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Family is... A Global Conversation
Family is... A Global Conversation
Klaus Mueller 

The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum has conducted nearly 100 video interviews over three years, over 40 of which focused on developing a global portrait of families and their LGBT members today. Our 2017 documentary film Family is…? A Global Conversation is based on these testimonies. We invite you to share the film – a free resource – widely through your networks, at film festivals, or on your website. 

Being part of family is a fundamental human condition as well as a human right. All of us long to feel at home with the families of our birth, in the families of our choosing, and in the families we raise. But how do we narrate our own stories of family?

Throughout our three-year project “Family is…” we interviewed Fellows and collected their authentic stories. They shared their personal experiences of acceptance, silence and exclusion in their families and ways to heal and protect families in all their shapes and forms. You can watch all the interviews on our YouTube channel.

The interviews on family are part of our larger collection of testimonies through which Forum members share their professional expertise and life experience. These are all also available on our website.

Our 2017 film documentary Family is…? A Global Conversation premiered in May 2017 at the German Ministry of Family Affairs in Berlin with whom we partnered on this project. State Secretary Ralf Kleindiek and Klaus Mueller thank all the Fellows for sharing their stories and enabling this global and complex portrait of family and their LGBT members. 

Family is…? A Global Conversation

Seeking Safety
Seeking Safety
Klaus Mueller 

“With our house being ransacked, with us being attacked, with all the news spreading… Those were the things that kind of escalated to a point where we couldn’t live there anymore.” [Noël]

“Getting death threats… random people anonymously sending you your photo, your phone number, your address, and telling you ‘We know who are and we are going to kill you.’ It is a very uncertain condition which paralyzes you.” [Negede]

- Noël Iglessias and Negede Gezahegn, Founders of DANA Social Group, LGBTI rights organization in Ethiopia

Legislative discrimination, social alienation and hate speech can all impact the safety of LGBT people, their wellbeing and sense of belonging. Addressing persecution and anti-LGBT extremism has been a major feature in many of our discussions. Forum members shared their expertise that homophobia and transphobia and hatred cannot be diminished to only the activities of fringe groups or individuals. Globally we see that this anti-LGBT prejudice permeates actions led and enforced by many political, legal, religious, cultural or economic systems that reinforce each other.

Persecution also happens behind closed doors. Research on identity-based violence has found that in some situations, 80 percent of anti-LGBT extremism occurs as domestic and household violence. Often, social media platforms enable LGBT individuals to break out of their isolation and to learn about their communities. But online bullying, surveillance and hate campaigns can also subject them to new dangers, as we learned in training sessions from online security experts.

At the global scale, migration and exile shape the lives of many LGBT individuals as well as the communities and families they are forced to leave behind. Refugees from countries including Ethiopia, Syria, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Guatemala shared their stories and explained their specific needs and challenges. Activists responding to recent attacks of anti-LGBT extremism in countries such as Chechnya, Indonesia, or Uganda reported on emergency measures, but also warned about the growing trend of Western-based religious extremists exporting anti-LGBT hate speech and contributing to anti-LGBT laws in Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, Jamaica and elsewhere.

How should we react? Supporting causes and bringing attention to a specific country is important but context sensitivity is crucial. Sometimes the political voices of overseas LGBT organizations do more harm than good to local LGBT groups. International solidarity is important, but needs to be guided by local LGBT groups. Gathering evidence and documentation on violence helps to build cases, statistics and better policy to tackle anti-LGBT extremism and persecution.


LGBT Refugees

Fleeing Home: LGBT Refugees’ Stories

Profile: Bisi Alimi

Profile: Irene Fedorovych

Profile: Pema Dorji

The Role of Rule of Law

Legal Advances for LGBT Rights

Staying Save Online and IRL


The Plight of LGBT Refugees
Negede Gezahegn embraces Mariano Ruiz at the 2017 session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum – Home: Safety, Belonging and Wellbeing – six months after he and fellow activist Noël Iglessias fled Ethiopia for safety in Austria.
The Plight of LGBT Refugees
Louise Hallman 

The plight of asylum seekers and displaced people is high on the global agenda as the world faces its greatest refugee crisis since the World War II. LGBT refugees encounter further struggles as they continue to face prejudice and persecution through the asylum system and in their receiving countries. The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum has been addressing the issues of LGBT refugees since its beginnings, with a special focus placed on their trials at the 2017 session, Home: Safety, Belonging and Wellbeing.

