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My name is Arsham Parsi. I am the founder and Executive Director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), an international queer human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Toronto, Canada. The primary mission of IRQR is to aid and assist to the best of our abilities Iranian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered refugees in countries all over the world, and who now face the threat of deportation back to Iran, in obtaining asylum status in safe countries. IRQR helps those refugees through their complicated asylum processes and provides funding for safe houses through donations wherever possible, as most of our queer refugee clients are in physical danger in their countries of transit as well.

    Today, IRQR is the only active NGO that works on behalf of the global population of Iranian queers, i.e. Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgendered Persons. We document human rights violations against Iranian LGBTs on the basis of sexual orientation; provide letters of support for Iranian queer asylum seekers and refugees; and vigorously support anti-homophobia and anti-persecution efforts in Iran. Our documentation is widely respected for its accuracy and credibility.

    I am also the coordinator and cultural ambassador for the Stockholm-based International Lesbian and Gay Cultural Network (ILGCN), an official member and affiliate of the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), the Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad Group, and the Berlin-based Advisory Committee of the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation for LGBT Human Rights. In April 2008 the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), the former NGO which became the foundation for IRQR today, was awarded the Felipa De Souza Human Rights Award by the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). In June 2008, IRQR was recognized at the Toronto Pride Award for Excellence in Human Rights.

    To aid you in better understanding the harsh, violent and often lethal persecution of queers in Iran, as well as my and IRQR's commitment to aid and assist Iranian LGBTs by every means possible, I have my own refugee story to tell. I was born on 20 September, 1980 in Shiraz, Iran, the sixth-largest city in the Islamic Republic. Not long after completing basic education in Shiraz I came to terms with my sexual identity, then began to do what I could to aid and assist other Iranian queers in a most careful and discrete manner. Part of my work consisted of helping a local doctor perform research for a study on HIV among gay and bisexual men in Shiraz. In 2001, four years before I myself fled Iran, I began covert efforts toward advancing queer civil rights in Shiraz. In 2003, I helped organize a clandestine Yahoo chat group for queer Iranians called Voice Celebration. There were a total of 50 participants. We established contacts with each other for mutual support and to exchange views on how best to remedy the oppressive civil and queer rights situation in Iran.

    What was most striking for me about the conversations and exchanges of information at Voice Celebration was how many of us were operating under false identities. Nobody dared speak out publicly or under their real name due to fear of arrest, torture and even execution if we were discovered by the authorities. In 2005 my work in the field of queer advocacy in Shiraz attracted the attention of the Islamic authorities, which had begun to unravel my secret identity. This I learned from a fellow Iranian LGBT released from police custody, who told me the authorities were looking for "a gay activist named Arsham." I was forced to flee Iran on March 5, 2005 due to my fear of persecution and possible execution under Iran's harsh Islamic legal code of Lavat, by which gays in Iran can be sentenced to death. I traveled by train to Turkey, where I registered as a refugee at the Ankara office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I was one of the fortunate few whose case was accepted by UNHCR. I lived in Turkey for three months before my case was finally approved. I was invited to the Canadian Embassy in Ankara two months later, and in April 2006 I arrived in Canada to start a new life.

    Now living in a safe country, I still consider myself first and foremost an Iranian. I can never forget that I am in exile due to my own sexual orientation. This situation is both a burden and a tremendous personal responsibility for me. In May 2005, as I crossed the border out of Iran into Turkey I promised myself, my nation and my people that I would one day return to a free, open and democratic Iran. To that end, I promised that I would fully devote my labors toward achieving for myself and my fellow citizens in Iran the treasured dream and desire of so many millions around the globe, and which so many in the West take as for granted as breathing: freedom. As the founder and Executive Director of IRQR, I consider the work I am doing today to be an investment in that freer and brighter tomorrow for all Iranians in my now-troubled country.

