DENIZLI, Turkey — There was only one way Danial could think of to get out of Iran: He would have to sell his kidney.
He got the idea from fliers offering cash for organs, which he had seen pasted to walls in the northern Tehran neighborhood of Tajrish. Danial had vague memories of them tacked near the bus stop where he’d get off to go to his painting classes. Those classes were how he kept his dream of becoming an artist alive, despite the fact that he’d never been allowed to go to school.
His situation felt hopeless. His mother had confronted him about being gay one December morning in 2013. By noon he had fled the family home, taking nothing but the clothes on his back and 50,000 rials — about $2 — in his pocket. His boyfriend lived in the city of Isfahan six hours to the south, but it wouldn’t be safe for them to stay together even if he could afford a bus ticket. Danial had a job at a glass factory in southern Tehran — he still has scars on his emaciated body from where the furnaces burned him — but it didn’t pay enough for him to rent an apartment on his own, let alone escape across the border into Turkey.
“I had no way forward, no way backwards — I just wanted to escape from that place,” Danial said.
For most Iranians, getting to Turkey would be as simple as buying a plane ticket, which can cost less than $200; a few hundred LGBT Iranians make this trip every year because it’s an easy jumping-off point to a new life in the West. Iranian passport holders don’t need a visa to enter Turkey, and the United Nations fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable.
But Danial couldn’t get an Iranian passport. He was the son of an Afghan, one of the estimated 3 million who have come to Iran since the 1980s, fleeing decades of war and looking for work. The Iranian government wants them out; it generally doesn’t grant their children citizenship and deliberately makes it hard for them to access basic services — that’s why Danial hadn’t gone to school. Without documents, Danial could only get to Turkey by hiring smugglers to sneak him across the border, which would cost a seemingly impossible amount: around $1,000.
Selling his kidney turned out to be harder than Danial had hoped. He initially marched into a government-run clinic on Valiasr Street in the heart of Tehran and announced he wanted to sell his kidney, but they wouldn’t even let him past the front door because he had no ID to prove he was an adult.
Then he got a break, of sorts. A man followed him out of the clinic and introduced himself as the uncle of an 8-year-old boy who needed a kidney transplant. They had a short conversation establishing that Danial had a compatible blood type, and the man offered him 50 million rials, about $1,700.
“I had no other options, so I accepted,” Danial said.
Like millions of other refugees from across the region, Danial saw going to Turkey and then on to the West as his only path to the future. But as their numbers have grown — from around 25,000 to over 2 million in just four years — the system for processing refugees in Turkey is being strained to breaking point. Danial sold his kidney to get to Turkey, trusting the system would take care of him once he got there. Instead he discovered that he had to fend for himself, navigating a system so complicated that the refugees with the fewest resources can easily fall through the cracks.
Danial had met his boyfriend, Parsa, at a birthday party for a mutual friend about two years before he fled his family. (Both men asked to be identified by their nicknames out of fear for their safety.)
Parsa, a 21-year-old aspiring musician with an electric, angular smile, was DJing, and he chatted Danial up about a painting of a flower he’d made as a birthday present for their friend. Parsa was about four years older than Danial and had also struggled to pursue a career in the arts after his family forced him to abandon his studies. They started dating soon after but could see each other only occasionally. When they couldn’t be together, Danial and Parsa traded text messages every night before bed.
“I could not go to sleep without those messages,” said Danial, whose high cheekbones make him look pixieish when he smiles. He suspects the messages were what tipped his family off to their relationship. “I kept every single one.”
So Parsa was alarmed when he hadn’t heard from Danial in the month after he left his mother’s house. Danial finally broke the silence with a short message telling Parsa to meet him the next day at a hospital in Tehran. Parsa was frantic when he arrived, convinced Danial had been in an accident.
But Danial looked perfectly healthy when he found him. Parsa was furious when he learned what he planned to do.
“For how much money did you put your life in danger?” he recalled shouting at Danial. He started arguing with the doctors: "With what authorization would you operate on someone who has no one with him and cut a part of his body — how could you let him decide to do such thing?"
Danial had known Parsa would react this way, which is why he kept the plan a secret until all the arrangements were made; he’d even rented a motel room for his recovery. Now it was too late to back out. The buyer had already invested around $350 for medical tests to confirm Danial’s kidney would match, and they had no way to repay it. The couple also felt for the child who was due to receive his kidney, whom they saw being wheeled into surgery.
