Gay refugees face abuse in Europe

In re­sponse to per­se­cu­tion from oth­ers seek­ing asy­lum, Ber­lin of­fi­cials plan sep­a­rate hous­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­THONY FAIOLA an­thony.faiola@wash­post.com

DRES­DEN, GER­MANY — Rami Kti­fan made a snap de­ci­sion to come out. A fel­low Syr­ian had spot­ted a rain­bow flag ly­ing near the 23-year-old univer­sity stu­dent’s be­long­ings in­side a packed refugee cen­ter. The cu­ri­ous man, Kti­fan re­called, picked it up be­fore ca­su­ally ask­ing, “What is this?”

“I de­cided to tell the truth, that it is the flag for gay peo­ple like me,” Kti­fan said. “I thought, I am in Europe now. In Ger­many, I should not have to hide any­more.”

What fol­lowed over the next sev­eral weeks, though, was abuse — both ver­bal and phys­i­cal — from other refugees, in­clud­ing an at­tempt to burn Kti­fan’s feet in the mid­dle of the night. The ha­rass­ment ul­ti­mately be­came so se­vere that he and two other openly gay asy­lum seek­ers were re­moved from the refugee cen­ter with the aid of a lo­cal gay ac­tivist group and placed in sep­a­rate ac­com­mo­da­tions across town.

As the largest flow of refugees since World War II streams into Europe, Kti­fan’s case il­lus­trates an emerg­ing prob­lem for gay and les­bian asy­lum seek­ers. Some of them ar­rive in Europe only to find them­selves un­der threat from fel­low refugees.

Gays who face of­fi­cial per­se­cu­tion in na­tions such as Iran and Uganda have been flee­ing to Europe for years. But ex­perts es­ti­mate that a record num­ber of gays and les­bians seek­ing asy­lum, as many as 50,000, will ar­rive this year in Ger­many, the Euro­pean na­tion ac­cept­ing the largest num­ber of refugees. Rather than leav­ing their home coun­tries specif­i­cally be­cause of anti-gay per­se­cu­tion, many are flee­ing vi­o­lence and war in na­tions such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Once in Europe, gays and les­bians are herded along with other asy­lum seek­ers into cramped shel­ters and camps, where a num­ber of them are ex­posed to se­ri­ous ha­rass­ment.

There are no of­fi­cial fig­ures. But the Les­bian and Gay Fed­er­a­tion of Ber­lin and Bran­den­burg, for in­stance, says it is re­ceiv­ing three to six cases a week in which gay asy­lum seek­ers have been vic­tims of phys­i­cal abuse, in­clud­ing sex­ual as­sault. Ear­lier this month, a 21-year-old gay Arab asy­lum seeker in Ber­lin was hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter he was in­sulted and as­saulted at the refugee cen­ter where he was stay­ing. In the city of Dres­den, an east­ern Ger­man me­trop­o­lis of 525,000, at least seven gay asy­lum seek­ers have been re­moved from shel­ters this year for their own safety.

Sens­ing a grow­ing threat, of­fi­cials in Ber­lin are seek­ing to open the city’s first refugee cen­ter ex­clu­sively for gays and les­bians. The Ber­lin gay fed­er­a­tion, mean­while, has rolled out a new cam­paign called Love De­serves Re­spect, putting up posters in­side refugee cen­ters show­ing three cou­ples kiss­ing — a man and a woman, two women and two men.

“Just like ev­ery­one else, with the refugees, there are good ones and bad ones, and there are those who are car­ry­ing ho­mo­pho­bic at­ti­tudes from their home­lands,” said Jouanna Has­soun, head of the Ber­lin gay fed­er­a­tion’s mi­grant pro­gram. “Those at­ti­tudes won’t be aban­doned im­me­di­ately.”

Part of the de­bate

The in­ci­dents are fast be­com­ing po­lit­i­cal light­ning rods, play­ing into the broader de­bate in Ger­many over ques­tions of how to in­te­grate hun­dreds of thou­sands of new refugees and whether to start send­ing more of them back.

The ma­jor­ity of the new­com­ers are com­ing from na­tions in the Mid­dle East and Africa with sharply dif­fer­ent laws and so­cial norms from Ger­many re­gard­ing, for ex­am­ple, gays and women. Even some on Ger­many’s po­lit­i­cal right — rarely seen as cham­pi­ons of gay rights — have seized on gay bash­ing as fur­ther ev­i­dence of the dan­gers of ac­cept­ing so many refugees, many of whom may never fully em­brace mod­ern Ger­man val­ues.

