Free as a bird

Since finding a new life in Amsterdam, where Accenture NL is delighted to make full use of his skills, Amir has really spread his wings. But it’s taken a lot to put the past behind him… the cage he escaped in coming out of his native Iran, and all he has had to let go. 

Speaking to Amir today, you couldn’t guess at the events of his early years, or the journey he endured in his twenties, fleeing persecution. Now a confident and happy young man, he is a professional with a job he adores in Cloud First – Cloud Infrastructure Engineering, plus other roles and responsibilities in which he takes great pride. The contrast, too, with his social life now, and those dark days of his past, is extreme. “I have been judged since I was a child”, Amir reflects, “every time I said what I think, who I am, I lost things.” Now, however, all that has changed: “I am able to express myself without any fear, and I am hoping that I will be not judged, or lose any more - especially at work!" 

Growing up in Shiraz, a large city in southwestern Iran, Amir overcame a tragic childhood to perform well academically, graduating from the city’s prestigious university. This despite an enforced separation from his mother, at age seven, which left him scarred. “I vividly remember the day she left – it was one of the most horrific moments of my life”, Amir says. “I cried and screamed, trying to hug her for the last time – but they held me tight until she left.” He pauses, then adds bravely: “But, that is the past. I have accepted the fact that I am not that abandoned kid anymore! It was a traumatic thing to deal with – but I did.” 

Amir’s mother left when she discovered that his father had another wife. Filing for divorce – no small thing in a strictly conservative society – she promised she would come back for her son. But she never did. “Her departure was the storm that tore the whole family apart”, Amir recalls sadly. Refusing to live with his father, his childhood became a series of movements between aunts, his grandmother, and other relatives. He went from being “the happiest boy on the planet” to feeling homeless, “as if I was always just a guest.”  

Quiet and physically small, Amir was bullied and underestimated at school. With his troubled home life, he always felt like he didn’t fit in. The other children were picked up after classes, by their parents, but not Amir. “I had no friends, and no self-confidence. Life was hell for me then”, he states matter-of-factly. It was in the late 2000s, aged 15, that Amir first realized he is gay. “Until then, I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt different, but when it dawned on me, everything fell into place.” It made him feel “as free as a bird, or more specifically, a peacock!” – Amir is Persian with Indian heritage, and his family name translates as ‘keeper of peacocks’. “I felt like I could show my real colors and strut confidently, be my true self”, he smiles. But his realization was to lead to trouble. A series of events that, for a second time, would turn the life of this sensitive man upside down – just as he was finally finding himself. 

Connecting in private with like-minded individuals, via the internet, opened up a whole new world to Amir: “I absolutely loved chatting to guys and finding out more about the LGBT community, and everything it entails.” The next logical step was online dating. Now an adult, Amir had his own home – a small flat in Shiraz – and was making good money, working for an IT company, and as a math tutor in the evenings. Managing to balance his open and secret lives, Amir “fell madly in love for the first time” – and with a face-to-face meeting in prospect, it seemed like things would work out for him at last: “I had never felt so thrilled and happy before!” 

After couple of months chatting online – and spending “all day, every day, daydreaming about him” – Amir met his love in person, one romantic moonlit night in the mountains outside the city. It was the start of an all-too-short period of bliss: “We met up regularly and went for long rides on his motorcycle. It was the most exhilarating time”, remembers Amir, his expression turning grim. It ended when he found out things weren’t as they seemed. In fact, this man he thought had returned his affections was secretly working for the authorities. “It felt like my whole life stopped. I was so shaken up… I ended up hospitalized for five days”, Amir says. 

Homosexuality is illegal in Iran, and Amir knew he faced the possibility of imprisonment, and even a death sentence, just for being the man he is. He explains, though, that the danger wasn’t immediate; instead, “the blackmailing began”. Amir was to pay, monthly, or be publicly exposed and arrested. Desperate, he fled – firstly to the capital. “But of course, as an officer, he tracked me down… on the day he arrived in Tehran to intimidate me, I was forced to leave the country without saying goodbye to anyone. My heart got on fire every step I went, far away from everything and everyone I LOVE, but I had to.” This was Amir’s most testing ordeal – but also the path that led him, eventually, here. Sat now relating it all, he is safe in a new apartment in one of Europe’s most thrilling cities, the capital of a relaxed and tolerant democracy. It is a world away from the nightmare of that flight from all he had ever known.  

The first two years in NL, every day was like: 

A broken heart is all that's left. I'm still fixing all the cracks. 
Lost a couple of pieces when I carried it… home. 
I’m afraid of all I am. My mind felt like a foreign land. 

I've spent all of the love I saved, 
We were always a losing game… 

How many pennies in the slot? 
Giving us up didn't take a lot 
I saw the end 'fore it begun… 

I don’t need your games, game over 
Get me off this rollercoaster 

– from Arcade, performed by Duncan Laurence 
Lyrics by William Douglas Burr Knox / Duncan De Moor / Joel Nils Anders Sjoo / Cari Elise Fletcher / Wouter H Hardy 
© Music and Words Stockholm Ab, Ray Publishing B.v., Sony Music Publishing B.v. 

