‘We’re brothers, sis­ters and ac­tivists’

For per­se­cuted gay and trans refugees, form­ing a queer col­lec­tive in Athens has pro­vided vi­tal sup­port. Edward Sid­dons hears how the group be­came the fam­ily they never had

The Observer Magazine - - Lgbt Refugees -

Maha was a fi­nal-year trainee at a po­lice academy in Basra, south­east Iraq, when her phone went miss­ing. It was sum­mer 2011. Only 17, she was ner­vous about telling her par­ents, though not es­pe­cially wor­ried. Only when she was sum­moned to the dean’s of­fice three days later did she re­alise she was in dan­ger. A dozen or so sheets of white pa­per were neatly ar­ranged on the dean’s desk. One by one, he turned them over to re­veal print-outs of in­ti­mate photos taken from Maha’s phone. In some she was naked, nes­tled in the arms of a man whose face re­mains just out of shot. In oth­ers she wears makeup stolen from her mother’s dresser. Fe­male sex­u­al­ity re­mains tightly surveilled in much of Iraq, but Maha’s predica­ment was al­to­gether more com­pli­cated: a trans­gen­der woman, Maha was still a man in the eyes of her fam­ily and the state.

Iraqi law refers to re­li­gious scrip­ture on mat­ters that are not cov­ered by the pe­nal code, such as ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Same-sex in­ti­macy can re­sult in im­pris­on­ment, or the death sen­tence. Maha, whose sur­name has been with­held to pro­tect her iden­tity, was dis­missed from the academy and con­signed to soli­tary con­fine­ment, await­ing trial. A med­i­cal doc­u­ment later sub­mit­ted to court deemed her a “third gen­der” aber­ra­tion.

When she was granted bail, two male rel­a­tives col­lected her from the Baghdad court­room and drove her back to her fam­ily’s com­pound in Basra. “That was when things got re­ally bad,” she told me in Athens when we first met. She was bun­dled into an out­house where she was re­strained and later tor­tured. “They gave me no food, no wa­ter,” she said, speak­ing quickly in brief sen­tences. Her body is still cov­ered with scars. Be­neath thick black hair, a streak on her left shoul­der traces where a rel­a­tive pressed a knife into her.

Pale cir­cles on her left leg mark

‘We are re­jected by our fam­i­lies, by so­ci­ety and by the au­thor­i­ties’

where a nail was driven into her shin. Scar tis­sue from a gun­shot wound is still vis­i­ble on her right hip. When we met she wore a tank top, a thigh-high denim skirt and train­ers. She seemed de­fi­ant, proudly re­silient. Her voice was warm and the­atri­cal. “They wanted the name of the man I was see­ing,” she said of her boyfriend of five years. She re­fused, wor­ried her fam­ily might kill him.

Four days into the or­deal, Maha’s sis­ter stole the key to the out­house and found Maha tied up and trau­ma­tised. Maha’s mem­ory of the night is patchy. She re­mem­bers ask­ing for her sis­ter’s mo­bile, calling her boyfriend while her sis­ter re­trieved Maha’s ID doc­u­ments from her room, and be­ing helped into a car a short time later. Her next clear mem­ory came a few days later, in Er­bil, a Kur­dish city in northern Iraq, where she re­ceived rudi­men­tary med­i­cal treat­ment while her boyfriend found a smug­gler who promised to trans­port her to Turkey.

Over the fol­low­ing six years, Maha ric­o­cheted be­tween Turkey, Jor­dan and Egypt, while tran­si­tion­ing us­ing black mar­ket An­drocur, a testos­terone sup­pres­sant. When the Turk­ish po­lice served her with a de­por­ta­tion or­der she fled to Greece, ar­riv­ing in Athens in June last year. Her boyfriend re­mained trapped in Iraq. Maha kept her un­re­solved trauma at bay with pre­scrip­tion drugs. Ba­sic food and shel­ter did lit­tle to help her re­cover.

