The Value of Being Yourself

Katie Carter, Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Oregon, recently interviewed a 2015 scholar to learn about her experience immigrating to the United States and what it’s been like to live in Portland, Oregon. For her safety and anonymity, this scholar requested that we do not share her name.

Katie Carter: To get us started, can you tell me a little about yourself? How old are you? Where did you grow up?

I am 24 years old and was born and raised in Persia (Iran). I came to the United States as a refugee so I could live freely and continue my education. Because I am Baha’i, I wasn’t allowed to attend college, and because I’m a lesbian who was living in an Islamic country, I wasn’t allowed to live as who I truly am. Coming to Portland, Oregon has opened up multiple opportunities for me.

Your goal is to become a Chemical Engineer– what drew you to this field?

Growing up in Persia, we never had the chance to choose our major. Our majors were chosen based on our GPA. When I came to the United States, I had a really difficult time deciding what my major would be. First I chose computer programming, but I later realized I wanted to do more and to have the opportunity to use my passion and talent in math and chemistry for good.

You’ve shared with us that it’s been a relatively long and solitary journey to get to where you are today. Can you talk about what that experience was like for you? What prompted you to leave Iran and move to the United States? Since you’ve been here, what has your experience been?

As I mentioned earlier, I had no future in Persia. The day I realized I should leave my country was just a normal day. I asked myself, “Where will I be in five years?” and that was when it hit me—I had absolutely no future in my home country.

Being queer, a woman, and Baha’i in Persia is more difficult than you can imagine. You want to work? You can’t. You want to study? Impossible. You want to go on a date? It’s illegal. You want to bring your date home? Not an option. What can you do? Nothing!

We have all heard of the United States as “the land of opportunities,” and I feel like I am in heaven. I can do everything—I can hold my partner’s hand without any fear, I don’t have to lie about living with my partner, or who my community is. Being able to be yourself is an incredibly valuable thing. It’s one of those things that you don’t know just how valuable it is until you lose it. No one can take away my happiness and my life because I am now living in a country where I am able to be who I am legally.

You’re part of a group in Portland that supports LGBTQ refugees who are new to the United States. Can you tell me more about what this group does? How and why did you get involved in this work?

Coming to the United States hasn’t been easy for me and my partner, and there were many obstacles in our way. It’s a very long process—you have to move to Turkey and apply as a refugee to the Office of the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees. Based on your case, you would be interviewed—I don’t know what the maximum number is, but I had five interviews, three of which were more like long exams. The result of each exam is posted on their website within two months, and if our case was rejected, we would have had to go back to Persia.

After the fifth interview there is a medical examination, and then you’re sent to your final destination. The whole process can be last anywhere from 18 to 36 months, so it can be extremely stressful. With this long and nerve racking experience in mind, imagine also going to a new country with no support—financially or emotionally—from your family, and where you don’t know anyone. It sounds like a nightmare, right? But I endured it, and now I want to help those in my community who have also had that experience.

Since my friends and I have suffered a lot, we didn’t want our community to experience any more than they have to. That’s why we created guides for people who want to come out of Persia and apply to be a refugee. We have all sorts of information—what city they should go to, how much money is needed, who they should talk to, almost anything! And when they get here, we lead them through the basics—cheapest place to live, decent job, school. And most importantly—we become their friends and help create the support they need to make it here.

It was so wonderful to meet you in person at the scholarship celebration we held in Portland back in June—you were beaming and seemed so genuinely happy. Can you tell me what that experience was like for you? And also, how receiving a Pride Foundation scholarship has impacted you?

Pride Foundation gave me the opportunity to receive an education, which means the world to me. Pride Foundation is like my family—people who care about me; the family I never had in my country. It is so wonderful to have support from people who believe in you as you are. Of course it made me more inspired and more passionate about my education. It’s wonderful to know there are people who want me to be successful.

Katie Carter is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Oregon. Email Katie.

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