    For the record, I based the concept and mission of what would eventually become IRQR on the 19th Century Underground Railroad in the United States, i.e. the informal network of secret travel routes and safe houses utilized by Southern black slaves in order to escape to freedom in the Northern states and Canada, aided by abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause. Over the past few years, my primary duty and responsibility has been providing aid and assistance, legal, financial or otherwise, to Iranian queer asylum seekers who fled Iran due to their sexual orientation as I was once forced to. I and others will continue this work under the auspices of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). We are now working to simplify our structure to focus exclusively on supporting Iranian queers in fleeing Iran, processing their asylum applications, preventing their deportation back to Iran, and in maximizing their safety in transit. Most Iranian LGBT refugees are scattered throughout Europe, primarily in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway. Many also live in the United Kingdom, where the British government has been extremely reluctant to grant permanent asylum status to queer Iranian refugees. Not long ago two Iranian refugees living in the UK, Hussein Nasseri and Israfil Shiri, committed suicide after receiving deportation orders back to Iran where they faced imprisonment, torture, and most likely violent deaths.

    There are still many more queer refugees from Iran who have not yet contacted us, and are in desperate need of our help. One of the primary goals of IRQR's predecessor NGO, the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), was to increase the global level of awareness to the abysmal Iranian queer human rights situation, and the horrible persecution of LGBTS that occurs daily in Iran. We at IRQR also hope to provide a steady stream of news and information about homosexuality and transgendered individuals through the Internet into Iran, and I believe we've had great success in doing that. After several years of working with the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO) in Iran and IRQO in Canada, I've attained a great deal of valuable and practical experience.     Over time it became clear to me that we needed a new organization, one with an organizational structure dedicated solely to assisting queer Iranian refugees, i.e. to aid them in fleeing Iran, to support them while they are still in transition countries like Turkey, to assist them in finding their way through the harrowing bureaucratic mazes they must traverse in order to gain asylum, and to help them get settled into and learning to cope with their new lives in gay-friendly democratic Western countries. Since being granted asylum myself in Canada in 2006, I have been able and most fortunate to have made several international trips to help queer refugees in building relationships with other international organizations. I'm very happy I've been able to build such a strong relationship with the UNHCR, which is now fully aware of the terrible Iranian queer human rights situation and of IRQR's work in that cause.

    On each of my trips overseas, I have been able to secure international refugee protection status for an increasing number of Iranian queer asylum seekers. I have spent many hours listening to the desperate, tragic and heartbreaking stories of Iranian queers, all of which makes me very concerned for their situations and futures. My dedication to these refugees is fueled by my own experience as a queer Iranian exile in Turkey. It was the most difficult experience of my life, to suddenly find myself in an unexpected situation in a hostile country with no money and no personal safety or security for over a year.

    I will never forget the day in Turkey when I was walking with Amir, another gay Iranian refugee who had been tortured and flogged in Iran, when we were suddenly chased down the street by homophobic crowds. They physically beat us with the clear intent to murder us. Nobody helped us. No police came to our assistance. People just stood around watching as we were beaten simply for being gay refugees in their country. That nightmarish experience is seared into my memory. I will never forget it as long as I live. It is why I've dedicated myself to speeding up the processing of  other queer refugees in gay-unfriendly countries, and to help LGBTs attain asylum and freedom in tolerant third countries as soon as possible. Ten LGBTs were murdered in Turkey in 2009. Many others have been beaten or threatened. Turkey is a most hazardous respite for Iranian gays at best.

    In his most historic and well-known speech from 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream.” I have a dream, too. My dream is that one day the rights of all queers will be recognized and respected everywhere. That one day no one will be executed, tortured, arrested, imprisoned, isolated or disowned by their families and communities merely for the "crime" of being gay.

    I dream of the day when my and other innocent Iranians' sexual orientation will not be legal cause to deprive us of our fundamental human rights. That is my dream and greatest wish, for myself and for all the voiceless in Iran who cannot speak for themselves. And although they have not chosen me as their voice, I have chosen to be theirs as they suffer in their self-imposed voids of silence. They cannot speak their consciences in today's Islamic Republic of Iran without fear of terrible reprisal from the authorities, so I must speak out on their behalf. My own conscience dictates no less. I declare this dream of mine for all. I will repeat it loudly and often, and hope one day soon to achieve this dream for all of my fellow citizens in the Persia that I love and once called home. I hope to do so again in Iran one day soon. Iran is not merely where I'm from. It is who I am.
Arsham Parsi
June 05, 2010