Seeking Freedom

Marianna Karakoulaki from Thessaloniki collected some stories about LGBT refugees arrived in Greece, seeking asylum for finally live their sexuality in freedom. Their interviews, nevertheless, reveal the difficulties met in Greece in living a life full of prejudices and fear.

When Aram was in Iraqi Kurdistan he dreamt of living in a place where he would feel free. The conservative Muslim society in his city made his daily life difficult as he had to keep his sexual orientation a secret. This is the reason he decided to flee his country and come to Europe. His friends who were also LGBT helped him throughout his journey. Initially, he went to Turkey where he stayed for a while. Then in the summer of 2017, it was time to go. 

Even though the most common route for asylum seekers who arrive in Greece is through the Aegean Sea, Aram chose the Evros River; Greece and Turkey’s natural border in the northern eastern part of Greece. The border area of the Evros River used to be the most common crossing for asylum seekers until 2012 when Greece erected a fenced wall. However, it started becoming popular again after March 2016 due to the EU-Turkey Statement and new reality and difficulties it created to Eastern Mediterranean route through the islands of the Aege.

 

The Travel Day

Aram and those who crossed with him during that night stayed hidden in the forest near the river for a night. At three in the morning they would attempt to reach Greece. “When people in general travel to another country, they usually go to the train station or to the airport. I felt that the forest was like a train station,” he says.

“Inside the boat, I felt that I was inside an airplane. When we started I felt that the plane was taking off and I am going to another country. But my hand touched water. How can my hand touch water when I am inside a train or an airplane?” he continues.  

His attempt was successful but after reaching Greece he was caught by the police. Following the identification process by the Greek authorities, his case of asylum was opened and he came to Thessaloniki. 

Aram describes his first day in Thessaloniki as a shock. He didn’t have a house, his family and friends were far. He knew where he was but he felt lost. He went to a camp where other Kurdish asylum seekers lived.

Living in Fear

Months after his arrival Aram had found the freedom he was looking for; he started volunteering with foreign volunteers who were assisting refugees in Greece and had started learning English. Yet he was not fully free. While still living in the camp, he was afraid of talking about his sexuality because he did not know what to expect from the community of refugees. 

That fear is very common among LGBT refugees in Greece. Ahmed from Syria, Habib from Algeria and Pedro from Lebanon share similar concerns with Aram. 

Ahmed, a queer refugee fled from Syria to Turkey. In Turkey Ahmed chose to live as a transgender woman but the country was not safe for him. Due to constant abuse and fear in Turkey he decided to come to Greece. 

“When I first applied for asylum in Greece I told the case workers the truth about me. I am a gay man but I feel as a woman. In Thessaloniki I live a normal life and I am free,” he says. 

The reality for Ahmed though is much more complicated. Ahmed’s case was deemed as vulnerable and for this reason he was placed in an apartment in Thessaloniki where he lives with two other people. Yet he rarely spends any time at home. His house mates are not LGBT. Even though Ahmed’s friends call him with a woman’s name, he no longer lives as a transgender woman. Expressing his true identity would put him in danger. 

“Because I don’t want to cause any problems with my house mates, I don’t stay in the house. And when I do, I lock my door,” he says.

“I am not very happy in Greece. There are many refugees in the country but I don’t feel very comfortable when I see many of them. I have problems with refugees as they swear at me and in some cases they beat me. I don’t want this. I want to live as a person,” he continues. 

Ahmed has complained several times to the UNHCR but even though they are aware of his situation they are not able to help him. 

While Ahmed complains about his living conditions in Greece, Habib seems to agree. 

Habib fled Algeria and his conservative family because he wanted to live as an open gay man. His family is not aware of his sexuality or the fact that he is in Greece. He fled because Algeria was no longer safe for him. 

Habib arrived in Greece, at the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea in May 2018. During his identification process he applied for asylum based on his sexual orientation and also applied for accommodation based on vulnerability issues. Despite daily promises, Habib, stayed in a tent inside the hotspot of Vial in Chios. A few months later, Habib was sent to a hotel which is used as accommodation for refugees in Northern Greece. Yet even though he was told he was going to be placed in an accommodation for LGBT refugees he was taken to a hotel with families. 

“When I tell people that I am from Algeria they call me a thief. When I tell them I am LGBT they get angry, they swear at me. They say that I am not normal, that I am not a man,” he says. “If I didn’t have my friends, I would stay in the streets,” he continues. 

“My life is only for me”

Pedro, who is good friends with Habib, and fled from Lebanon for the same reasons as the others, is more vocal when it comes to the life of LGBT refugees in Greece. 

One of the main reasons Pedro finds life difficult in Greece is the country’s economic conditions. He understands that in order to start a new life he needs to have a job and to learn the language. Yet he also thinks that people in the country are not tolerant with the LGBT community. 

“I think Greece is the same as Lebanon, Algeria and other Arab countries. There is no help for LGBT people. I don’t want to be in the closet, I need to be open,” he says. 

In his search for safety and before coming to Greece, Pedro lived in Germany for a year where he found out he was HIV positive and he started therapy.  

“In the past I had many issues with myself. I became a Muslim, I became a Christian, I was even married. But the problems continued. Right now I don’t care. I don’t care what my family thinks or what people think. I am LGBT and I have HIV. No one has helped me. But life is my own,” he says. 

Living in the closet

Since they fled to Greece Aram, Ahmed, Habib, and Pedro had similar experiences in Greece but they have different goals. All of them faced difficulties and even though they feel the country is safe, they don’t feel it is a place that people can freely express their sexuality. Apart from Pedro, the rest live in the closet in fear of their own community. 

Aram is the only one from the three that remains positive. Greece reminds him of his country. He knows that staying in Greece is his only chance of staying in Europe as he realised applying for asylum elsewhere would be almost impossible. While he waits for his asylum decision he volunteers and works as an interpreter. 

Habib and Pedro are worried about the future and are wondering if they will ever be able to live their lives as the rest of the people. Habib is in fear of revealing his sexual orientation to others. 

Ahmed as soon as he received his asylum and refugee passport has left from Greece and filed an application for asylum elsewhere in Europe.

 

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