Forced “cures.” Homes vandalized. Vicious beatings. Friends murdered. These are just some of the reasons why a number of Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum have fled their home countries and sought refuge overseas.

Just as the global population of forcibly displaced people has grown substantially from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016 (according to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency), so too has the number of LGBT refugees grown. According the UK’s Home Office (interior ministry), applications for asylum in the country on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity has risen 400 percent between 2009 and 2014 – even before incorporating the large influx of refugees that Europe saw in 2015.
Homosexuality remains criminalized in 72 countries around the world, with several countries – or non-state actors within the country, such as the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria – imposing the death penalty for same-sex relations. Even in some of the 120 countries where homosexuality has been decriminalized, LGBT people still face great social stigma and frequent persecution.

A matter of safety or death
Ethiopian activists, Noël Iglessias and Negede Gezahegn were repeatedly harassed by their neighbors after their LGBT advocacy efforts were uncovered. Their home was ransacked twice and they received death threats after they launched an online campaign called “Stop The Hate, Spread The Love.” “We remember one particular message we received: ‘I am going to get a machete in the name love, name it ‘love’ and kill all of you while declaring the love of God,’” they shared when they returned to the Forum in 2017 for Home: Safety, Belonging and Wellbeing. They had first attended the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum in 2015 under the condition of official anonymity. Their names and photographs did not appear in any materials for fear of putting their safety in further jeopardy.

However, by the time they were invited back to Salzburg for another, non-LGBT Forum session in December 2016, their situation – much like the rest of the country, which was placed in a national state of emergency – had dramatically worsened. “At that time, we were in a dark state. While in Salzburg, the threats kept coming. It became a matter of safety or death. We had our lives, studies, job, community and activism in Ethiopia but it hit us that we were feeling alienated in our very country of birth. We decided to seek asylum in Austria.” The two friends were granted asylum in Austria in August 2017 and are receiving administrative and emotional support from participants of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum and the local LGBT community as they start to build their new lives in the foreign country they will now call home. 

Continuing difficulties
Making the decision to leave everything – friends, family, support networks, jobs – behind and seek safety in a foreign country is just one of the many struggles refugees have to face. LGBT refugees are often struck with further difficulties as they continue to face persecution and discrimination during the asylum process. Non-activists can find it especially difficult, explains Michael Heflin, director of equality for the Open Society Human Rights Initiative: “When refugees are trying to enter a country to seek asylum, one of the biggest problems they face is that through the asylum process, you have to prove that you personally have well-founded fear of persecution. In their own countries, they had to lie about their identity and had to live in secrecy. But if you have been very secretive about your life, because you know the situation is dangerous, often it becomes hard to prove that you personally have a well-founded fear of persecution.”

While the UNHCR has started implementing guidelines to better protect LGBT refugees and sensitizing local personnel, these improvements are slow to “trickle down” the entire system. The European Asylum Support Office offers specialized training on how to best handle LGBT asylum cases, but this training is not mandatory. Language barriers can be a common hurdle to overcome for all migrants, but this can be further heightened for LGBT asylum seekers. “In some countries there are no ways to express certain aspects of sexualities and that cannot be solved by training immigration officers. So to explain stories, experiences, and to communicate them in a way that is understood as they are meant to be understood is a challenge,” explained Lucas Hendriksen, program officer for LGBT rights at HIVOS, a Dutch development organization, at the 2015 session, Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights and Social Cohesion.

