The Smallest Minority in Athens in Search of a Safe Haven
Despite what they have been through, LGBTQI refugees are able to muster the necessary courage to help each other out.
There is a narrative dominating public discourse among westerners, but it is way far from reality. Most people presume that refugees are safe, as soon as they reach European grounds. At the same time, on the Greek islands, people are assaulted inside the hot-spots and refugee camps set up by the Greek government, right in front of police officers. Or someone is stabbed in the streets of Athens. Another individual is left homeless, because he has been granted asylum and is therefore no longer entitled to housing. And a fourth person is now forced to leave the shelter where they lived, because their housemates are bullying them.
These young activists are perhaps the only group of refugees in Greece that help other refugees. People who have relinquished the families that rejected them, or worse, people who have been tortured inhumanely by their own families, who then proceeded to create their own family — with or without quotes — under the title LGBTQI + Refugees in Greece. They try to elicit empathy from Greek society, to make people care for LGBTQI+ refugees, while the Greek State does not consider LGBTQI refugees to be a vulnerable group, forcing some of them to return to Turkey, where they are subjected to beatings, rapes and murders.
“Last year, I lost three of my friends in Turkey. They were only 18 years old when they were murdered. Just because they were gay. How can anyone feel safe in that country?” asks Hossam, 29, co-founder of LGBTQI+ Refugees in Greece. “It is not a safe country for any refugee, not for Kurds, let alone for LGBT people. It’s way more dangerous than you can imagine. “
“Last year, I lost three of my friends in Turkey. They were only 18 years old when they were murdered. Just because they were gay. How can anyone feel safe in that country?” asks Hossam, 29, co-founder of LGBTQI+ Refugees in Greece. “It is not a safe country for any refugee, not for Kurds, let alone for LGBT people. It’s way more dangerous than you can imagine.“
“When we arrived, we tried to communicate with various organizations here, such as the UN High Commission for Refugees. We tried to get in touch with the local LGBT community who know more about Greek legislation and how things work in this country. Several people have helped us, but only for a little while. They then abandoned us” declares Hossam. The only person who has been seriously involved, as it turned out, was Sofia, 31, a Greek woman that remains the only Greek woman in the group up until now, helping them with anything they might need. Sophia takes care of them 24 hours a day and she even hosts one of them in her home. No wonder they call her “mom”.
Hossam from Syria, Sophia from Greece, and Suma from Egypt have begun to ask people from Afghanistan, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries whether they feel safe in Greece and if they need any help. “Nobody cares about LGBTQI + people. Not one organization supports our community or advances our cause; they all treat us like the rest of the refugees. We need increased protection because there have been many incidents in camps where LGBT persons have been molested and raped. Life in the camps is very difficult and dangerous. We escaped from a homophobic culture and we found ourselves in camps with the same homophobic culture.”
The most heartbreaking story is that of Maha, 23, from Iraq. She once worked there as a male police officer who nevertheless was privately a transsexual woman. When photographs of her personal life were revealed she was prosecuted, but in the meantime, her own family beat her continuously, for ten days, using all the violent means at their disposal, resulting in a stabbed hand and various wounds all over her body.
“From all those things that I have been through, from torture to harassment on the street, what bothers me the most is that my boyfriend can not get a visa for Greece,”she says.
The hard past
“When they found out that I was a Kurd, they stripped me naked, they took all of my belongings and they hit me mercilessly, at the head and the body. I spend three months in the hospital and when I was finally released, I suddenly found myself back at my home in Syria. I had lost my senses from the beating on my head,” explains Muhammad, 26. With these words he described his first attempt to cross the border between Turkey and Greece, something which he achieved only on his second attempt.
The family of 22-year-old Hassan discovered he was gay during his last year in high school. He did not succeed at finishing school that year, he already faced many problems with his family, who had stopped talking to him because of his sexual orientation. Eventually, when a bomb dropped at the college he had just enrolled in, he decided to leave Syria. He arrived in Athens on August 24, 2016.
“In Turkey, you can not even protect yourself. Gay Turks have no rights at all. Imagine what happens when you are a gay refugee.”
When he left Turkey, he believed he would be liberated from this situation. But it only got worse.
“When I came to Greece last October and remained in the refugee camp for two months, I was assaulted nine times. I had to shower at night with cold water, just to be safe. Sometimes I had to lock myself up, being trapped in there for three whole hours until everyone else was gone and I could exit safely. Whenever I washed my clothes and hang them out to dry, they were torn apart. The last time I was harassed, two Syrians held me down by the legs and arms while an Iranian kicked me; I ended up with one red eye and a broken back. I had to be hospitalized for a week, until UNHCR decided that I was not safe in the camp anymore” claims Lawrence.
“The refugee camp employees do nothing. Even if someone hits me, they will not care. ‘I’m sorry, my dear, there’s nothing we can do for you’. That’s what they told me when they saw me all beaten up and bruised. Do not call me ‘dear’, just do something to help. Neither does the police intervene. If two refugees begin to rumble, they might kill each other and the police will not separate them. The police will just shut the doors and watch. There is evidence of all this” Lawrence continues.
People who have escaped war, although they have experienced very violent situations themselves, when in safe terrain, they are those who may react violently against other refugees, even against those with whom they have shared the same boat, who fought against the same waves.
