My story started in Syria in 2003. I was a gay teenager coming out of the closet to my family. Shortly after, I had to escape to Egypt. Back then, I really thought Egypt could be the answer to the problems I experienced in Syria as a result of my sexuality. In reality, that was the first time I became a refugee. All I had was a gym bag full of clothes and $200 in my pocket. But within my first weeks in Egypt, I was advised to keep my sexuality to the limits of the gay community.
In 2001, before I arrived in Egypt, police forces stormed a club, “Queen Boat,” and arrested 52 gay men. They were accused of “debauchery” and “obscene behaviour.” In 2014 alone, more than 150 men accused of homosexuality were arrested in Egypt. To escape the shame of the arrest, one of the men burned himself alive. So like the other gay men around me, I led a double life for many years in Egypt.
I was “out” in my personal life to all of my friends. Professionally, I was still in the closet. That was, until 2006, when I received a bouquet of flowers at the offices of the magazine I worked for. It was from the man I was dating at the time. A colleague, who happened to also be a closeted gay man, recognized the man delivering the flowers. He whispered this information into the wrong ear. Management forced me to undertake an HIV test and to reveal the results to my bosses. If I was positive, I would be deported back to Syria. That didn’t happen, but I was fired regardless. They told me to be thankful that they didn’t tell anyone or call the police.
I think this was the moment when I maturely accepted my sexuality. I realized, maybe for the first time, that my sexuality is not a separate thing from me. It’s not a puppy that follows me around wherever I go; that I can put in the doghouse and ignore when it’s not convenient. I can’t separate it from myself; no matter how hard I try. In the following years, before I left Egypt, I was publicly out of the closet. I published two
books, started a career in journalism, traveled abroad to Malaysia, and learned how to dance. The magazine that fired me, Gernas, closed its doors in 2008.
FINDING A HOME IN SYRIA
Eight years later, following the Egyptian revolution in 2011, I returned to Damascus. I never expected to find a home there, knowing the social structure of the Syrian community.
Straight, married young men feel entitled to the top of this hierarchical pyramid, earning the respect of the community. On the other hand, gay Syrian men fall all the way down to the bottom of this pyramid.
We stand there with other “deviant people” like us: promiscuous women, transgender persons and sex workers.
To maintain their social standing, some closeted gay men get married to unsuspecting women, further extending the double life they are living. Generally speaking, Syrian families disown, murder, or attempt to “fix” their LGBT children through outdated therapy or physical torture. If their sexuality is reported to the authorities, a gay man can be sentenced to up to three years in prison, where they are mostly tortured and raped.
That’s why, in Syria, I felt stuck, defeated, and afraid. I was broken, lonely, and I didn’t have any understanding friends.
Then, I met Mariam. I recognized that she might be gay, too. Mariam and I were born to be criminals in the eyes of the Syrian law. We were born to be on the outskirts of the social structure and accepted our fate as fugitives. Slowly, she joined me in my attempt at finding a home for the two of us.
Still, it took months before we were able to come out and “confess” our sexual orientation to each other. This happened when the Syrian civil war was picking up steam. By mid-2011, the war in Syria had created the now-everlasting sounds of clashes around Damascus. The sounds of death almost deafened both Mariam and me.
We escaped our troubles into the only place where we could truly be ourselves: my little house. It was an ugly, cold, dark place when I got it. But slowly, the house filled up with friends. The house became a sanctuary for LGBT people, a place where they could be themselves too. People who just wanted to be proud of their identity and to be accepted by others.
Friends invited friends, and suddenly, we all had a home. We all escaped the religious society, our conservative families, and the violence around us. We considered that house to be our home on the edge of a civil war.
We started to build a small community around that home: the house was filled at any moment, day or night, with five, sometimes 10 people. We were so many, the small sofa I had broke down from overuse.
Angry neighbors came by, knocked on the door, and demanded to know what we did inside. We feared that some of them might call the police, or worse, the old Syrian landlady with her sharp mouth. One night, one of the neighbors knocked on my door. He stood in the darkness outside and promised to kick me out of my own home. He told me that he knows “what I am.” I smiled, and invited him in. He whispered an insult and disappeared into the night.
On that night, we decided to collect all the insults we heard. We decided to hang them as post-it notes on one of the walls. With them, we also hung words that meant something to us: Free. Happy. Love.
EMBRACING GAY PRIDE
Later that year, 2011, I won a scholarship to attend an activism workshop in Turkey. I left the house keys to Mariam, packed my bags, and traveled to Istanbul. The workshop, organized by CREA, an Indian NGO that believes in the greater good of supporting LGBT activists in the Middle East. For weeks, I learned from other activists across the Middle East about LGBT activism, sexuality, gender identities, and sexual health. The NGO invited professors to speak, some from Columbia University, who expanded our horizons tremendously.
In Istanbul, I attended my first gay pride parade. The parade reminded me why gay pride parades were created in the first place: To demand rights, to change perspectives, to envision a better future for all the citizens of the world equally, where everyone lives with dignity and respect. There, while waving a rainbow flag and kissing boys in the streets of Istanbul, the Turkish chants that I barely understood echoed in my head.