Many on the po­lit­i­cal left, while de­mand­ing pro­tec­tions for all refugees, con­cede that there is, at the very least, a steep learn­ing curve ahead for new­com­ers to ac­cept es­tab­lished norms in a coun­try that is led by a fe­male chan­cel­lor — An­gela Merkel — and that of­fers le­gal ben­e­fits, if not full mar­riage, to same-sex cou­ples.

“You must for­get what you learned at home about what is right or wrong,” com­men­ta­tor Har­ald Marten­stein re­cently wrote in the Ber­lin daily Der Tagesspiegel, ad­dress­ing refugees. “You do not have to give up your cul­ture, not that. But you must ac­cept the equal­ity of women. You must learn that ho­mo­sex­u­als and Jews are just like ev­ery­one else. You must bear mock­ing and satire, even when it con­cerns your re­li­gion. . . . If you don’t ac­cept th­ese rules, you have no fu­ture here.”

Kti­fan and two other men — Yousif al-Doori, 25, of Iraq, and Ahmed Suli­man, 20, of Syria — said that ini­tially they suf­fered only ver­bal abuse af­ter word spread about their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion in a refugee shel­ter in Mu­nich. But af­ter they were re­lo­cated with other refugees to a longer-term fa­cil­ity in Dres­den, things took a turn for the worse.

At one point, Kti­fan said, an­other refugee slipped into his room at night, stuck pieces of pa­per be­tween his toes and set them on fire. Al-Doori said sev­eral male refugees from North Africa and the Mid­dle East sur­rounded him and then de­manded sex. He said he pre­tended to go with one of them will­ingly be­fore run­ning away. Kti­fan, al-Doori and Suli­man said they were rou­tinely pushed and shoved by fel­low refugees while in line for food. Sev­eral of the male refugees would shout at them “to go wait with the women,” Kti­fan said.

The ha­rass­ment be­came so con­stant that, with the aid of lo­cal gay ac­tivists, Kti­fan, al-Doori and Suli­man were pulled out of the refugee cen­ter last month and in­stalled in a small sep­a­rate apart­ment near the city cen­ter. The dan­gers they faced, though, were noth­ing new.

Be­fore flee­ing for Europe, al-Doori said, he was kid­napped and held for two days in Baghdad by reli­gious thugs who had tried to ex­tort his fam­ily be­cause he is gay. Kti­fan said that in Syria he hid his sex­u­al­ity from all but a se­lect few and ini­tially fled to Libya to es­cape his coun­try’s civil war. But af­ter a Libyan man tried to black­mail him for be­ing gay, Kti­fan said, he re­turned to Syria. As he grew in­creas­ingly fear­ful of Is­lamist ex­trem­ists who were tar­get­ing gays and les­bians, he said he de­cided to join the ex­o­dus to Europe.

“We thought we were leav­ing that kind of treat­ment be­hind,” Suli­man said. “But in­side the refugee cen­ter, it felt like we were back in Syria.”

Widely dif­fer­ing views

Yet opin­ions among refugees re­gard­ing gays and les­bians dif­fer widely and of­ten are very nu­anced. On a re­cent af­ter­noon out­side Ber­lin’s teem­ing main refugee reg­is­tra­tion cen­ter, some asy­lum seek­ers who were asked about their be­liefs strongly de­nounced gays and les­bians and said they should not be tol­er­ated.

Oth­ers, such as Ali Ah­mad Hay­dari, a 25-year-old fa­ther of four who said he had lost two of his chil­dren dur­ing the war in Afghanistan, said ac­cept­ing gay rights came with the ter­ri­tory of a new life in Europe.

“I don’t have a prob­lem with that,” he said.“I like the free­dom here. Ev­ery­body should live as they want.”

TOP: Ahmed Suli­man, 20, of Syria sits in the kitchen of an apart­ment in Dres­den he shares with other gay refugees thanks to the in­ter­ven­tion of a lo­cal gay ac­tivist group. MID­DLE: Rami Kti­fan, 23, said an­other refugee slipped into his room at a refugee cen­ter, stuck pieces of pa­per be­tween his toes and set them on fire. BOT­TOM: Kaled, a refugee from Syria who did not give his last name, out­side the build­ing in Dres­den where he lives with other gay asy­lum seek­ers.

PHO­TOS BY MARIO WEZEL FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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