As Mary Audry Chard, board member and co-chair of the organization Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) shared on the 2015 panel, “Extreme Forms of Exclusion,” in camps, other refugees sometimes attack their LGBT compatriots; this situation worsened when the UN fast-tracks LGBT cases, thus generating a perception of LGBT privilege and igniting further anger in the camps. LGBT individuals and same-sex couples can often be discriminated against in the refugee system, which is biased towards (heterosexual) families. Fear of further persecution in the camps leads some refugees to further flee again. Outside of the camps, without passports or any legal access to support services, these refugees are especially vulnerable to corruption, human trafficking and illegal activities such as sex work, says Stella Murungi, a protection officer in the Security Management and Protection Department at the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP) in Uganda. 

Once they have arrived in the receiving country, many refugees struggle to adjust. Depression and “activism guilt” are worryingly common. Many refugees seek a sense of belonging in their diaspora communities in receiving countries. This option is often unavailable to LGBT refugees. “Your own nationals can make you feel unsafe in a new place, since you do not know their political affiliations or LGBT attitudes,” explained a Russian Fellow. Many refugees who struggle to adjust feel homesick – and thus face accusations of being ungrateful to their host country. While he is grateful to Canada and the opportunities his new home has afforded him, as Syrian refugee Danny Ramadan recalls: “I couldn’t say that I missed home, because it felt impolite. But I missed it; it’s the place where I climbed a tree, where I kissed a boy the first time.”

Lacking a support system, “people may contemplate suicide because they had a good job and the process takes long or they go to an isolated village in Europe or end up unemployed. They get depressed,” explains Dennis Wamala, program manager at Icebreakers Uganda, an LGBT support NGO in the country. In the past decade, Wamala estimates that Uganda has seen nearly 70 percent of its LGBT activists leave. He often stays up at night “talking to extremely depressed people living abroad.”

Diaspora tensions
Having a sympathetic ear on the other end of a transcontinental telephone call can be a literal lifeline for LGBT refugees, but sadly they are often regarded with suspicion by their activist peers they have left behind. This is especially the case if they have been “rescued” by well-meaning international LGBT and human rights NGOs, which often prioritize specific leaders, leaving their lesser-known colleagues behind. This focus on specific individuals can demotivate, demoralize and disempower movements at large. “In rescue missions, they ask for a name, not for lists,” explains Kasha Nabagesera, one of Africa’s most high profile LGBT activists. “The others know they won’t be rescued. How do we support members that are not as visible?” Elle Fersan, a Lebanese activist who recently relocated to the US, explained at the 2017 session that “people at home feel upset because you left and the people where you are do not often understand what you went through.” However, rather than viewing them with disdain for “abandoning” the country, she suggests that this LGBT diaspora should be embraced as a useful resource; overseas activists can provide crucial skills, networks and information for advocacy back home.

Whatever drove them to flee and whatever their fate, all refugees are seeking the same thing: safety. As they now consider their future in Austria, Iglessias and Gezahegn believe they have found this: “We are in a healing process, and we feel safe and loved. But this is still a rollercoaster of feelings as we build a new home.”

Victor Yang on who gets to sit at the table: Discrimination, racism, and difference

Wanja Kilber on LGBT refugees and violence faced in asylum center

Fleeing Home: LGBT Refugees' Stories
Syrian refugee Danny Ramadan, now living in Canada, shares his life story on camera for the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum video series.
Fleeing Home: LGBT Refugees' Stories
Nicole Bogart 

For some people, relocating to another country can be an exciting opportunity for a new life. For others, it is the only way in which they can even stay alive. The number of LGBT refugees is growing as people are forced to flee their homes in face of legal persecution and the very real threat of death – at the hands of the state or even their own neighbors. The following stories come from the personal experiences of Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum.

As an Iranian gay man living in exile in Canada, Arsham Parsi founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, providing counseling and support to LGBT refugees by way of financial aid, food and healthcare. Parsi was forced to flee Iran in 2005 when his work as a queer rights activist made him known to authorities. He now works to secure international refugee protection status for an increasing number of Iranian queer asylum seekers.

