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27-year-old Saina arrived in Australia in 2021, after fleeing Iran and spending seven years in Turkey waiting for refugee status and resettlement. She is part of Third Queer Culture, a peer social group for LGBTIQ+ people from diverse backgrounds who have an experience seeking safety in Australia.

She shares her experiences of being a trans woman and refugee.

In school in Iran, you’re separated according to gender. It’s a very difficult experience being forced to identify with another gender your whole life.  It’s illegal to be gay, and non-binary people are forced to undergo physical and psychological treatment to be assigned to one gender, like hormone therapy and reconstruction surgery which is often very low quality.  Iran considers transgender identity a mental disorder.

To get a passport in Iran, men have to complete compulsory military service, but if you are transgender you cannot participate.  You have to declare that you have a mental disorder.  You go through a psychological assessment where people are telling you there’s something wrong with you.  Interacting with that system and the way people – even psychologists and social workers – treated me when they found out I was trans, was one of the hardest experiences of my life.  When the government, bureaucracies, education and service systems propagate this view, it is disheartening to think about how culture can change and be more inclusive of trans people.

A lot of LGBTIQ+ people flee Iran to Turkey because it is the easiest place to seek asylum – you don’t need a visa to travel there.  Turkey presents itself as being LGBTIQ+-inclusive, but it is still very difficult for our community living there; we face daily discrimination.

I spent seven years in Turkey after fleeing Iran.  I was sent to a small town and I had to report to immigration police each week, having my fingerprint or eye scan taken.  I was given an ID card and needed permission to leave the area.

At first we could get free health care, but after a year that was taken away and we had to pay, despite having no permission to work and earn money.  We also had no permission to study.  I relied on a lot of support from NGOs and international aid agencies.  I did end up working for NGOs supporting LGBTIQ+ people – I could speak Turkish and was able to help interpret and provide support.  But most people weren’t lucky enough to find this type of employment.

So many LGBTIQ+ people who flee Iran are young people who have just finished high school.  They come with nothing and it is very difficult to survive without money and healthcare.  There is a black market for refugee labour, but many people don’t want to employ LGBTIQ+ people.  Some businesses pay LGBTIQ+ people less money, make you work longer hours and threaten to withhold your pay unless you meet all their demands.

After two years in Turkey, the UNHCR gave me refugee status.  They told me to wait for a settlement country that wanted me.

After three years, they called me and said Canada would accept me.  I was so happy because I felt like I couldn’t survive in Turkey anymore.  I couldn’t be myself, I couldn’t go for treatment or transition surgery.  But six months later, they called again and said Canada had taken in refugees from the Syrian crisis and I no longer had a place.

After four years, I got a call telling me the United States wanted me. I thought, “Beautiful, let’s go.”  I went through the interview process successfully and was just waiting to complete my final health checks.  I was so excited.  I was so ready to go.  But then President Trump came into power.  I got a call and they told me, “Mr Trump doesn’t want you guys, sorry.”  It was because of Trump’s travel-ban on people from majority-Muslim countries including Iran.  They withdrew my application.  That was the worst time.  Many refugees who had also been accepted to the United States became really desperate and tried to get to Europe by boat.  But many people were sent back to Turkey and ended up in jail.

After six years, I got a call suggesting I could write a letter to apply for a visa for Australia and maybe they would accept me.  I tried that but I got declined because I didn’t have any community sponsor.  I got another call offering an opportunity to maybe go to Spain, but I never heard back.

Finally, there was another suggestion that Australia might accept me. I completed my health checks and interview.  I was accepted.  I got my ticket to travel.  But then COVID came.  I had packed up my life, ended my tenancy and said goodbye to everyone I knew, but I was told I couldn’t go because the borders had closed.  I had no house, no money and no work.  That was a really, really tough time. After another year, I was finally able to travel to Australia.

When you are waiting to be given refugee status or to be resettled in a safe country, hope keeps you alive.  That one day a country will want you and you will be able to live as a human being; being able to study, to work, to go out, to be treated like a normal person, to be safe.  Finally.  That was what we tried to hold on to.  But there are many people in Turkey who have been waiting for decades.  People do lose hope.

It was the best feeling in my life when I arrived at the airport in Australia.  I felt, “Finally I am safe and can be normal like anybody else”.  That was a beautiful feeling – I felt so lucky to be here.

After that first flush of happiness, I realised there were still many challenges, even in the safety of Australia.  Unless you can fund it yourself, there is very little support for trans people who are refugees, particularly around transition surgery and healthcare.  I have heard from my peers in other Western countries that there are much more publicly funded services for transition-related healthcare.  I am so grateful to be in Australia, but it is bittersweet that there are still these challenges to living fully as a trans person.

When I got to Australia, I couldn’t find much support or information for people like me.  At Third Queer Culture, we’re trying to bring people with lived experience together so LGBTIQ+ people have someone to turn to – to ask questions, learn from each other’s experiences, get emotional support and help solving problems.

Everyone deserves safety, but LGBTIQ+ people endure additional discrimination and persecution because of our identity, even in countries that have granted us temporary asylum.  There is not a lot of media coverage or resources about the reality facing LGBTIQ+ people seeking protection.  I hope sharing my story helps people understand our experiences, talk more openly about the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, and raise awareness that there are many more people like me who are yet to find safety and still need help and support.


Saina will share more of her story tomorrow at Culture of Care: Multicultural Health Symposium in Brisbane on 25-26 May, presenting with QPASTT on the pre-arrival and settlement pathway of LGBTIQ+ refugees in Australia.  Book at

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