“He was a very small boy who had so many scars all over his body — his kidneys were failing since he was born,” Parsa remembered.
Danial realized what a terrible mistake he’d made immediately after his surgery. His stitches became infected, and he burned through some of his profits to have them treated. Months flew by and he was still not well enough to travel; the bill for his room was beginning to add up even though he was paying just $14 per night.
After six months, he had just about $1,060 left, and he was still very weak.
“I had no way back to undo what I had done,” Danial said. “I realized I had even more problems.”
Many LGBT Iranians who seek asylum in Turkey simply fly to Ankara and go straight to the office that registers new refugees. Iranians make up the majority of the 700 LGBT people currently in the pipeline for resettlement who have identified themselves to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). One NGO that supports queer Iranian refugees reports getting an average of 30 new requests for help every month.
Hundreds of LGBT Iranians have been resettled in the West — especially in Canada — over the past several years, and many arrive in Turkey with a good deal of information about how to navigate the process. It now generally takes about two years for them to get a ticket out of Turkey even though UNHCR considers LGBT people especially vulnerable and fast-tracks them for resettlement. Many LGBT Iranians have had friends who’ve already been resettled or at least know the general outline of the process; some save up for the wait before they come or even have support from their families, making the wait easier to bear.
But Danial had to travel before he was really ready. If he waited any longer to recover his strength, he wouldn’t be able to afford the smuggler’s fee. Parsa would have to meet him in Turkey. He was an Iranian citizen and so would be able to fly to Turkey legally, but it would take a little time for him to get his passport issued.
In early August 2014, two smugglers guided Danial and a few others on a four-day trek through mountains and forests from the Iranian town of Maku to Van in southeastern Turkey. At night they would sleep in clearings in the brush. Despite Danial's fragile condition, he had to run in places where they might encounter border patrols.
In Van, the smugglers put him on a bus to Ankara. As the bus left the station, he realized that he was now totally on his own and had very little idea about what would happen next. He could speak no Turkish. He didn’t even know that Turkey used a different currency than Iran and got cheated out of half his remaining cash when a money changer took advantage of his ignorance. He had a sheaf of papers documenting his kidney surgery, but nothing to prove his identity. He couldn’t even definitively tell refugee officials how old he was — his best guess was around 21 or 22 by that point — because his family never told him his birthdate.
“The only thing I knew was there is something called the ‘United Nations,’” he said. “I thought because we are gay and we are different, there is nothing to be scared of.”
Danial followed a group of other refugees from the bus station in Ankara to the office of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), an NGO that registers refugees on behalf of UNHCR.
Others who passed through that ASAM office around the same time described it as an off-white building in a well-off residential neighborhood that appeared to have been built for the time before Turkey became one of the world’s top destinations for refugees. Iranians and Afghans waited alongside Syrians and people from a number of other Arab countries in chaotic lines that streamed out the front door. Refugees choked the narrow hallways inside, waiting to be summoned for processing. The walls echoed with the cries of screaming children and exuded the smell of the thousands who had passed through the building in a desperate search for shelter.
Danial wound up in line with a bunch of Afghans, who advised him to say he was Afghan when his turn came to explain his case. “They told me Afghans are being accepted easily [as refugees], compared to Iranians,” he said. “So I just said I was Afghan and gay — I had nothing else to say and I had no documents.”
This proved to be a serious mistake, according to Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which assists Iranians with the refugee process and ultimately took up Danial's and Parsa’s cases. Most of her Iranian clients leave the ASAM office with a date for their first face-to-face meeting with a UNHCR official — called a pre-interview — but Danial left without any appointment at all.
It’s impossible to know for sure if Danial’s case would have progressed differently if he’d said he was Iranian. But a number of refugee advocates told BuzzFeed News that UNHCR appears to have generally put all Afghan cases “on hold,” largely because the countries that take refugees from Turkey allocate very few slots to people of Afghan origin.
Danial “didn't get a pre-interview date at that time because he said he was Afghan,” Ghahraman said.
Selin Unal, spokesperson for UNHCR-Turkey, did not comment directly on this case, but she denied that the agency is treating Afghan refugees differently than any others in an email to BuzzFeed News.