“Homosexuality in Iran is punishable by death, and many people like me escape Iran to Turkey and other countries to have their basic and fundamental human rights. It is very difficult. The Iranian LGBT situation is very crucial - we don’t have human rights homosexuals, we have discrimination and violation of human rights. I hope that one day Iranian LGBTs have their own freedom and don’t need to escape Iran to have the very basic that lots of people take for granted.” 

As a gay Syrian refugee living in Canada, Danny Ramadan is familiar with the emotional toll relocation can have. Born to a conservative Muslim family, he was forced to leave home after coming out to his father at 17. He has faced relentless gay bashing online and a homophobic attack that left him hospitalized after coming out on social media. Dedicated to changing the refugee experience, Ramadan helps facilitate private sponsorships for LGBT refugees coming to Canada. His novel The Clothesline Swing, published in April 2017, addresses refugees and homophobia.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that refugees are forced out of their own countries which they love... I love Syria. I love my own country… I’m connected to it, and I wouldn’t have left it unless I had to…

“As a refugee, I embodied certain privileges. I couldn’t say that I missed home, because it felt impolite. But I missed it; it’s the place where I climbed a tree, where I kissed a boy the first time. I am thankful for being in Canada and yet I was also pushed away from my country and community…

“A lot of people think this is the end of the fairytale, when people arrive at the airport and they’re like ‘Oh, you’re in Canada, everything is going to be fine now.’ You’ve left all the horrible behind and everything is good ahead of you. And that is a black and white understanding of the experience of LGBTQ refugees. To begin with, you didn’t leave all the horrible, because you also left your family; your connections; your chosen friends and family; your spiritual connection to the land itself; your familiarity of using Arabic, a language that you understand. When you are able to tell a joke to someone and they get it right away, you see what I mean? Then you face a lot of challenges when you arrive; as you go through the culture shock, finding a job and finding meaning to your life now that you are completely disconnected to everything that has meaning in your life. Yes, you remain true to your identity, but your identity doesn’t click with the community yet. I honestly believe that those challenges are very unique, but they echo in all the refugee stories that I hear. Not everyone is faced with the same challenge, but we are all faced with cultural shock, finding meaning to ourselves. Just getting to know those people, knowing how they find meaning in their lives, and seeing them building their stories, and coming here and sharing it with others is very important.”

Nader is a volunteer at a refugee center in Bergen, Norway, welcoming LGBT refugees and helping them feel safe in their new home. A Syrian refugee himself, Nader knows first-hand how important it is for refugees to build new communities and lives in their new homes. Before being granted asylum in Norway, Nader lived in Istanbul for two years where he established the “Tea and Talk” support group for Arabic-speaking LGBT refugees.

“My teenage experience with psychologists that tried to ‘cure’ my homosexuality, although deeply scarring, inspired me to study psychology and plan to study the psychology of gender and sexuality. But revolution started in 2011. I spent a year in the protests and had 27 of my friends killed.

“A cousin I had in the military service escaped to Jordan but he couldn’t stand life there so I helped him to return to Syria. One night, my mother told me of TV news announcing that terrorists were killed trying to enter from Jordan. My cousin was amongst them. He had my number on his phone so I needed to think where to go. Going into Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon all posed risks. I found my way to Egypt. I didn’t think of leaving during the revolution but the risk I faced and the way in which the revolution was taken over by Islamists left me with nothing left. Two days after leaving for Egypt, the secret police came into my house in Damascus, accusing me of aiding terrorism.

“In my brief time in Egypt, my parents supported my university studies, but the Syrian currency collapsed. I tried to work but I didn’t get paid and I was beaten in the streets for being Syrian. I thought: It’s time to leave. I moved to Jordan. Unable to work or study, I spent six months selling tea to drivers.

“I moved to Turkey, where I met photojournalist Bradley Secker and his network of friends that helped me with an asylum application. I waited for a year and a half. Suddenly, I got an asylum interview and relocated to Norway. Now, I have a loving husband, and I’m building a life in Norway. The homesickness is there and I miss my family but I feel safe and I’m healing.”

