Fleeing Home - LGBT Refugees' Stories




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Jan 29, 2018
by Nicole Bogart
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Fleeing Home - LGBT Refugees' Stories

LGBT refugees share their stories of seeking asylum and helping others within the LGBT community

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.