2014.

“You are not covered — and why is your hair short?” she remembered her captors asking, slapping her across the face and striking her on the back of her head. They demanded she recite a verse from the Qur'an to prove she was a Muslim, and she was lucky they picked one that she had learned as a child.

“Why are you imitating men?” they demanded. “All this entitles you to execution.”

They held her blindfolded for two days; she kept time by counting the calls to prayer from a nearby mosque.

The 46-year-old M lived in an area that was a battleground that summer as government forces attempted to push the rebels back from the Syrian capital, and many of her neighbors had been wounded when the area was under siege. She practiced alternative medicine for a living, caring for the wounded regardless of which side they supported, without accepting payment.

This charity is what ultimately saved her life. At the end of the second day, a leader who her captors called “the sheikh” said an order had been issued for her execution for being a “mistarjili” — literally, a woman who acts like a man. But, she said he told her: “Listen, I will not impose the ruling … I asked all the people in the area and they told us that you are a person who helps all people.”

The group released her with nothing but her ID card and a warning that the reprieve was only temporary.

“At any moment you might be killed,” the sheikh warned her. “You should leave the area immediately."

“Why are you imitating men?”

Her neighborhood was being shelled, so she never went back to the small home where she lived for 15 years. Instead, M borrowed money from a friend and headed to Turkey later that summer as soon as she could get a passport.

For seven months, she was barely scraping by working a series of black-market jobs that required her to work 12-hour days. But she felt a surge of hope in April when she learned that she was eligible to be considered for resettlement to someplace like the United States or Europe by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She went to an office of the NGO that takes new cases, told them about what had happened to her in Syria, and waited for someone to call her with good news.

Six months passed. The phone never rang.

“My dream was to live in a country that respects a queer woman like me as a human being,” she told BuzzFeed News in Istanbul last month. “I felt that finally my problems will be solved ... but it turned out to be an illusion.”

If she had the money, she would do what her roommate did earlier this summer: hire a smuggler to carry her to Europe on a boat. But that costs about $2,500, more money than she can even dream about. In Istanbul she hasn’t been able to find work for several months even washing dishes. She is on the verge of being thrown out of her tiny room, which smells of sewage and has drug dealers conducting business just outside her window.

The people who met her when she arrived say her time here has aged her at least a decade. Deep worry lines cut into her sunken face, and her clothes sagged off her withered frame.

Finally, she decided to do something she describes as a way to commit suicide: She bought a ticket back to Syria.

“I’m returning to my death, but what choice do I have?” M said.

M's account could not be independently verified because getting reliable accounts from inside rebel-held areas is nearly impossible. M also asked that her name and the name of where she lived be withheld to protect her safety. But her story is far from unique. In September and October, BuzzFeed News interviewed more than 15 LGBT refugees in Turkey from several nearby countries who had fled everything from Islamist militias to sexual assault to death threats from family members. Many had been pushed out of more than one country, caught up in anti-LGBT crackdowns that have rippled across the Middle East in recent years. M’s disappointment in the resettlement system overseen by UNHCR was nearly universal.

UNHCR actually fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable. But the process still leaves many in despair, showing that the system wasn’t really built to rescue large numbers of people in immediate danger. The fates of refugees who are desperately seeking security are in the hands of a bureaucracy that spans multiple governments, agencies, and NGOs. These institutions generally don’t have nearly enough staff to keep up with the workload created by the influx of Syrians since the war began.

LGBT refugees will usually have to wait about two years for a ticket out of Turkey, said Selin Unal, spokesman for UNHCR's Turkey office: one year for UNHCR to decide if they’re eligible and a second for another country to grant them a visa and fly them over.

“We are trying our best to shorten waiting periods,” Unal said, but given the numbers seeking resettlement, “this period is not really too long.”

Those who “have been resettled are probably very grateful to UNHCR for having helped them and given a chance to build their life in a new environment,” she added. “We acknowledge the difficulties of a daily life for refugees during a waiting period … [and] we do not spare any efforts in order to support and assist [them].”

