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Caught Up In Travel Ban, Iranian Lesbian Asylum Seeker Sees 'No Way Forward'

The Iranian woman fled to Iraq after facing harassment in Iran. "I was hoping so much that I could get my flight to America before the crackdown resumed," she says. "So far, there's no way forward for me, I'm stuck."

President Trump's revised travel ban – which suspends visas from six predominantly Muslim countries and suspends refugee admittances – goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. March 16. It covers citizens of Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Syria and Libya and has been denounced by more than 130 foreign policy experts.

Iraq, included in the original ban Trump announced, is no longer on the list of affected countries. But the new order is still affecting some in Iraq who are seeking asylum in the U.S.

NPR reached an Iranian lesbian asylum seeker in the Iraqi city of Erbil, just as she realized her hopes of reaching the U.S. would almost certainly be dashed by the revised executive order. She gives her name as Bahar – she's afraid to reveal her family name because it could cause problems for her family back in Iran.

Bahar says her initial optimism has turned to depression and anxiety, as her relocation process has dragged on for nearly two years.

"I don't really know what to do, I was hoping so much that I could get my flight to America before the crackdown resumed," she says. "My whole time here I've been under pressure – I was not just criticized, I was assaulted, both for being Iranian and being lesbian." She says human rights groups are aware of her situation, "but so far, there's no way forward for me, I'm stuck."

Bahar says the problems she faced back at home did not come from her own family, but from relatives of her partner, who condemned lesbian relationships as immoral and sought to cause trouble for her. Bahar says things came to a head in 2014.

"I traveled to the Pride March in Istanbul," she says, "and when I got home, the government found out where I'd been and began to make trouble for me. I was told I was likely to be arrested and prosecuted."

She says the pressure grew so great that she and her partner ended their relationship, and Bahar fled to Erbil. She says it took her nearly a year-and-a-half to get her main U.S. asylum interview. Just last month, she was elated to get her medical exam completed, thinking it meant approval to travel to the U.S. would follow shortly.

But in the meantime, the new administration in Washington launched its campaign to stem immigration, especially from Muslim countries — though administration officials deny the executive orders on immigration amount to the "Muslim ban" Trump promised as a candidate.

When the U.S. court system blocked the initial travel ban, Bahar remained hopeful. But her case wasn't yet given final approval. Now she's facing the reality of being trapped in Erbil for an extended period.

"It's been two years, I have very bad financial problems, and things are difficult for me here in Erbil," she says. "This is a very conservative, religious society and I face lots of problems here. People criticize the way I look, the way I dress, they ask why do I dress like a boy?"

She says she lost her job and had to move to new quarters, and the new travel ban — which she learned about from a reporter — has left her feeling desperate.

"I'm completely depressed, and I don't know what to do," she says.

Part of the problem, she says, is feeling completely isolated. She says she has yet to connect with any other LGBT asylum seekers in Erbil.

"As far as I know, I'm the only Iranian LGBT case in Erbil, maybe the whole of Iraq," she says. "I can't get any information out of [the U.N. refugee agency], the only bits of information I get are from Iranian refugees in Turkey. The only thing I can do is try to keep my spirits up and not give up hope."

A State Department official declined to comment on Bahar's case in response to NPR's request.

NPR has interviewed other LGBT Iranians in similar situations. Two gay men who made their way out of Iran to Turkey are now safely in the U.S. Iranians say they've seen that the system can work – but if and when it might work for Bahar and others in her situation is now a painfully uncertain question.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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