Noël and Negede
Noël Iglessias and Negede Gezahegn, LGBT activists and co-founders of DANA Social Group, a grassroots LGBT support organization in Ethiopia, have been granted asylum in Austria after facing multiple threats due to their activism; from their home being ransacked to daily death threats.                                                                                                                                   

“In 2013 we founded the DANA Social Group, an LGBT advocacy organization, in the context in which anti-gay rallies were being organized by evangelical Christian organizations. We ran an online campaign titled ‘Stop The Hate, Spread The Love’ to push the repealing of a constitutional article that criminalizes same sex relations with up to 15 years in prison. As the first LGBTI advocacy organization in Ethiopia, we tried to have the first nationwide conversation about homosexuality. We reached out to LGBT groups abroad so that our campaign could have international attention. The reaction from locals towards the campaign was very negative. We remember one particular message we received. ‘I am going to get a machete in the name love, name it ‘love’ and kill all of you while declaring the love of God.’ The harassments continued, but we kept at our work.

“In July 2015, after our participation in the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, we did a ‘Rainbow Photo Project.’ In it, we showed with the rainbow flag near Addis Ababa. The slogan was ‘This is my story’ and it had a statement in Amharic [Ethiopia’s official language] and English. It became viral, but it triggered an unimaginable anger against us. It agitated the government, but also many LGBT people who were angry at the visibility it caused. Eventually, the seamstress that made the rainbow flag we photographed talked about us and neighbors found out who we were. That was a breaking point. Our house was ransacked twice and the police asked constantly for bribes. This safe space we built for the LGBT community was now being attacked. Over three years, tensions built, some of us were beaten and the neighbors and police kept harassing us.

“By 2016 a state of emergency was declared nationally and people were being killed, intimidated or detained. The threats became more direct and real, including menacing messages from the government. We hadn’t become internationally recognized or had any major significance in the LGBT movement, so we feared that our detention or death would go unnoticed.

“We received an invitation by Salzburg Global Seminar to bring an LGBT perspective to a session on genocide and extremism. At that time, we were in a dark state. While in Salzburg, the threats kept coming. It became a matter of safety or death. We had our lives, studies, job, community and activism in Ethiopia but it hit us that we no longer were safe in our very country of birth. We decided to seek asylum in Austria. We are in a healing process, and we feel safe and loved. But this is still a rollercoaster of feelings as we build a new home.”

Ta worked for a nonprofit that supported gay men and lesbian women in Bangladesh. After his friend Xulhaz Mannan, the founder of Roopbaan, the country’s only magazine for the LGBT community was brutally murdered, Ta briefly fled and continues to maintain a low profile for fear of attacks on him or his family.

“It was in April 2016, like any other day. My phone rang and I was told that two of my activist friends were killed in their apartment. I couldn’t go back to my home so I had to go to a secret shelter offered by our allies. On the third day after the phone call, an Islamic movement claimed the attack and announced that more people were on their list.

“In the shelters, people offered support and I ended staying there for around two months. I did not report to the police station as in Bangladesh there are cases of people who disappeared because of state security forces.

“Later I found out what happened in my friend’s on that April day: people stormed into the apartment and slaughtered my friends. This attack was a surprise. LGBT activists had not been targeted before and we didn’t know they could reach that degree of violence.

“As a community, our activities have all but stopped. The few who haven’t left the country are too afraid to get organized. It’s frustrating that all the progress achieved by the LGBT community in Bangladesh has been set back several years. [After the attacks] when I tried to cope with my regular life in Dhaka, the biggest challenge I faced is self-censorship. I had to remove my interviews, blogs, articles and all the traces of my activism. I had to change my mobile phone number. In the last year and a half, I have had to change my location eight times. I have been advised not to use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or other platforms that could reveal my location.

“I was afraid, and I had to go away. The need to step out of any risk was something like an animal fear, a survival instinct. I had to leave my job and jump into uncertainty as I could be traced easily from my workplace. I started applying for different fellowships and thus managed to move to New York City. I have been slowly adapting to live there, and most importantly I decided to be active again in social media, and continue my advocacy.”

Since this interview, Ta has decided to return to Bangladesh, where they are struggling to cope with the new realities of life and reorganize their group informally.

