Ever since his sister heard him talking in his sleep in their bedroom in Iran, Ali K. tried to stay awake at night. “Since that night, I was so afraid, I could not sleep,” he said of his childhood. “Because what if I said aloud what I feel?”
In third grade Ali fell in love with an older boy at school, but never spoke to him. Several years later, he saw reports that two people had been hung for homosexuality. Eventually, the conflict between who he was and what his country allowed him to be became too much, and Ali says he decided to kill himself by walking into traffic on a busy road. He stood on the curb for hours but never stepped into the street. His mother was having heart problems, and he says he feared the news of his death would kill her. (TIME agreed to identify Ali by his first name in order to protect his family in Iran, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death.) “In Iran, all my life I was afraid,” Ali, now 30, said in a phone interview. “I realized people like me are not allowed to exist.”
Now, after more than seven years in America, Ali fears he could be forced to return to a country that could kill him for his sexuality. He is one of many LGBT immigrants from the seven majority-Muslim nations affected by President Trump’s Jan. 17 executive order barring travelers from Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days, and refugees from Syria indefinitely. The fate of Trump’s order is uncertain after a federal appeals court ruled Sunday to uphold a temporary stay on the ban. A three-judge panel from U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard arguments Tuesday and is expected to issue a ruling this week. Whatever the outcome, an appeal to the Supreme Court is likely.
The immigration order has thrown countless lives into tumult, but for LGBT residents from countries where homosexuality is criminalized, the fear is especially acute.
It is a violation of international law to send a person back to a nation where they face persecution. The Obama administration implemented several policies to protect LGBT asylum seekers, including recognizing same-sex partners as “spouses” for the purpose of refugee resettlement and urging federal agencies abroad to protect LGBT people at every stage of the refugee process. It is not yet clear whether Trump will continue those policies.
Immigration lawyers say it’s extremely unlikely that the U.S. government would violate the 1951 Refugee Convention to deport LGBT people back to countries where they risk persecution and execution. But advocates say that is of little comfort to gay asylum seekers from the Middle Eastern countries affected by the ban. “Everyone is feeling completely unsettled and as if the rug can be pulled under them at any time,” says Michael Jarecki, an immigration lawyer who is vice-chair of the Chicago chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He says there’s a real possibility that his clients will have their asylum cases “put on permanent hold” because of their countries of origin.
For Manal, 29, that prospect means every day is a waiting game. Manal is a Syrian Catholic who grew up in Dubai and came to the U.S. for a Master’s program in Southern California. When she got to L.A., she moved into an apartment owned by a woman she had never met. They fell in love, and Manal’s roommate became her partner. “When my student visa ended, I had fallen in love, and I said ‘I’m not going back,'” she said. “There’s no way I could live as a gay woman in the Middle East.” She now works as a graphic designer in L.A. (TIME has agreed not to publish her full name to protect her safety.)
Manal applied for asylum almost two years ago and is still waiting for her interview. “I think I’m going to get PTSD just from this waiting,” she said. “There’s always this dark cloud that follows us around.”
Manal knows she has it a lot better than many immigrants and refugees, no matter their sexuality. Still, when faced with the possibility of losing her ability to live and work in the U.S., she shudders. “I always have that thought but honestly I don’t have an answer,” she says. If she has to return to Syria, she says she would get her “head chopped off.”
After completing his undergraduate degree in Iran, Ali came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2009 for a Master’s degree and then moved to California to pursue a PhD in engineering. He came out of the closet, had a few relationships, and now lives with his Russian boyfriend in California, also an asylum seeker. Ali filed for asylum 18 months ago, and in the meantime relied on an Employment Authorization Document that allowed him to work legally in the U.S. That permit expired at the end of January and he says he submitted the documents to get it renewed the day before Trump signed the executive order. Now, Ali says he has no idea what will happen with his asylum or work permit applications. “If my application comes up tomorrow, they’re going to throw it at the end of the list again,” he says. “Everything in my life right now is in the air in the matter of a week.”
The immigration order has changed his sense of the country he hoped to call his new home. “This is the United States,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that you wake up one day and, without doing anything wrong, everything can be taken away from you. That is not my image of this country.”