Amir feels welcomed in the Netherlands, the first place ever to truly embrace him. “They were so friendly to me”, he says, recalling the quirk of fate that brought him to Amsterdam, and led to his current position as Impact Ambassador for Cloud First – Cloud Infrastructure Engineering, representing Accenture NL’s Corporate Citizenship Department. Yet, coming here was never the plan; he admits to not really having had one. At first, it was simply about getting away. On foot he crossed borders, then the Mediterranean Sea, passing via the Greek island of Samos to mainland Europe. For weeks he moved from camp to crowded camp, telling his story to Austrian officials, then German; being told about the rules governing people in his position, and on what grounds right-to-remain is granted. Or denied.  

“I had come from a place where I was abandoned because of who I am, to somewhere I could be safe”, Amir continues. “Except now, I needed to prove who it was I could not be!"  

This is because Amir had become stateless, with no paperwork to even prove where he had fled from. “I had to be a fighter, a survivor”, he says with casual understatement. Finding himself on the run once more, at one point he narrowly avoided the German police at a railway station, catching a train to Copenhagen. An online contact in Denmark had sent him the ticket, and he felt that this act of kindness was the lifeline he had sought for so long. Scared and confused, however, Amir had boarded the wrong train; it took him not to Copenhagen, but Arnhem. Here, exhausted and out of options, Amir handed himself in to the Dutch authorities for the interrogation process to begin once more. 

Things were to prove very different hereafter. Extensive questioning about everyday life in Iran, right down to the details of a typical restaurant visit, established Amir’s story as genuine. He was able to officially reacquire his identity. And, as a digital-savvy millennial, he used the Cloud to access documentation, make connections, and create a profile with the hopes of finding work – provided he was given that right. He also became interested in LGBT+ activism. Little by little, Amir pieced himself back together – while presenting a careful mask to the world. Behind it, he would need more than official recognition to heal his wounds: “I was a hopeless, broken-hearted soul”, he admits. But destiny was to take a hand once more. 

It was at a temporary accommodation in Utrecht, which Amir was approached by one of the initiations programs by Accenture NL’s Refugee Talent Hub (RTH), which matches skilled individuals to vacant roles. He hadn’t yet been given official residential status, but was encouraged to submit his CV. Then, attending a conference about Cloud computing, Amir had “an extremely deep and authentic conversation” with Inge Lekkerkerker-van Aalsburg. “If it wasn’t for her and that chat, I would never have found myself working at Accenture”, he smiles. When she followed up with an invitation to a gathering, Amir was astounded to find himself among 40 prospective candidates being interviewed, there and then, for three starting positions. “I had no idea!” he laughs. “I was completely underdressed and unprepared!” 

Amir’s skills-set impressed Accenture’s Inclusion and Diversity Lead at the time, Amber Lingmont - who he describes as his “second angel”. “She said ‘Don’t stress!’, but still my voice shook throughout our entire conversation”, Amir remembers. Unsure about his education and experience, he was blown away to receive a text one week later: “Amir, there is a very important email in your inbox – Amber”. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw it was a contract. That was three years ago, and Amir is now firmly established as an IT Consultant, Cloud Analyst and Network Architect. “I love my job!” he enthuses. “My colleagues are my family… very understanding, very caring. Accenture is everything for me!” 

But for the pandemic, there would have been no stopping Amir making the most of his newfound freedom – no longer caged, but flying high, enjoying a vibrant new environment, and the support of those around him. And he has used his experiences positively; he originated the Dutch Buddy Program within Accenture NL’s Inclusion and Diversity, to promote equality in the workplace. Amir now serves as Inclusion Employment Country Lead – NL Inclusion and Diversity (A changemaker furthering inclusion & belonging within Accenture the Netherlands), with the aim of improving recruitment, retention and advancement; the initiative helps new NL starters from similarly difficult backgrounds to his own, matching them up with a local person to help them settle in. Extra-curricular involvement such as this – and his work as Global Merchandise Coordinator/SPOC for Pride, Accenture Global’s Inclusion and Diversity Team, – has given him a whole new sense of purpose. 

The Pride movement is important to Amir; it was at the 2019 LGBT+ festival on the canals that he took the opportunity to come out in public, stepping up onto a party boat. As with his decision to share his story here, Amir’s ‘peacock moment’ was done with courage, and leaving no room for regrets. “When I was ready to come out, I was going to do so without hesitation”, he says. It was to be the end of any hope of reconnecting with family and friends back in Iran, though; along with others in the Netherlands’ Persian community. They all cut him off for good. He had known they would.  

The past is the past, and Amir’s focus now is very much on building a bright future. “Dancing alongside all those other gay and lesbian individuals, openly being myself, at the PRIDE was the most amazing experience”, says Amir, adding defiantly: “I told myself, it is OK to lose people. It has happened to me a lot… It’s OK to lose them – to find yourself.” He grins. “I remember walking off that boat feeling another piece of Amir had come back to me.” 
 
Facing a world of new possibilities – things he could never have even imagined, during those dark days of his flight from Iran, and the struggle to reacquire his identity here in Europe – Amir is, today, brimming with confidence. Settled and happy in Amsterdam, he revels especially in being able to help others. Those who, like himself, just need a little luck and human understanding to be empowered to make the most of their own talents; the chance to apply themselves, and so realize their dreams. Determined himself to always seize life’s opportunities, Amir feels, finally, as free as a bird.