*Ta is a pseudonym – the name has been changed to protect the Fellow.


Bisi Alimi - Overcoming "Activist Guilt"
Bisi Alimi is a Fellow of the  Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, having participated in the 2017 session – Home: Safety, Wellness and Belonging.
Bisi Alimi - Overcoming "Activist Guilt"
Nicole Bogart 

Bisi Alimi has certainly earned the title of social activist. Not only is he the founder and director of the Bisi Alimi Foundation, which “advocates for the rights and dignity of LGBT people in Nigeria by addressing public opinion and accelerating social acceptance,” he is also the first Nigerian to come out on national television, and is a prolific social media personality (his TEDx Talk “There Should Never Be Another Ibrahim” has been listed as one of the most inspiring queer TED Talks of all time). But Alimi admits his journey is not entirely comprised of celebration.

Alimi, originally from Nigeria, moved to the UK in 2007 as a refugee, at the peak of his activism. Just two years prior he, along with a group of friends, started the Independent Project for Equal Rights. Forced to leave Nigeria, Alimi found himself struggling to manage the demands of his activism from abroad.
“I got to the UK in April [and] by December I had lost it,” he says. “I remember many nights I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I was crying. I was diagnosed as clinically depressed.” After seeking help for his depression, Alimi says it was a psychiatrist who helped him realize he was suffering from what many activists refer to as “activist guilt.”

“[She told me] I had to see the UK as home, and I had to start accepting the fact that I can still contribute to what is going on in Nigeria. It was very personal to me. I was angry at myself; I was angry at everyone. But she helped me to get to a position to say, ‘It’s ok,’” he says. “Now, when activists come to me with this guilt, I tell them my story and say, ‘Let nothing stop you.’ It’s just a matter of borders and geography; we live in a global world now and you can still have the same impact.”

The fifth session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum centered around the theme of “Home” and took a detailed look at the lives of LGBT refugees and their journey to redefine their sense of belonging and home. Alimi, who has now lived in the UK for ten years, explains that migration forced him to redefine the concept of family. “It meant that I had to discover and develop a new form of family. It means a lot to me; the process of finding people that I can call father, mother, brother. When I find them it goes deep into my soul.”

Family for Alimi now includes his husband, whom he married in November 2016. “For me – that little boy from Nigeria who lived in a country where just thinking about the idea of wanting to get married could land you in jail for 14 years – just having that experience of looking into the eyes of this gorgeous man and saying ‘I do’ was like living in a fairytale.”

Alimi’s birth family, whom he says rejected him from childhood, did not attend the wedding, nor have they acknowledged their son’s marital status. “It was the only dark spot on my joy,” he says.

Yet the activist, a first time Fellow of the Forum, says he has now welcomed many of his fellow participants into this ever-evolving family of choice, speaking of the energy the Forum has fueled inside of him.

“It was such a huge honor that I could not [have] imagined I would be part of this,” he says. “The films that are shown here, the stories of how people are changing generations in their country – it’s very inspiring to me. I know that I am going to go home and do something completely different.”

Bisi Alimi on the guilt activists feel after leaving their home country

Irene Fedorovych - The Case of Ukraine
Irene Fedorovych is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT forum having participated in the 2017 session - Home: Safety, Wellness and Belonging
Irene Fedorovych - The Case of Ukraine
Nicole Bogart 

All refugees flee for fear of their safety, but the reasons why they face such danger can differ greatly. Where they can safely seek refuge thus also differs. A country that may be a safe haven for those seeking asylum for political reasons may not be so safe for those fleeing because of their sexual orientation. Such is the case for Ukraine, explained Irene Fedorovych, chair of the country’s Coordinative Council at the Anti-Discrimination Coalition during the fifth session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum – Home: Safety, Wellness and Belonging.

“Ukraine is a unique country; we are a country of destination, where people come and seek refuge, but we are also a country which people flee,” Fedorovych explains. “When it comes to people from LGBTQI communities, those who come to Ukraine to ask for asylum normally do not feel safe.

