‘We’re brothers, sisters and activists’: the Greek collective of gay and trans refugees
For persecuted gay and trans refugees, getting together has given them a safe space as well as vital support. Edward Siddons hears how the group became family they never had.
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 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 NGO-provided 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.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We are rejected by our families, by society and by the authorities[/perfectpullquote]
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 then-boyfriend 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.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Just because I’m a refugee doesn’t mean I’m not having sex, honey[/perfectpullquote]
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 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)