POLITICS

This Gay Couple Left Iran For A Better Life. Now They Wonder If It Can Last In America.

Former refugees Ramin Haghjoo and Nima Nia reflect on love and fear in the Age of Trump.

12/11/2017 15:06 SAST | Updated 16/11/2017 03:40 SAST
Courtesy of Ramin Haghjoo
Nima Nia (left) and Ramin Haghjoo pose for a portrait at their August wedding.

WASHINGTON ― In the best-case scenario if Ramin Haghjoo and Nima Nia still lived in Iran, they would be married. Just not to each other ― to women, probably through arranged marriages. Perhaps they could have found women also attracted to their own gender and looking to hide the fact, like one of Haghjoo’s friends did. In a bleaker scenario, they would be dead or behind bars for the crime of being what they are: gay.

Instead, Haghjoo and Nia ended up in the United States, where they married each other in a joyful ceremony this August.

The couple came to the U.S. as refugees several years ago, after fleeing Iran for Turkey. Things are better here in many ways, and they see their story as a hopeful one for other LGBTQ Iranians. They’re alive, they’re married, and they live openly as gay men.

But Haghjoo and Nia also find themselves in a country where the president tried to ban new refugees and immigrants from Iran and several other Muslim nations, on the argument that such people pose a threat to America’s safety. And they worry now about what will happen ― is already happening ― to LGBTQ people in a country under Republican rule.

They want Iran to change so that people like them can be accepted as gay couples. They want the U.S. to change so they can be accepted as gay refugees from Iran.

“After so many borders crossed, what will my next country be after tonight?” Haghjoo posted on Instagram the day of the 2016 election.

Ramin Haghjoo’s Story

Haghjoo, 31, grew up in a relatively supportive family in Tehran, but he still struggled. He came out at age 19 to a nurse, who urged him to tell his family. They accepted him, for the most part ― other than a brother who used abusive language against him until their mother threatened to take away the brother’s inheritance.

Courtesy of Ramin Haghjoo
Haghjoo adjusts his bow tie before the wedding ceremony.

Haghjoo was exempted from the military service mandated for all Iranian men because of his sexual orientation, which the Iranian military considers a mental problem. He was terrified to tell the government about his sexuality, as Iran is a dangerous place for LGBTQ people. Homosexuality is against the law, and sex between two men can be punishable by death. Other acts, such as kissing or even just confessing to homosexuality, can lead to punishment. While there are secret networks for LGBTQ people, many of them online, members live under the constant threat of being exposed.

But Haghjoo also wanted to be honest about who he was and to avoid military service, because it can be dangerous even for closeted gay men.

He was at risk for other reasons as well. At a June 2009 protest during the Iranian Green Movement ― which called for the ouster of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ― he yelled out to warn an old woman to be careful because an armed man in a military uniform had his gun aimed at her. The man turned his gun on Haghjoo instead and shot him. The bullet ripped through the right side of his abdomen. He had surgery to remove nearly a foot of intestines and was in the hospital for almost a week.

Haghjoo spoke about the experience of being shot to a documentary crew and later found out the filmmakers planned to focus on his story. He was afraid of the attention that would draw, so he decided to flee to Turkey. The documentary aired one week after he left Iran. Afterward he wanted to return home, but his mother feared it wasn’t safe. “Do not come back,” she told him.

Nima Nia’s Story

Nia, 29, began receiving text messages from an unknown phone number back in 2006. The first said “Happy Valentine’s Day,” and the number was from Isfahan, Iran, where he was about to move for school. He replied to the texts at first, thinking they were from someone in a LGBTQ chatroom, but eventually he stopped. When he arrived in Isfahan, he received another: “Welcome to our city.” He didn’t reply.

Soon came another message threatening to call him on his home number. Then his home phone rang.

The man on the other end of the line said that he knew Nia was gay and that nothing bad would happen to him if he cooperated by going to the man’s house and named other gay people. Nia repeatedly declined to confirm that he was gay or to identify anyone else, but the man kept calling.

At his college, a security guard told Nia that a man had been there and asked for his schedule. Nia thought he saw someone following him on the street.

One day, the man called to say he was near Nia’s house. Nia could hear a siren both through the phone and through his door. He was frightened.

Courtesy of Ramin Haghjoo
Nia smiles during the outdoor wedding.

After months of harassment, Nia met another man who worked as a security guard at a bank and told him what was happening. The security guard contacted the man who had been threatening Nia, and the phone calls finally stopped.

But when Nia and the security guard began dating, he faced new problems. The security guard became hostile, threatening both Nia and his parents. Nia escaped that situation when he left for mandatory military service in Abadeh, Iran. (He chose not to tell authorities about his sexual orientation.)

When he returned to Isfahan two months later ― his period of military service was shortened based on his father’s past work in a war zone ― Nia got a new apartment and a new phone number. He went back to college to study art. But he still didn’t feel safe ― every call from a wrong number made him uneasy, and he kept worrying that someone might throw something through his apartment window.

Nia finally decided he couldn’t stay in Iran, even though he was only a semester away from finishing his degree. He fled to Turkey, leaving his life and art behind.

Life As Refugees

Haghjoo arrived in Turkey first, in 2010. He and Nia had been friends back in Iran, but they only began dating after Nia left their homeland as well.

For eight months, Haghjoo waited to find out whether he would be allowed to enter the United States as a refugee based on the persecution he faced for his sexual orientation, political beliefs and religion. He is a Sufi, and people like him who practice a more mystical brand of Islam have been targeted by the Iranian government. Nia, meanwhile, applied for refugee status in the U.S. based on the persecution he experienced as a gay man.