Ukraine has a low rate of refugee acceptance and what Fedorovych describes as a slow and inefficient asylum system that often leaves people without support during the process. Coupled with a high hate crime rate, including discrimination against LGBT individuals, many LGBT refugees are left feeling alienated.

“[We noticed] by working with our partners from LGBT non-governmental organizations that we were not ready,” she says. “We were not ready to understand that refugees might differ, that people flee for different reasons – it might be political or economical crises. But it might be sexual orientation and gender identity, and not everyone is ready to accept that [and] provide services without discrimination.”

While many LGBT individuals flee Ukraine due to persecution, the influx of LGBT refugees into the country stems from people fleeing often worse situations in neighboring countries, including Russia and Belarus. “That’s the easiest way – they can enter without a visa and stay for 90 days without permission. People are also trying to come to a country where at least they know the culture and the language is similar.”

Through her work, Fedorovych aims to ensure that refugees receive equal treatment and access to services, regardless of the reason for their application.

“We had to learn to deal with people. Making sure that we respect every side of them and explain to service providers what’s wrong, why people do not feel safe, why they do not want to go to certain service providers,” she explains, noting that transgender individuals, for example, may want a lawyer to accompany them to migration services due to the obstacles he or she may face.

Despite the difficulties still faced by LGBT asylum seekers, Fedorovych notes some progress has been made: “I think its our greatest victory that after years of work, UNHCR managed to hire a special consultant on LGBTQI issues.”

Video: Irene Fedorovych on the challenges LGBT refugees face in Ukraine

Pema Dorji - The Trauma of Bullying in Schools
Pema Dorji - The Trauma of Bullying in Schools
Nicole Bogart 

For teenagers, school is not just a place for learning, but one for social and emotional growth, and while bullying is something faced by many students across the world, studies show that LGBT youth suffer disproportionately. Many people – LGBT or not – continue to suffer long-term mental health effects from the bullying they experience in adolescence. One of the Forum’s youngest Fellows, Pema Dorji shared his experience of bullying in his home country of Bhutan.

Pema Dorji grew up in a normal middle class family “in a country with a happiness measurement index” – as he reminded us. During childhood he felt normal, and enjoyed his love for music and the company of girlfriends. At five years old, schoolmates started to call him insulting nicknames to the extent that some people stopped using or forgot his actual name. Growing up wasn’t easy for Dorji. Going to school for him was “like going to a war.”

“Growing up wasn’t fun at all for me, especially because my peers around me never failed to make me realize that I don’t belong with them, that I was an abnormal anomaly around them. The situation became so bad they even forgot my name, only remembering me by the name they used to call me – a word that roughly translates to ‘not a male, nor a female.’ After a while it takes a toll on you, you start to feel upset and at the same time angry. Being a young person, I automatically started to blame myself. It was me against a world where there were literally 10 to 20 fingers pointed at me, and I was helpless to point back.”

One episode marked him for years. One classmate’s teasing became so acute that Dorji, in self-defense, threw a bottle at him and the bully retaliated by pouring a bucket of freezing water over Dorji. When Dorji asked his teacher for support, the bully argued: “He behaves like a girl!”  Instead of offering comfort, the teacher told him: “You need to change if you want this to stop.”

Dorji felt lonelier and would constantly think of the words that people would tell him day to day. Without any information or ways to find support, Dorji grew depressed. He tried to commit suicide twice.

“It’s not easy for me to go back and recollect on those days because whenever I have alone time, whenever I am going to bed, these thoughts come across my mind saying that if I hadn’t been through this experience I might be a really different person; better or worse, but still a different person. The emotion that I felt is a sense of despair, a sense of sadness. But also I feel really proud of myself for going through the situation at a very young age. As a kid you are not supposed to be exposed to the reality of the cruel world that’s out there. But due to that I am really proud I was able to survive that…
“I’m also trying to create a better environment for the upcoming generation, so that they shouldn’t have to go through the same thing I went through as a child. Because no child deserves to go through the same situation that I went through.”

Pema Dorji on being bullied in school

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