With Syria in crisis, the world is struggling to catch up with assisting the refugees fleeing their homeland. Some of those on the run from the Islamic State (ISIS) are from the LGBTQ community who face certain death if their identity is discovered.
Approximately half of all Syrians have left the country, first going to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, then many of these homeless, migrating people then make their way to Europe, where they seek asylum. About 10.6 million Syrians left their homes; 4.1 million of them are registered as refugees. This is the largest displacement of people the world has ever seen.
Some of those who have fled Syria are LGBTQ individuals, like Subhi Nahas, who briefed the United Nations on his experiences of being targeted and harassed because of his identity by the military, insurgents, and his own family.
Nahas’ story is not atypical. Although he had dodged attacks from the militia in his hometown, he decided he must leave Syria after his father beat him for being gay. He went first to Lebanon, then Turkey, where he lived for two years waiting for his acceptance into the United States. During his time in Turkey, men he knew from Syria had joined ISIS and threatened to track him down and kill him. Fortunately, before this occurred, he was granted the opportunity to come to the United States.
Nahas, along with the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, & Migration (ORAM), is working to raise awareness and assistance for other LGBTQ Syrians. ORAM, based in San Francisco, describe their services on their website, stating that they are “the only international organization devoted solely to advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) refugees fleeing brutalization due to sexual orientation or gender identity.”
ORAM, they note, “works within a paradox of persecution – where secrecy is crucial for safety, but protection requires revealing identity.” Fleeing LGBTQ Syrians face that exact conundrum; they must come out to aid workers and attorneys in order to seek asylum, but revealing their identities can ostracize them from their families or can even put themselves in a position where they are at risk from violence within their communities. Not only is it illegal to be LGBTQ, but it is highly stigmatized.
In addition to directly helping LGBTQ refugees, ORAM trains aid workers to better assist Syrians who may face additional discrimination due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. The tools and training include a glossary of terms, written in five languages, for refugee professionals to use. This can help those who are helping refugees, explained ORAM’s founder and executive director, Neil Grungras, for situations like when “refugee professionals interview someone who is gay, they don’t call him a male prostitute instead of calling him a gay person, which is very, very common. A lot of refugee professionals only know the insulting terms of LGBT people around the world.”
Aid workers, along with the world at large, are now learning how to cope with this flood of doubly marginalized group of people, who desperately need assistance and shelter from violence.