The two-year wait is far shorter than the one faced by refugees not considered vulnerable — advocates who work with other categories of refugees report that UNHCR is telling their clients they won’t even have their first meeting with an agency caseworker until 2022 or 2023.

But to an individual, those two years can feel like an eternity. Refugees are generally barred from working and often survive doing back-breaking black-market labor or sex work. One sign of how at risk they feel is that all of those who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story asked to be identified by their first names or nicknames. Many — especially trans people who stand out on the street — will be victims of hate crimes from Turks or other refugees who come from the very countries they are fleeing, according to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), which advocates on behalf of LGBT people.

UNHCR-Turkey now reports 700 LGBT people in its system, but ORAM believes there are many more who don’t know they can seek asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity or are too afraid to out themselves. In 2014, UNHCR asked the governments that resettle refugees from Turkey to consider the cases of 227 LGBT people, most of whom were from Iran.

The process for resettlement is well known to Iranian LGBT people because most have friends who have gone through it in the past several years. But it’s newer for Syrians, who just began to seek asylum in large numbers since the start of the war. Before the conflict began, the Assad regime was brutal with political opponents, but it was secular and didn’t seek out LGBT people for harassment the way authorities do in places like Iran. What primarily makes Syria dangerous for the LGBT people now arriving in Turkey is Assad’s loss of control in much of the country to the Islamist rebels trying to overthrow him.

LGBT Syrians arrive along with millions of other Syrians — from both sides — fleeing the fighting. Their vulnerability gives LGBT refugees a path to resettlement that most other Syrians won’t be able to access, but they must go through a process that often feels incomprehensible and capricious.

Refugees bound for the U.S. — which takes the lion’s share of refugees resettled from Turkey — will generally pass through five different stages each requiring a new interview. Months can pass between each step without word on the real status of their cases, and there is little support if they can’t find somewhere to sleep, face a medical emergency, or are assaulted. There are precious few resettlement slots: The U.S. resettled just 5,162 refugees from Turkey in the last year. (Fewer than 100 of all refugees resettled in the U.S. in that period identified themselves as LGBT.)

Many advocates who work on LGBT asylum issues say they believe UNHCR’s staff is genuinely committed to getting these refugees out as fast as possible. But, said ORAM’s Neil Grungras, the system itself is “bureaucratic and inefficient from the get-go” — and now the agency’s 330 staff members in the country are completely overwhelmed as the total numbers seeking asylum in Turkey climb past 2 million.

“The system is failing them,” Grungras said. “The people who are truly vulnerable aren’t being whisked out of harm’s way soon enough.”

This is what that failure looks like.

Istanbul has become an increasingly important safe haven in recent years as other cities — like Cairo and Beirut — have become ever more dangerous for LGBT people.

Back in June, Nader, a bushy-bearded 26-year-old Syrian, helped organize about 100 Arab refugees to turn out for the city’s 13th annual pride march, exhilarated at the chance to celebrate with tens of thousands of people. They carried signs like "Stop the persecution of gays in the Arab world" and "Your life isn't worth more than mine."

So it felt like a deep betrayal when local officials banned the march at the last minute and police turned tear gas, plastic bullets, and water cannons on participants. (Turkish LGBT activists are not sure why the event was shut down after years without incident, but it fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and came in the wake of a defeat at the ballot box for the party of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)

“I thought we were safe, but the police were attacking us and the people just watching,” said Nader. “That was my last straw with being here.”

Nader had worked hard to build a life in Istanbul since arriving in June 2014. He had started a weekly support group for Arabic-speaking LGBT refugees called Tea and Talk, drawing people from as far apart as Morocco to Iraq. He had also fallen in love with a sweet-faced 21-year-old from Damascus named Omar, moving in with him a couple months after they first met in one of Istanbul’s best-known gay clubs in December. They set up house just before Valentine's Day.