Then, a life­line. One day a gay Syr­ian friend she’d met in Is­tan­bul en­cour­aged her to join LGBTQI Refugees Wel­come, the only refugee-led queer col­lec­tive in Athens. It’s an in­for­mal group of vol­un­teers who of­fer a safe space for LGBT refugees. Maha started go­ing along to group meet­ings where other mem­bers shared har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

Yass­mine, a trans Moroc­can woman, had fled a mob of men threat­en­ing to kill her in a camp on Les­bos. Lawrence, a Syr­ian-born gay man, re­counted a bru­tal at­tack by three men when he went to the bath­room one night in NGOpro­vided ac­com­mo­da­tion in Athens. A gay Syr­ian, who asked to be called Ah­mad, told of the time he was al­most thrown over­board by a smug­gler who be­came sus­pi­cious of his sex­u­al­ity on the jour­ney from Turkey.

Maha soon came to see the group as a kind of fam­ily. “It was so much bet­ter than I imag­ined,” she said. “They gave me moral sup­port. They helped me talk about things I had never re­ally talked about be­fore.” Mem­bers of­fered sol­i­dar­ity, not char­ity. She was given help nav­i­gat­ing the asy­lum process. She slowly de­vel­oped last­ing re­la­tion­ships and be­gan to re­cover. When health com­pli­ca­tions left her fight­ing for her life at the end of last year, mem­bers of the group waited at Maha’s bed­side un­til she re­cov­ered.

I first wit­nessed the group in ac­tion last year at one of their weekly as­sem­blies in a back­street squat in Athens. The meet­ing opened with a ques­tion: “If you could pick any lo­ca­tion to have sex, where would it be?” As the line was trans­lated into Ara­bic, mem­bers be­gan to snig­ger. Re­sponses ranged from the ro­man­tic to the lo­gis­ti­cally night­mar­ish. Ah­mad opted for a swim­ming pool, wrapped around the waist of an Arab body­builder. Another mem­ber went for a re­volv­ing bed. Maha, de­spite six years apart and 1,500 miles trav­elled, chose her bed­room, with her boyfriend, back in Basra.

The ex­er­cise was light­hearted, but its pur­pose was deadly se­ri­ous: for peo­ple who have had to con­ceal their sex­u­al­ity or re­press their gen­der iden­tity, rev­el­ling in the quirks and kinks of queer de­sire is lib­er­at­ing. “Th­ese meet­ings of­fer a space where you know you will never be judged,” said Lawrence, who acts as the group’s in­ter­preter. It was an en­vi­ron­ment un­avail­able in many of the mem­bers’ home coun­tries and daily lives.

LGBTQI Refugees Wel­come was founded in 2016 by Suma Ab­del­samie, a Saudi-born trans woman who had fled Turkey for Athens fol­low­ing a slew of trans­pho­bic mur­ders in Is­tan­bul. When Ab­del­samie ar­rived in Greece, she found the scale of des­ti­tu­tion shock­ing. “I knew peo­ple ‹

‹ who were home­less, peo­ple who couldn’t af­ford bread,” she told me over the phone from Swe­den, where she is now seek­ing le­gal res­i­dence. But the plight of LGBT asy­lum seek­ers was with­out par­al­lel. “Most im­mi­grants leave their coun­tries in groups dur­ing wars and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters,” she said. “But we leave alone. We are re­jected by our fam­i­lies, by our so­ci­eties and by the au­thor­i­ties meant to pro­tect us. We lose every­thing.” She’d seen it hap­pen. One day she told me a story of a boy she’d known who had been tor­tured and killed in Is­tan­bul. Her voice cracked and she briefly dis­solved into tears.

Be­fore long Ab­del­samie, with the help of her then­boyfriend and two gay Syr­i­ans she’d met in Is­tan­bul, be­gan host­ing open-house events for other LGBT asy­lum seek­ers in her flat. She cooked, of­fered ad­vice and pro­vided a tem­po­rary haven. “It was a safe space,” she said, a place to build re­la­tion­ships, to re­ceive emo­tional sup­port.