“It was not easy coming to Greece, but in Cameroon homosexuality is not acceptable. I spent a month outside, I slept in parks, I had no money and I had to find something to eat. I cried every day” says Patricia, 26, a new member of the team from Cameroon. “I trust in the power of God that things will improve so that I can be integrated in Greece, because it’s here where I want to stay. That is why my main priority is to learn the language” she adds, repeating several times how much she wants to find a job, how eager she is to work and become incorportated in Greece, so that she can calm down and feel stable.
“Unfortunately, people in Syria suffer and will continue to suffer for a long time. But the refugees who have come to Europe remain angry and religious, this will not change. As LGBT refugees we face problems mainly because of the other refugees. They intimidate and attack us more than the Greeks who don’t really care much” comments Lawrence. At the moment, besides all the hardships that he has gone through, he also has to face his family in Syria, because a straight Syrian refugee posted a video of him taking part in the Athens Pride Festival in an Arabic group on Facebook.
Uncertainty is here
Unfortunately, no country lacks homophobic behaviors. The only thing that seems to give those people courage and hope is their group and their joined activities. Initially, as there was no financial support, they organized Arabic dinners and small parties, to raise money. They also designed T-shirts to sell at Athens Pride Festival. They managed to make several contacts with quite a few organizations advocating LGBTQI + community issues, but they still need assistance.
“Nobody knows our reality. Many people assume that since we are in Europe, we are safe, they do not realize the true situation we experience. All we request is safety, nothing else” says Hossam. One of the biggest ironies of the refugee crisis in Greece is that once someone is provided with asylum, they are no longer entitled to housing or financial support. “They throw you out on the street, which is particularly hard for LGBTQI + people. Can you imagine the abuse?”
“We are subjected to negative comments and ugly behaviors from other refugees, when we just walk in the streets of Athens, especially in Patissia, Acharnes, and Victoria, the districts of Athens where many of us live and move around. Imagine how much worse things are for someone who sleeps in the street. We can not go to any squat. If we do, they will shame us, or may even kill us. We hold a weekly assembly, at a different place every week. Because even in the squats, other refugees make certain to tell us their unsolicited judgement of LGBTQ people, using various lousy names. Indeed, even in squats the environment is not safe” concludes Lawrence.
“Where am I going to live now? How?”
What is of paramount importance for these people, is their housing project. The maximum time they allowed to remain in the housing provided to refugees, a mere 3 months, has already elapsed and they are now evicted from the hospitality structures. “I did not have a place to stay in Greece. They recognized me as a refugee and instructed me to leave the apartment. I was unable to find a job. Even the Greeks cannot get jobs here, how can the refugees succeed? Let alone LGBTQI+ refugees for that matter. So I decided to leave Greece, but my endeavor was quite awful, which is why I returned. Now we are trying to raise money through a project, in order to rent a place to live. A place where we will at least feel safe. Where no one attacks us on our way to the supermarket. To integrate in society and start a new life” resolves Hossam.
“We need people’s assistance. It will be beneficial for society itself. We will learn the language, we will begin to be productive by offering work and we will support ourselves, along with society. Because most of us have skills and competences, we are educated, we can continue to live our lives following a prosperous path, giving back to the whole world. We only need the first ‘push’ to get started, to feel welcome in this country” he declares.
For the first time since they stepped on Greek soil, they attempt to have the last word about how to lead their lives. Up until now, all issues concerning them were pre-selected and predetermined by others, not by themselves. “You will do that, you will stay there, you will return to Turkey, you will be relocated to Sweden.”
Sharing is caring
The fundraising process that will enable them to rent a safe home in a gay-friendly area has begun. Sophia, the Greek who has been helping them, comments that “The issue is that NGOs only look at numbers and statistics. They are not interested, for instance, if one refugee has self-destructive tendencies. All these people have experienced and have witnessed a lot of violence in their lives and some of them reproduce it. NGOs do their best with psychological support groups, for example, but do not act immediately. Perhaps because of the lack of resources, I do not know what other reason may explain this. But the situation in the refugee homes is tragic, and life becomes unbearable.” Sofia reveals.
During the summer, the activists wrote stories to expose the situation at the camps, and are currently deliberating with lawyers in an attempt to publicize their issues. There are 20 LGBTQI+ refugees in the Moria camp, in Lesvos, and the activists are making an effort to collect their stories. They will subsequently organize a conference which may help somehow to relocate them to Athens.
“I was astounded that the Greek Media never dealt with this issue at all. Greek people did not publish the #Rockumenta video. We were given publicity in England, Germany, Spain, USA, but in Greece no-one turned the spotlight on us. It is important that the Greek society learns about the existence of the group” maintains Sophia. She volunteered for many causes, but when she realized that there was nobody assisting LGBTQI+ refugees in Greece, she focused all her attention on them.
“All the NGOs and the humanitarian organisations, and especially the institutional ones, are virtually non-existent — with the exception of the Greek Transgendered Support Association. They do not supply any kind of help. Even Athens Pride, that is supposed to be an advocate for LGBT rights, is just good for an annual parade, and all the funds they raise are exclusively channeled to that parade, not to support any LGBTQI+ people.”
People who deserted their homelands because they were abused in a variety of ways, arrived in Greece and continue to be abused. Lawrence looks disappointed, “For us, it’s not just the war of the last few years. The war was a way out, both for us and for the oppressed women. We have lived our entire lives under oppressive conditions. We have been trapped since the day we were born.”