Istanbul was the last stop for Nader on a four-year exodus since he left his native city of Homs, Syria, for good in August 2011, five months after the uprising against Assad began. He grew up in a Sunni family in the Bab al-Sibah neighborhood, which was the frontline in sectarian fighting with members of the city’s Alawite community before the conflict became a full-fledged civil war. The city was wracked by a cycle of killings between the two communities, and many of Nader’s childhood friends gravitated to Sunni militias.

One day, a close friend took Nader to see a house in Homs where a massacre had taken place and showed him the remains of a group of Alawites. “We’re taking our revenge,” he said. Horrified at what his friends were becoming, and scared they would come for him because of his sexuality, Nader moved to Damascus immediately.

 “I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood.”

Nader had actually fooled around with some of those friends now fighting with groups morphing into the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. “I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood,” he said, and he never really hid that he was gay as he became an adult.

Once behind the lines of President Assad’s forces in Damascus, he even told an old hookup buddy turned rebel fighter on the phone that he was “gay for sure.” A few days later he learned that the friend reported the conversation to his group’s imam, who proclaimed it debauchery and said “the Islamic rule for it is throw him from off of the high building.”

So when anti-Assad fighters successfully attacked the Al-Midan neighborhood in the heart of the Damascus in January 2012, Nader made plans to go to Cairo.

But Cairo proved not to be very welcoming either, and he said he was twice beaten up in the streets during his year there, caught up in the unrest amid mass protests that gripped the city during the one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Next he tried Amman, Jordan, but discovered the city was awash in Syrian rebels fleeing Assad’s forces, including some who looked familiar from Homs.

In June 2014, one of them recognized him and tried to grab him on a street in the city center.

“You are the faggot — we captured you!” Nader remembered the man shouting. “You escaped from Syria so you think you are safe right now. [But] we will fuck you, we will kill you!”

The yelling drew a crowd, and Nader managed to shake him off in the commotion. Two days later he bought a ticket to Istanbul, and went to the NGO registering new cases for resettlement to North America or Europe, the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM).

Earlier this month, Nader finally got a call from UNHCR that Norway had agreed to take him. He will probably be moving within six months. There was only one problem: It would mean leaving his boyfriend almost entirely alone.

Omar’s resettlement petition appeared to have gotten stuck in a personnel shake-up at ASAM. Though he’d registered in June, he had to essentially re-do his first interview with a caseworker three months later because the official he spoke to the first time had left the job without forwarding his paperwork to UNHCR. (ASAM did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.)

The pair spoke to BuzzFeed News hours after they learned Nader would be going to Norway, and Omar’s eyes were visibly red from crying. They had thought about sending Omar on the boats but they were afraid he would be detained by authorities before reaching Norway. They even had a long-shot idea about going to Brazil — the only country they said they had found that performs same-sex marriages and grants visas to Syrians — to get married in order to enable Nader to bring Omar as a spouse.

“He’s leaving and we don’t know when we will meet again,” Omar said.

They were basically considering anything they could think of so they wouldn’t have to rely on UNHCR.

“I don’t trust them,” Nader said.

Follow the process of applying for resettlement in Turkey

This is the bureaucratic maze that generally awaits refugees seeking resettlement from Turkey — if they don’t run into any problems:

Most start by giving a basic outline of their story to ASAM. They’re also supposed to register with the Turkish government, which will assign those in UNHCR’s resettlement process to remote “satellite cities” where they must regularly appear at a police station to prove they haven’t left. (Generally only Syrians, to whom the Turkish government have given special status, can choose to live in large cities like Istanbul.)

ASAM refers eligible cases to UNHCR, and refugees can wait months or years to be summoned for a “pre-interview,” where they’ll give the in-depth version of their stories and submit any corroborating documents: medical records of assault, threatening messages from family members, arrest records. Next they have the UNHCR “interview,” where they tell their story in yet more detail — the appointment can take a full day or require a second interview.

If UNHCR decides to grant them refugee status and refer them for resettlement, the agency will have a short conversation with each of them about where they want to be resettled, though the decision depends almost entirely on which countries have open slots at the time and not on their preference.