As th­ese in­for­mal meet-ups grew, word of the group reached a lo­cal Greek ac­tivist, Sophia, through a mail­ing list run by the Les­bian Group of Athens. Sophia, whose sur­name has been with­held at her re­quest, had joined refugee sol­i­dar­ity move­ments in the sum­mer of 2015, and at­tended Ab­del­samie’s meet­ings to “lis­ten and learn”. She had heard sto­ries of street ha­rass­ment, mis­gen­der­ing dur­ing asy­lum in­ter­views and ram­pant ho­mo­pho­bia from Greek po­lice of­fi­cers and even NGOs and re­alised how lit­tle at­ten­tion the Greek sol­i­dar­ity move­ment had paid to is­sues of gen­der iden­tity and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

Sophia and Ab­del­samie soon be­came friends. They be­gan to talk at length, shar­ing analo­gies, cri­tiques and jokes, of­ten break­ing down into laugh­ter half­way through a con­ver­sa­tion. To­gether they at­tended Crete Pride in July 2016, Greece’s first self-or­gan­ised and proudly rad­i­cal Pride pa­rade. A month later, when the pop­u­lar­ity of the group was putting too much strain on Ab­del­samie and her co-founders, Sophia promised to help fa­cil­i­tate meet­ings, fundraise and ad­vo­cate for the group. Meet­ings be­gan to take place weekly. As num­bers grew, the venue shifted to LGBT-friendly squats and NGO ac­com­mo­da­tion. They pri­ori­tised fundrais­ing to cover the fees re­quired for travel doc­u­ments, par­tic­u­larly tem­po­rary per­mits of res­i­dence with­out which asy­lum seek­ers can be de­tained at any mo­ment, a po­ten­tially life-threat­en­ing situation for LGBT refugees. Next, group dis­cus­sions turned to gaps in the med­i­cal sys­tem for new ar­rivals, which of­ten left peo­ple with chronic con­di­tions such as HIV with­out life-sav­ing med­i­ca­tion. Throw­ing par­ties and host­ing cook-outs helped them to buy anti-retro­vi­rals in bulk.

In its early days the group re­lied on word of mouth to at­tract new at­ten­dees. Old net­works forged in coun­tries of ori­gin were trans­planted to Athens. Later, a Face­book group was set up to at­tract peo­ple who weren’t in touch with any reg­u­lar mem­bers. More peo­ple came, re­plac­ing other mem­bers who had left Athens in the hope of asy­lum in coun­tries where they had friends, or where they thought they would feel safer. In its two years of rab­ble-rous­ing, the group has pro­vided a sec­ond fam­ily to more than 100 mem­bers of the refugee cri­sis’s most vul­ner­a­ble de­mo­graphic. The group’s lead­ers have al­ways worked hard to en­sure it wouldn’t func­tion just like any other char­ity. “NGOs will give you ser­vices, but they will never give you power,” said Lawrence. Ev­ery group mem­ber I spoke to had ex­pe­ri­enced anti-LGBT prej­u­dice at NGO ser­vices, and felt frus­trated by how char­i­ties treated them as de­pen­dents with­out agency. “This is the hard­core dif­fer­ence be­tween our group and all of the other hu­man­i­tar­ian or­gan­i­sa­tions. Peo­ple are just num­bers to them,” he added.

The meet­ing I at­tended was fa­cil­i­tated by Sophia and Lawrence and had about 15 at­ten­dees. Some were in re­la­tion­ships that had started at the weekly meet­ings. Some had been friends in their home coun­tries, and were now re­united af­ter sep­a­rate jour­neys. Oth­ers had be­come friends through the group, where more of­ten than not they bonded over the ups and downs of dat­ing as an asy­lum seeker, rather than over their shared ex­pe­ri­ences of trauma. “Just be­cause I’m a refugee doesn’t mean I’m not hav­ing sex, honey,” drawled Yass­mine, im­pec­ca­bly dressed, the self-ap­pointed Oprah of the group, over raki shots the fol­low­ing evening.

On the meet­ing’s agenda that day was the asy­lum process and other ser­vices avail­able to in­ter­na­tion­als. Two le­gal ad­vis­ers and a cou­ple of NGO com­mu­nity work­ers had come to of­fer ad­vice, but when one of them, a mid­dle-aged Bri­tish woman, as­serted that LGBT-only English classes weren’t nec­es­sary be­cause her com­mu­nity cen­tre was al­ready “a safe space”, the room bris­tled.

