Israel Promised This Persecuted Iranian Poet Asylum. Now It's Making His Life Here Impossible

Persecuted gay poet Payam Feili’s story won sympathizers in Israel, but three years later he's still waiting for an answer

Orly Vilnai
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Iranian poet Payam Feili poses for a photograph in Tel Aviv, December 9, 2015.
Iranian poet Payam Feili poses for a photograph in Tel Aviv, December 9, 2015.Credit: AP
Orly Vilnai

The story of the “Zionist Iranian poet” Payam Feili touched many people’s hearts, even that of Culture Minister Miri Regev. In 2015, after he fled persecution in Iran to exile in Turkey, Regev asked then-Interior Minister Silvan Shalom to grant Feili a visa to enter Israel.

Feili’s work has been translated into Hebrew. Because of the Jewish motifs in his poetry and his ties with Israel, he was persecuted by the authorities, beaten and jailed. He was also convicted of a terrible crime in Iran — homosexuality — and declared immoral. There is no way he can live safely in the Islamic Republic.

Feili did come to Israel and naïvely believed that he’d found asylum here. But three years after his arrival, his situation is dire. When he entered Israel he was issued a tourist visa with the assurance that he would ultimately be granted refugee status after a certain process. He submitted an application for refugee status, but the application has yet to be approved and it’s unclear if it has even been reviewed. Without a visa, he is unable to work or obtain government health insurance. He is status-less.

Feili says that as a child, he read the Bible and felt deeply attached to Judaism, but he can’t even convert here. The sharp transition from the great hope with which he came to Israel to the deep disappointment he feels now is causing him great emotional distress, in addition to his severe financial difficulties. He lives off the charity of friends, and they won’t be able to go on supporting him forever. With no family, no official status or recognition, with no real support, his future is uncertain. Regev’s office no longer responds when Feili’s friends try to call. Knesset members are just as evasive.

“Regev’s people promised us a meeting, but none ever happened. [Interior Minister] Arye Dery’s office threw us out,” says a close friend. “What they don’t understand is that he’s not an ordinary refugee, he has a big connection to Israel. But now he’s withering, he’s grown very thin and sick, and we don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”