Saturday, May 17, 2008

An Interview with Arsham Parsi, Director of Iranian Queer Organization

Equality Forum - Philadelphia, PA
May 2, 2008

Ed: Thank you for joining me for breakfast this morning. I am anxious to learn more about your work with the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) based in Toronto where you now live.

Arsham: Our organization is web based as we do not have our own physical space. We work through e-mail and the Internet to stay in touch with Iranians inside and outside Iran. Our main goal is to promote human rights in Iran in an effort to support a better situation for LGBT individuals. We are also working to raise funds for Iranian refugees and to assist them with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asylum application process. This process can take many months so financial assistance for food, shelter, and medical needs is crucial.

Ed: In what ways does IRQO assist the asylum application process?

Arsham: We try to make things go faster by staying in touch with the UNHCR and the relevant Embassies. Letter writing and e-mail contact to keep a sense of urgency in front of them. Daily reporting of events impacting the LGBT community in Iran as a constant reminder and validation of the need for asylum for these refugees.

Ed: How are you able to document such events from within Iran?

Arsham: The Internet is a key source. We also work closely with organizations like Human Rights Watch, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and Amnesty International who also monitor these situations.

Ed: Speaking of IGLHRC, congratulations on the recent Felipa de Souza award which recognizes your courage and grassroots human rights activism.

Arsham: Thank you. It was a special moment and I am grateful for this honor.

Ed: Can you tell me about your journey from Iran?

Arsham: I crossed the border out of Iran and into Turkey on March 4, 2005 at 12:45pm. I remember the exact moment as I was very frightened. Although my identity as a gay activist was not yet discovered I still felt I could be detained and taken in for questioning. You see, there was this small group of us that had been communicating on the internet but not using our real names. Through our IP address an e-mail was traced to one of my friends and the Iranian police visited his home. Another friend came to my home to alert me.

Ed: What did you do then?

Arsham: We discussed the situation and decided that I must leave as soon as possible.

Ed: This all happened pretty fast.

Arsham: Yes, I did not even have much of a chance to say goodbye to my mother. I said quick goodbyes without telling her where I was going and why. I did not want to risk her having any information that might put her in danger.

Ed: So then what happened?

Arsham: I packed a few things and took my passport. I sold my cell phone to my friend This money added to the small amount I had was enough to get me to another friend’s place in Turkey. Things got tenser when I arrived at the train station and discovered I had missed the last train for that day. The ticket agent told me I could take a bus to another train station a few hundred miles away and perhaps pick up a train into Turkey from there.

Ed: Did you do that?

Arsham: Yes, but I did not buy a ticket for the bus which was available from the train agent. Instead I decided to buy one right on the bus. I did not want to leave a trail of my travels and risk being found out.

Ed: You must have been really nervous by now.

Arsham: Yes, of course. Plus, the bus ride took several hours. Plenty more time to worry about being caught. You know gay activism is punishable by death in Iran.

Ed: Yes.

Arsham: So anyway, I finally arrived at the train station at 5 am in the morning and discovered that the next train into Turkey was not until 7am. With limited money I had no choice but to wait in the station. It was a very anxious two hours. I remember crying quietly - to myself. I was sad to be leaving home. I was also very afraid - worried that I was being watched or about to be caught. This is why when I finally boarded the train and we were on our way that I can remember the exact moment it crossed the border. I was so relieved.

Ed: Were there any hurdles once you were on the train?

Arsham: Well they collect and check passports but traveling to Turkey from Iran is not illegal. So unless I was on some sort of police list, which there was a chance of, I thought I would be OK. I felt sure it would take some time before they could trace the internet interactions back to me so I felt by leaving quickly I was ahead of that. Still, I was scared.

Ed: No doubt. So when you arrived in Turkey your friend was able to help you?

Arsham: I kept a low profile while staying with him and I initiated the application for asylum with the UNHCR. I then got situated in a “safe house” a very small room that I eventually shared with two other gay men who joined me while they also waited to be granted asylum.

Ed: Can you talk a little about the asylum process?

Arsham: First you have to undergo several interviews to determine your eligibility. I mean they asked me everything. They had to verify that I was indeed a homosexual and not just pretending so I could get a chance to immigrate. Once it became clear that I was gay and would indeed face persecution in my country then the asylum process continued forward.

Ed: Did you have to wait a long time before being granted asylum?

Arsham: No I was pretty lucky. It took 13 months before I learned that Canada would grant me asylum. I still am not sure exactly why things ended up moving more quickly for me while many others must wait much longer than that.

Ed: Your story is courageous Arsham. I understand it is one of the stories featured in the documentary by Parvez Sharma called A Jihad for Love?

Arsham: Yes, A Jihad For Love is the world’s first documentary on gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims. The film has been screening at film festivals and symposiums such as Equality Forum. We are hoping for wider distribution. It will be in San Francisco at your International LGBT film festival in June 2008

Ed: Are you coming to San Francisco?

Arsham: Yes, I plan to.

Ed: Then we shall meet again I hope. For now can we take a picture together?

Arsahm: Of course.

Ed: Thanks for this interview and for adding your voice to our new play Rights of Passage.

Arsham: You’re welcome. See you in June. Now let’s snap that picture. Shall we do it with or without my new hat?

Ed: With.

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