Lawrence’s eye­brows fur­rowed and his face turned heavy with dis­dain. A lynch­pin in the group for his abil­ity to trans­late be­tween English and Ara­bic, he is nor­mally pa­tient and good-na­tured. He shot back with a litany of ho­mo­pho­bic and trans­pho­bic in­ci­dents the group had faced at the cen­tre in which the woman worked, from of­fen­sive com­ments made by other at­ten­dees to one in­ter­preter de­lib­er­ately mis­trans­lat­ing re­quests from an LGBT ser­vice user to pre­vent them from re­ceiv­ing help. The woman quickly be­came em­bar­rassed. None of the panel stepped out of line again.

While le­gal is­sues and ser­vice ac­cess are nec­es­sary evils, hu­man bonds are why mem­bers re­turn. “It’s amaz­ing to meet peo­ple like you,” said Yass­mine, who had been ex­pelled from school, beaten by her fam­ily and at­tacked in the street for be­ing trans grow­ing up in Morocco. “You share so much that you couldn’t back in your coun­try. I feel like I’ve been born again.”

But at­tend­ing group meet­ings is not with­out risk. Many group mem­bers aren’t out to their fam­i­lies, and word trav­els fast on What­sApp. A gay Syr­ian man, who we’ve named Ad­nan, was spot­ted at one of the group’s cook-outs in the spring of

‘Just be­cause I’m a refugee doesn’t mean I’m not hav­ing sex, honey’

2016 by a cousin who had, like him, fled Syria when the civil war broke out in 2011. The cousin told Ad­nan’s par­ents, who re­main in Syria, and ties were al­most sev­ered. “I had to lie,” Ad­nan said. “I told them that I was just a chef, help­ing out a friend.” Putting hun­dreds of miles be­tween him­self and his par­ents still didn’t mean an es­cape from the closet.

This Septem­ber marks two years of the group’s ex­is­tence, and change is afoot. Af­ter strug­gling with fi­nan­cial in­sta­bil­ity, it has re­ceived recog­ni­tion as an of­fi­cial le­gal en­tity, hope­fully free­ing up fund­ing. Now the group will have two arms: a le­gal team will pro­vide LGBT-in­formed ad­vice to reg­u­larise peo­ple’s sta­tus; and the group as it stands now will con­tinue, but in a more so­cial vein.

Since last sum­mer, when I first met the group, much has changed. Maha has drifted from the weekly meet­ings and has had to slowly re­build her life (two strokes nearly killed her in late 2016). The re­la­tion­ship with her boyfriend in Basra later ended, though the friend­ships she made within the group re­main. Lawrence has picked up paid work as an in­ter­preter. Not long ago he set up his own T-shirt print­ing busi­ness, Gen­der Panic, but now hopes to work in the theatre. Suma is con­tin­u­ing her work as a cam­paigner in Swe­den, ad­vo­cat­ing for EU-wide mi­gra­tion re­forms. And that group has changed its name, to Emantes.

“We’re so much more than peo­ple who made a trip be­tween Turkey and Greece,” Lawrence said. “We’re stu­dents, we’re doc­tors, we’re brothers and sis­ters and ac­tivists. We are never, ever just case num­bers.”

But for each mem­ber, the group was or re­mains a sec­ond fam­ily, one not bound by bi­ol­ogy but wo­ven from threads of trauma, re­silience and re­sis­tance in the midst of geopo­lit­i­cal catas­tro­phe. “Fam­ily doesn’t just pro­tect, it gives you sub­stance, it gives you con­text,” Sophia mused. “It gives you all this ground­work, in or­der for you to self-ex­ist at some point. This is some­thing that was taken away from them. And that is some­thing they are tak­ing back.” ■ Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Lawrence Ala­trash

‘We were able to talk about things we never had be­fore’: (from left) Yass­mine orig­i­nally from Morocco; and Lawrence, the group’s trans­la­tor

‘We share so much that we couldn’t in our coun­try’: (from left) Greek ac­tivist Sophia with Lawrence and Yass­mine. The group has been a life­line for them

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