THE BLOG

LGBTQ Refugees Need And Deserve Dignity

22/06/2017 17:07 | Updated 23 June 2017
csakisti via Getty Images

I woke up feeling alone, a stranger in my own country for the first time on 24 June last year having learned the UK would be leaving the EU. I am the son of a Czech refugee, Jewish and gay; a minority within a minority within a minority. Even though I am British and was born in London I suddenly felt like an outsider. I felt forcibly cut off from the roots I had always been proud of. Being European is also part of my identity and I felt robbed of it. Yet even these feelings, felt from the safety of my own home, are a luxury. The LGTBQ refugees I now support are not so lucky.

I first arrived in Athens the following August to investigate the need for a support group for LGBTQ refugees. I have nearly 15 years of experience of working with homeless people in East London and hoped I could put this to use for asylum seekers and other volunteers. A friend Sumita who I know from this put me in touch with Marina of the NGO called Zaatar, who was already working with a couple of LGBTQ refugees.

Being gay in a country where it's illegal or culturally unacceptable often means living a life in the shadows, hiding out of fear from family, friends, employers and the authorities. Many people don't even realise they can claim asylum due to sexuality and prejudiced or ignorant lawyers often fail to inform them. Sometimes, people don't even know they've arrived in a country where it's legal to identify as LGBTQ.

I knew this already, but Greece still wasn't what I expected. Few aid workers appreciated this and not a lot was being done to offer any kind of support for the particular needs of LGBTQ refugees. I was astounded by the number of times aid workers who would tell me: "we don't have any LGBTQ refugees here, we'd know," and never had an answer when I asked them how they'd know.

If I thought my newfound feelings of marginalisation were bad, here was another minority within a minority within a minority, in a much worse predicament than me. Not only had they been through what my father had been through fleeing persecution and war, losing everything, being cut off from their family, friends and roots, they were also LGBTQ.

Those who had come out in their home countries - something which required immense courage -still bore the scars of the trauma that followed: enduring or living in fear of arrest, beatings, murder, assassination by extremist groups, ostracism, conscription, physical abuse and forced marriages. Being in a country where homosexuality was legal couldn't erase those horrors overnight. Those who hadn't come out faced that terrifying, excruciating process, alone, scared and in a foreign country. To make matters worse they still lived at risk of assault and abuse in the camps. Little to nothing was in place to protect them and they had no one to turn to.

I know how my father and his family suffered, how difficult it is to come out, how important your roots are and how it feels to have them torn away from you. I know what it's like to be part of a minority and how much refugees contribute to society (it was 17th Century Portuguese Jews who brought fish and chips to the UK after all). Those refugees needed and deserved dignity. Marina and I were determined to do something to help.

That's how ATLAS was born (Aid To LGBTQ Asylum-Seekers). We run a multilingual helpline for personal safety issues, access to counselling and legal, medical and accommodation advice which has fielded 214 interactions so far and support for refugees from 17 nationalities across 7 countries. To reach as many people as possible, we're even on Grindr. (Yes, refugees use Grindr too.) We work mostly in Greece, where we are also establishing an education and sensitisation program for NGO workers, volunteers and the wider refugee population in the hope we can help create spaces where people feel confident and safe enough to come out and come forward for support.

We are a one-stop shop. If we can't help, we find someone who can. We have built a comprehensive database of LGBTQ specialist and friendly service providers that we can call on and refer on to. From the first contact we act as the liaison for whatever help people need. We pre-empt, we monitor, we don't accept no for an answer and we help at every stage of their asylum process. Above all, we are there to listen. You'd be surprised how much that means to people. Sometimes, it's the difference between life and death.

So far, all of this has been possible with about €100 and plenty of goodwill. But if we can raise enough money we'd like to reach out to the camps of mainland Greece and islands like Lesvos and Samos and provide emergency accommodation for people in immediate danger. Since we became operational, the horrifying evidence of physical and sexual abuse that's emerged from some of the camps left us in no doubt that there are lives to be saved in doing this work.

Around this, the anniversary of the Brexit referendum, we also remember the legacy of Jo Cox, celebrated jointly by Refugee Week and the Great Get Together in celebration of her belief that we have more in common than what divides us. Really all that divides us is a little burgundy book with the words European Union embossed on the front. I know that now, too.

If you would like to support our work and find out more details about what we do and how we do it, join us on facebook, check out our fundraising page or email us at help@atla-s.org

Dan Steiner is co-founder of ATLAS (Aid To LGBTQ Asylum-Seekers), and an independent humanitarian and activist

Dan is writing as part of Refugee Week (19-25 June), the UK's largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees to our society. Hundreds of arts, cultural and educational events will be held nationwide in renowned venues, public squares, libraries, schools and places of worship to celebrate our shared future

To find out what's going on near you, visit the Refugee Week website. You can also join the conversation by telling us what #OurSharedFuture means to you via Twitter or Facebook

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