“UNHCR continues to process vulnerable Afghan asylum seekers and refugees, and provides protection assistance to those in need in collaboration with the Turkish government and NGOs,” she said. But, she said, “Resettlement opportunities depend on quotas [set] by resettlement countries.”
Parsa, who showed up at ASAM on Dec. 18 with an Iranian passport, sailed through the system compared to Danial. He had his first interview with UNHCR on Jan. 27, was granted refugee status by the agency in April, and his paperwork was with the Canadian government by the end of June to be considered for resettlement.
His case may have been accelerated because they enlisted the help of IRQO’s Ghahraman shortly before he registered. Danial said they learned about IRQO by chance when they struck up a conversation with some trans refugees they overheard speaking Farsi in a public park, and it took a couple of tries before they convinced Ghahraman about the urgency of their case. Her intervention also nudged Danial’s case forward — UNHCR brought him in for his pre-interview in January, after she described his case to an agency contact.
But in the months after Parsa learned he might go to Canada, no call came telling Danial he was going too.
They had spent much of their year in Turkey on the edge of homelessness. Danial had followed other refugees he met at the ASAM office in Ankara to the city of Denizli, a fast-growing city of about 600,000 people nestled at the feet of dramatic mountains in southeastern Turkey. Turkey bars refugees from most countries from living in major cities like Istanbul, and Denizli had become a major hub for Iranians — especially LGBT Iranians — awaiting resettlement. Denizli's downtown is clean and new, but its economy is built on textile manufacturing — allowing refugees who are prohibited from working legally to eke out a living under the table in sweatshops.
The work was hard on Danial, whose urine sometimes turned red from internal bleeding at the end of 12-hour days hauling bolts of fabric that could weigh more than he did. Sometimes the bosses wouldn’t pay the wages they owed, and Danial and Parsa were thrown out of one apartment after another.
Danial became convinced he would never be freed from this purgatory and worried Parsa would give up his chance to go to Canada in order to stay with him. He grew so weak that his dark black hair began falling out in patches, making his scalp look almost leopard-spotted. UNHCR referred him to a psychiatrist, who said he couldn’t do anything to advance his case and instead offered him a prescription for anti-anxiety pills.
“My case will not end up anywhere and [Parsa] is stuck because of me,” Danial remembered thinking to himself one night when Parsa went out to buy bread. “I knew that if I have to stay here, he will stay with me and not leave.”
“I wanted him to go and live free,” Danial said, “so I took all of those pills.”
Danial was unconscious when Parsa found him. Parsa frantically searched for a neighbor who knew the number to call for an ambulance and spoke enough Turkish to give them the address. The paramedics would not let him ride with Danial in the ambulance, and he had to be careful about how he showed his feelings because they lived in a building filled with other Iranian refugees who they were terrified would figure out they were a couple.
“It was like a nightmare,” Parsa said. The doctor said that Danial could die anytime within the next three days — but if he survived that period he would live.
Danial survived, but when the couple spoke to BuzzFeed News two weeks after his suicide attempt, he was feeling more alone than ever.
“No one can ever help us,” Danial said. “What does U.N. believe in? Why does U.N. exist? ... When they don't help me, who are they helping?”
On Oct. 12, Danial finally got a piece of good news: He would also be considered by Canada for resettlement.
Their problems aren’t over yet; it often takes about another year from this step in the process before a refugee actually boards a plane. But at least the end is in sight.
But their story shows just how easily the most vulnerable refugees can fall through the cracks in the system that should be trying to help them most, said Ghahraman. If they hadn’t found an advocate with contacts inside UNHCR, Danial might never have even learned that it was a mistake to say he was Afghan, let alone had a chance to correct it.
Many of the people who work in UNHCR are doing it for all the right reasons, Ghahraman said, and she has seen individuals leap into action when they learn of a refugee who needs extra help. But the system as a whole is set up to comply with “the policy and the rules and laws —nobody helps somebody out just based on humanity,” she said.
Danial is still painting while he waits — mostly pictures of flowers — though he was using up the last of canvases and had no money for more. Other than his medical records, just about the only other things he brought with him from Iran were 12 small tubes of oil paint.
“It's more than a year that I am waiting in Turkey; for someone who is in good situation, this might not feel like [even] a month, but for me it feels like years — I cannot take it anymore,” Danial said. “My art is painting and I really can't do anything else.”