Most will go to the U.S., so they will next be interviewed by the International Catholic Migration Commission, the contractor processing refugee cases for the U.S. Then they are interviewed again by a “circuit rider” from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on one of their periodic visits to Istanbul — that person goes over their story again from beginning to end primarily to check that they are eligible to be resettled under U.S. law. Then their personal information is sent to other U.S. security agencies to look for red flags like service in a hostile military or support for blacklisted groups, which would disqualify them for a visa. Advocates say cases can wind up on long holds even if relatively minor questions about their record are raised.

If they get final approval, they wait for an agency in the U.S. to agree to handle their resettlement and wait to be given a spot on flights purchased by the International Organization for Migration. They are forbidden from flying on their own if they find an earlier flight, and are required to start repaying the full fare in installments six months after arriving in the U.S. Before their flight date, they also must secure an exit permit from the Turkish government.

"It is truly a challenge," said Veysel Essiz, senior program officer at Refugee Rights Turkey. "You flee your own country to find at least some safety, but the feeling that the overwhelming majority of refugees in Turkey have is that they will be in limbo for eternity."

The wait in Turkey can be dangerous, especially for those who don’t manage to learn Turkish and so wind up more dependent on other refugees to share housing and navigate day-to-day life. And those who are visibly queer often worry about being assaulted.

Reza, a 34-year-old gay Iranian who wears makeup and has feminine mannerisms, told BuzzFeed News he was head-butted by a man on the street in the southeastern Turkish city of Denizli where he is living while waiting for resettlement. He said he came to Turkey after being beaten, sexually assaulted, and detained by police on several occasions, and now is too afraid to leave his apartment in Turkey alone.

“He beat me because I had red lipstick on,” he said of the December 2014 attack.

Refugees who find themselves living in enclaves with others from their home country — often the only way they can find housing — regularly find the same kind of threats they fled have followed them.

But even those who could pass as straight put themselves in danger when they try to live a relatively normal life. Ahmad, a slight, 23-year-old Syrian who wears a fedora and smokes a Sherlock Holmes pipe, told BuzzFeed News he was forced to share an apartment with Syrians who had fought for al-Nusra and would make jokes about ISIS executing gays — a situation several gay Syrians in Istanbul have encountered.

He arrived in Istanbul in April and said he was assaulted for the first time in June. He got jumped by a group of Syrians outside his apartment building — they had apparently seen him hanging out with some gay friends in the central shopping district.

“You gays put us all to shame.”

“Did you finish hooking up with your friend?” he remembered them saying before they jumped on him. “You gays put us all to shame.” Photos from the incident, which he submitted to ASAM to demonstrate the danger he is in in Istanbul, show his face purple and swollen.

He was attacked again about a month later — this time by a friend of a friend he thought he was meeting for a date — and he said that if it happens again, it would be “the next level” and he would be killed. If he had the money, he would be on a boat to Europe despite the risk of drowning and rumors he’s heard about smugglers killing refugees and selling their organs.

“It is dangerous, but it’s better than me staying here,” he said.

It’s been six months since he registered and he’s heard nothing from UNHCR. He is also worried that he’ll be sent to the U.S. while he is desperate to get to Germany.

That’s where he believes he will “find the first love of my life,” a man named Mohammed.

They had dated for four months in Damascus six years ago, when Ahmad was around 17. Ahmad came to Turkey carrying dried flowers — which now have withered to just a stick and bundle of grass — that Mohammed had given him on the day they first had sex. But not long after, Ahmad lost his cell phone when he was mugged, and he hadn’t memorized Mohammed’s phone number nor even knew his last name — it was not uncommon for people who were afraid of being outed to keep their family names secret from each other when they began dating.

“After that, I didn’t know anything about Mohammed,” Ahmad said.

But he knew Mohammed had a brother in Germany, and they had fantasized about traveling there at a time “when there was no war or anything called a refugee.”

“My inner feeling is that [Mohammed] is in Germany, and I’m going to find him,” Ahmad said.

Ezeddin Fadel contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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