I know that it will take years, maybe decades, for my country to witness its first gay pride parade. But that moment of true pride gave me, and my small circle of friends, hope for a better future.
When I returned home to Syria, I realized that this little house on the outskirts of Damascus had created something new. The gay and the lesbian communities, divided and distant in Syria, started to get to know one another in the safety of our home. Gay women started to trust me; and by association, they started to trust other gay men. Together, we started to feel like a big family.
We were all broken, but we carried one another. We shared one car, one house, one fridge, and even the rent. Finally, deep in the night, when the storms were screaming, and the war was roaring, we shared beers, and we shared hugs.
Our little LGBT community went into a panic after Amina Arraf, a Syrian-American gay blogger and freedom activist, was reportedly arrested by the Syrian regime in June 2011. We thought that gay people were being targeted for arrest. Our home was our well-kept secret that allowed us to discuss this crisis. Though we had never met Amina, we sat for hours discussing her blog posts, trying to find out how to help her. We spent days getting in touch with others in our community, and high profile friends with connections to the government; we tried rallying support online.
It didn’t take long before the members of our community came back with conflicting reports. Based on the information we gathered, we realized that Amina wasn’t a real person. Collectively, with the help of journalists, including my NPR colleague Andy Carven, and online LGBT activists, we managed to uncloak the ugly truth.
Amina Arraf never existed. It was an online hoax created by an American man living in the safety of Scotland; mobilizing the LGBT situation in Syria for his own ends. Following this, I wrote articles about the real gay and lesbian community in Syria for the Guardian and Foreign Policy, among other publications. I got a steady job in a local NGO in Syria. I was happy. I honestly thought that this home in Damascus would be mine forever. It didn’t take long before I realized I was wrong.
WAR DESTROYS SYRIA, AND OUR DREAMS
A protest broke out outside of our house in mid-2012. We were scared, so we turned off the lights, and heard screaming and shooting. Someone was knocking on our door, and we were frightened. We felt unprotected, afraid, and lonely. We knew no one would come to our rescue if we were ever arrested by the government, attacked by our society, abandoned by our families, or captured by terrorists.
After that night, the home returned to its old status as a simple house. As safety left Damascus, the house was slowly deserted. We started to meet outside, and roam the city in our one car, afraid of checkpoints and explosive vehicles.
As the war grew bigger in Syria, eating away the dreams of our small community, we have become scattered. Mariam has left Syria due to family pressure. She is living now somewhere else with her girlfriend. On her last trip around Damascus, she passed by the house from afar. She told me that the home, our home, has been destroyed; smashed to the ground by a tank.
I—once again—escaped Syria after the Syrian regime caught scent of my work, both as a journalist and as an LGBT activist. I fled to Lebanon, where I registered to become a Syrian refugee. I didn’t want to be just another number on a UNHCR list. I didn’t want to lose hope. I found a job covering the war in Syria for the Washington Post. I also had a small role helping LGBT activists in Lebanon organize their own protests, events, and celebrations.
My partner and I enjoyed Beirut as best we could. We were refugees; we needed support, but we were not helpless. We didn’t just want to escape the harsh circumstances of our past; we wanted to build a home that we are proud of. This is how I survived: in Egypt, in Syria and now in Lebanon.
My story now has a new chapter in Canada, but I’m not planning on stopping here. During our first six months in Vancouver, I struggled to the edge of a mental breakdown. I wasn’t only fighting to establish myself here. This time, I was fighting to change the stereotypical views associated with refugees. Our expectations clashed with the reality of life in Canada; the cultural shock alone was overwhelming. Without Canadian education or experience, a skilled worker like me is limited to under-the-table survival jobs.
A NEW CHAPTER BEGINS
Now that we’re in a relatively safe place, we also are finally forced to face the many demons we ignored for too long. The fear that rooted itself within our minds is not easily letting go of its grip. It manifests itself in new ways. For me, I sometimes get overcome with fear while doing simple tasks, like riding a bike. Even a simple, peaceful activity like that can be challenging when you suddenly fear the cars passing by you, the people walking the streets.
We struggle with survivor’s guilt, too. We have left people behind in Syria, in Egypt, and in Lebanon, people we care for deeply. Other gay and lesbian people who deserve the same chance that we were given. I’m an openly gay man who experienced the world; and still, it took me six months to start adapting to my community here, and to feel like myself again. Without professional help from local NGOs, people like me might be lost in the face of those tremendous changes.
Worse, people like my friends back in the Middle East might be forgotten. As a former refugee, I feel responsible to be a successful citizen here; not just for me, but also for all other Syrian refugees, and all the LGBT refugees who will come after me. I want to show Canadians and westerners that LGBT refugees, with the right support, can and will embrace their new home. I want to show that LGBT refugees can give back to the community that opens its arms for them.
To do this, I need to be resilient. I need to be strong.