After President Trump’s Executive Order last Friday suspending the US Refugees Admission Program (USRAP) and imposing a 90-day visa suspension on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, one Iranian gay man’s story couldn’t be more timely.
Arad (who prefers not to reveal his real name), fled Iran in 2010 He has since made a life for himself in the US.
He has modeled for fashion designer Andrew Christian. In February, Christian releases his first coffee-table photography book.
The tome, entitled Sex = Power = Freedom, features 200 pages of underwear-clad men, but there’s a serious message behind the sexy black and white images: An individual’s ability to express their sexuality is a measure of their freedom.
‘If I would have been identified as gay, I would have been killed’
Arad, aged 27, features in the book. He told GSN more about his story.
‘Living in Iran was not a happy life… people are just trying to trying to survive day-to-day.
‘I think it is important to tell my story because most people are unaware of what it is like for most people that have to live in countries like Iran where people are denied every type of freedom, personal choice and chance to advance your life.
‘In Iran I was not allowed to wear my hair the way I wanted or shave my face, or wear a t-shirt, and people aren’t even allowed to date or have sex outside of a heterosexual marriage because everything is control by the government.
‘If I would have been identified as gay by the Iranian police or government I would have been killed.’
In Iran, gay sexual activity is illegal and those found guilty face imprisonment and/or being lashed.
Joining the military
Iran has mandatory military service from the age of 18. Arad duly joined up. It was while in the army that he decided to leave the country.
‘I decided to leave because I knew I would not be able to have any type of life that would provide me any happiness there.
‘In countries like Iran people have no respect for each other and most people aren’t happy. Obtaining political freedom was so important for me that I left all of my family behind and risked by life by escaping on foot through the snowy mountains from Iran to Turkey.
‘I had no passport but my family did pay a guide to take me half way through the mountains.
‘Once I was in Turkey I was arrested for having a forged passport and imprisoned for six months. During this time Turkey was getting ready to deport me back to Iran where I would have been hanged for being a military deserter.
‘I was able to get a message from prison to my family and they hired an attorney which contacted the United Nations refugee program. I was only accepted into their refugee program because the UN knew that I would be killed if I was sent back to Iran.
‘Being in a Turkish prison was horrible but I did meet other Iranian people in prison who were also trying to escape from Iran and they were the ones who told me about the United Nations refugee program that ultimately saved my life,’ says Arad.
‘After I was released from prison I had to stay in Turkey for three years for all of the UN paperwork to be finished.
‘After my paperwork was completed by the UN I was flown to Dallas, Texas, and I only had $300.
‘I did have a case manager who was trying to help me with the basics of survival but it wasn’t easy. At first I felt very disoriented, I didn’t speak English, everything was new.
‘My case worker help me get a job at an elevator company but it didn’t pay much and had to ride on my bicycle 1.5 hours each way to get to it.
‘The UN makes refugees repay their airline tickets so I spent the next year trying to pay that off… but at least I was free and I appreciated that Americans have a basic respect for each other which doesn’t exist in Iran.
‘I knew I needed a way to make more money so I became a go-go boy. The first night I worked I made more money than working four months in Iran.
It was while working as a go-go that Arad heard about fashion designer Andrew Christian. He decided to apply to become one of Christian’s ‘Trophy Boys’ – the name given to the guys chosen to model for the brand.
Arad was snapped up by the brand, and is particularly proud of the fact that as a business, Andrew Christian believes in promoting self-empowerment and freedom. It has worked closely with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, among other charities.
‘I had always wanted to model but that isn’t even a choice in Iran. Unless one follows the strict religious laws you will be arrested.
‘Freedom and happiness are contagious’
‘When you go from living in an oppressive country like Iran to living in a free country like the United States you feel like one’s world is turned upside down.
‘For me freedom and happiness are contagious. I want to help spread hope to other LGBT people who must live in any oppressive environments whether it is a small town in the US, or with a family that isn’t accepting or in a country like Iran where people aren’t allowed even basic freedoms.
‘I also want to raise awareness for the plight of those who live in hostile oppressive counties and help make Americans understand that most people from the Middle East are just like you and me. They want to live in peace and freedom and need our assistance.’
Designer Andrew Christian told GSN, ‘Arad’s story is a reminder of how offering refugees a home in the US can not only transform their lives but may actually save their lives. It is a tragedy that our LGBT brothers and sisters will die, along with many others, because of Trumps new extreme vetting policy.’
‘I am extremely saddened by Trump’s new policy’
President Trump’s Executive Order immediately suspended the work of the US Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) for four months. Human Right Campaign criticized the move, saying it could mean the ‘the difference between life and death for countless refugees – including LGBTQ refugees fleeing violence and persecution’.
Should USRAP resume its work after that time, Trump’s order will reduce the number of refugees it can accept into the US from 100,000 to 50,000 in 2017.
‘I am extremely saddened by Trump’s new policy on immigration,’ says Arad. ‘I think it is important for Americans to know that people are seeking refugee status in the USA because they love America for the freedom this country provides.
‘I am sure the new policy will create much needless suffering among innocent people who just want a better life and the policy may even be counterproductive if extremists use it as part of their message of hate.’