Sometimes others who had fled their homes and were now stuck in Turkey argued that being gay made it easier for Nia and Haghjoo ― that they could move through the refugee process more quickly, while it took longer for political refugees. They didn’t understand that being gay in Iran had been “a prison,” Nia said.

Being in Turkey was difficult, too. They had hardly any money and at times went days with no food while waiting for money transfers to come through. Nia was abruptly kicked out of a house he’d rented in the middle of winter because the owner sold it.

At least they were together. When Haghjoo first told Nia he loved him, Nia wasn’t ready to say it back. Not until 2011, when Haghjoo learned his application for refugee status had been accepted and he prepared to leave for the U.S., did Nia finally say he loved him, too. Another year passed before Nia’s refugee admission was approved. He joined his partner in Philadelphia in November 2012.

It was hard coming to the United States, even if they believed it was their best option. Their right to be citizens of their native country had been wrenched away from them. They feared that a family member would get sick and die, and they wouldn’t be able to go back and say goodbye. “I left all of these big and beautiful things for freedom,” Nia said. “It’s not fair.”

Life In America

Adjusting to the U.S. wasn’t simple. In Philadelphia, Nia worked a few jobs that he hated, including in a Walmart stockroom. He wasn’t able to use the skills he learned in art school ― he had to take the options available to a newcomer to the U.S. He began to lose hope in this American life.

In 2014, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., to look for full-time work, and Nia finally got to do something creative: designing artwork and producing a podcast for a nonprofit. But he quit that job, he said, because the organization didn’t treat him well. Now he’s working on a comic book narrated by a cat. Haghjoo is employed as a human rights researcher at a different nonprofit.

The couple has made many friends here. They were featured on the popular Humans of New York Facebook page ― in a photo of them standing on a pathway framed with snow and a short caption: “We’re gay refugees from Iran.” More than 240,000 people liked it.

Humans Of New York
Haghjoo and Nia were featured on Humans of New York.

The 2016 election was difficult for them to watch. They both think anti-LGBTQ sentiment has become more explicit under President Donald Trump. The president attempted to bar transgender people from the military, and his Justice Department has said the 1964 Civil Rights Act doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Haghjoo said he has a “very real” fear that if he went to a largely pro-Trump part of the country, he would be in danger. He avoids traveling to those places.

Trump’s efforts to stop Iranians and others from majority-Muslim nations from immigrating to the U.S. have hit them hard, too. It doesn’t make sense to punish people who don’t support their country’s government for what that government does, Haghjoo said. Barring refugees in particular seems cruel to him. Americans should put themselves in refugees’ shoes and think about what those individuals have been through, he said.

“I’m not afraid of Donald Trump, but I’m afraid of the ideology he’s representing,” Nia said. “That ideology is not kind, it’s not pro-human rights, it’s not pro-diversity.”

Haghjoo said he’s “fed up with fighting for rights,” and if it comes to a point in the U.S. when gay people begin to lose their freedom like they did in Iran, he would leave.

“I’ll find somewhere that I’m accepted and I’m free and I’ll go there,” said Haghjoo. “Which might not be a place on Earth, so we have to fight.”

“Unless we move to another planet,” Nia said.

A Time For Celebration

But it’s not all bad. Last January, Nia proposed to Haghjoo in Boston. It was a surprise ― Haghjoo thought their friends were gathering from around the country for his birthday. Nia played a video with pictures of the two of them, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Then, he presented Haghjoo with a cake decorated with their photo and the words “Marry me.” Everyone cried.

Courtesy of Ramin Haghjoo
Haghjoo and Nia hold hands after their wedding.

They consider themselves opposites in some ways. It would be boring to be with someone just like himself, Nia said. He loves that his husband is kind to everyone and feels responsibility for those around him. “I fell in love with all of that, unfortunately,” Nia joked. Haghjoo loves that Nia is honest and dedicated to art and creativity.

The two married on Aug. 26 at Mount Airy Mansion in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a short drive from Washington. The only family member there was one of Nia’s sisters, who also lives in the U.S. Most of their relatives don’t support the marriage, even though Haghjoo’s family is generally open-minded about his sexuality. But even if those living in Iran had wanted to come to the wedding, it would have been next to impossible to obtain the necessary visas. It would have been hard for them to get U.S. visas even before Trump’s executive orders barring entry for Iranians. (Both orders have now been blocked in court.)

Courtesy of Ramin Haghjoo
Haghjoo and Nia's wedding ceremony.

But Haghjoo and Nia still celebrated. Their first dance was to a song with lyrics by Seyed Medhi Mousavi, an Iranian political refugee who now lives in Norway. He wrote it for them specifically.

“Imagine there is one for you, who wants to leave the crying behind,” the lyrics say, as translated from Farsi. “He’s that person you saw in your dreams, the one who can understand the depth of your pain. The one who is different from the rest of the world, the one who knows life is hard, who has his own troubles, but still, sitting next to you, he is happy!”

Courtesy of Ramin Haghjoo
The newly wedded couple pose for a photo.

They want to share their story so that other gay people now living in fear around the world know it’s possible to find a life out of the closet ― although you may have to leave everything you know behind to do it. “I left money, I left my car, I left home, I left my friends,” said Haghjoo. “We lost many things.”

“Now you want to make a new life, and an amazing one, with your love,” he continued. “Sometimes I say, Nima, he’s my money, he’s my parents, he’s my brother, he’s my old friends and my family. He’s my everything.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the city where Nia attended university. It was Isfahan, not Mianeh.