"My friend and I were sitting at the bus stop. It was about five o'clock in the evening. We were coming back from shopping. We lit a cigarette. We’d reminded ourselves to smoke before going home.
“Suddenly, two Turkish motorcyclists approached, greeted us and sat down next to us. They asked, ‘Where are you from’? We said, ‘We’re Iranian’. It was as if once they realized we were foreigners, the way was open for them to mess with us. I’ve never been able to defend myself. Maybe that’s right, because we are the strangers here."
Arya is a 31-year-old gay man from Shiraz who left home five years ago due to the difficulties and dangers of being openly homosexual in Iran. He ended up as an asylum seeker in Kayseri, a Turkish city steeped in traditional religious culture that he likens to Iran’s shrine city of Qom.
In the altercation at the bus stop, the two men began by arguing that Turkey was “different” to Iran, then asked him why he had dyed his hair and why he dressed the way they did. “They were looking for an excuse,” he tells IranWire. “They had a specific purpose in asking these questions. Finally, I said ‘I'm gay, do you have a problem?’
“One of them got up angrily then, slapped me in the face and cursed. His reasoning was that because I was talking about my sexual orientation, I must be immoral and I must want to have sex with them. I didn’t understand what I was guilty of, but they continued to punch me in the ears and I still feel pain; I still can’t hear properly.”
During the beating, Arya says, "I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Laugh because of how ridiculous it seemed, cry because I was trapped in a country that didn’t even recognize me as a human being."
These experiences have become routine for Arya in the five long years he has been in Turkey. No-one was ever held accountable or faced reprisal for how they treated him. Like thousands of others, adrift and now with the added uncertainty of a pandemic, he is waiting – waiting for the United Nations and refugee-accepting countries of the European Union to decide his fate between them, and for the interview for a destination country that cannot come soon enough.
"I was not accepted in Iran,” he says. “Even my sexual orientation was a crime, I was a criminal. It was a fanatical and religious community that did not recognize my existence as a homosexual. Disrespect, insults, and confusion with myself and the environment in which I lived, and all the pressures experienced by my LGBT friends in Iran, forced me to leave the country. We weren’t aware that Turkey would not be a safe place for us either; it can be even worse at times."
Before moving to Kayseri, Arya lived in a town called Manisa in the Aegean region, not far from Izmir. What he experienced there made him feel forced to move: “It was terrible. I was attacked by a number of people and it could have cost me my life. I jumped from a high building once because I preferred to die than keep being harassed. Several of them were reported to the police, but I was so scared I could no longer live in that city.”
He applied to the Immigration Department for a re-transfer, but his request was denied. Several of the cities designated by the Turkish Immigration Service to accommodate asylum seekers and refugees are not at all suitable for members of the LGBT+ community due to their closed cultural and social atmospheres, exposing these refugees to even graver harm. At the same time, the approach of the Turkish government itself to the LGBT+ community has been markedly hostile, and despite all efforts by human rights organizations and Turkish activists, restrictions on this group are tightening day by day.
Arya talks about the future; a vision he still clings to despite all the trials. “I see the lives of people like myself in Turkey as very bleak. I hope to reach a safe and secure place as soon as possible.
“You can't do anything here by complaining and protesting to the police, and you can’t demand your rights. It’s hard for many people here to even believe we exist: the same as in Iran. But I also have hope for the future. I know we mustn’t get used to this situation. We must stay, and tell them that we exist. I hope one day the whole world will truly recognize the presence of LHBT+ people. Surely that day, it will be a more beautiful place for all of us."