From Ethiopia to Athens Housing Collective: overcoming stigma and isolation
Updated: Feb 12
“I became a member of Athens Housing Collective in May 2019. And for me it wasn’t just about having a roof over my head. It was about feeling safe for the first time in a very long time."
A perilous journey
On October 20th, 2017, a transgender woman from Ethiopia (who has asked not to be named), arrived on the Greek Island of Lesvos on a boat with 75 other people.
“There were way too many of us on this boat,” she says. “None of them had room, we were all squeezed in. Not only did we not have space but we also couldn’t see a thing because we left and arrived at night."
“Twice during our journey, the boat stopped because we ran out of gas. It was a three hour journey. The longest of my life. I was scared. We were all really scared. I can’t even swim.”
Escaping violence and persecution
She left Ethiopia after seeing her boyfriend lose his life for being gay right in front of her eyes.
“We were caught in a hotel. We were sleeping in our room and a cleaner entered. We had forgotten to lock our door. And as soon as she saw us, the cleaner lady screamed and called people (to attack us).”
Homosexuality is still criminalised in Ethiopia, and the repression and oppression of LGBTQ communities makes it impossible for them to be seen in public settings.
Article 629 of the Ethiopian Criminal Code defines same-sex relations as ‘illegal’ and as a criminal offence. The Article states, “whoever performs with another person of the same sex a homosexual act, or any other indecent act, is punishable with simple imprisonment.” (The National Sexual Rights Law and Policy Database).
“People from the hotel came into our room even before the police were called on us. Abed, my love, died that night. They started beating us up. Someone had a machete. Before I could even realised it, someone reached Abed. A minute after, his head was detached from his body, right in front of my eyes.”
“As soon as I had realised what had happened. I fainted. I woke up in prison where I stayed for seven months and eight days. The things I experienced there were inhuman. I was mentally abused and tortured. It was the toughest time of my life.”
Eventually her uncle paid for her release. Seven days later, she was on her way to Greece.
In Europe, sexual orientation and gender identity constitute solid grounds to claim refugee status, and the UN Geneva Convention is clear about that.
“I am not a terrorist, I am just gay.”
The number of refugees risking their lives trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean is at an all-time high. An estimated 54,224 arrived to Europe by sea in 2019, according to the UNHCR. The ‘Desperate Journeys’ report, also released by the UNHCR, reported that approximately 2,275 died or went missing crossing the Mediterranean in 2018, ‘despite a major drop in the number of arrivals reaching European shores.’
“When I arrived in the camp on Lesvos, the UN welcomed us with jackets, towels and coats. We were all freezing. I remember the very first days, everybody treated us like family. It felt like freedom,” she confesses. “But I realised soon enough that life as an LGBTQ person in the camp was not much better than in Ethiopia. And my life became more of a nightmare."
"I had to change tents five times because people would harass and discriminate against me, call me names. I was to scared to speak to the UN. I didn't want people to come after me for snitching. And somehow, the camp and its culture was just like being back in Ethiopia.”
From homelessness to hope
Reaching the mainland of Greece did not make it easier. For six months, she had to sleep in a park where she met other people without shelter.
It was through Colour Youth, (created in 2011 to create a space for LGBTQ youth to better express ourselves and assert their rights), that she came across Safe Place International.
“At this point, I was really tired. I was tired of every day being a struggle. I wanted to end it. But at the same time, I wanted to keep on trying. I had two choices: dying, or trying. So I searched on google for LGBTQ organizations, and this is how I found Colour Youth. I went to them and asked for help. For shelter. But because they don’t provide that, they told me about Safe Place International, and gave me Joseph’s number. Not long after, I was given my life back. I was given accommodation."
"Athens Housing Collective did not only help me with a shelter, with food and with support with my asylum claim, but also with love, and counselling. If it wasn’t for them, I would have taken a darker path. I would have probably taken my life away.”
Since she's been involved with Safe Place International, she has given back in many ways. She's volunteered at the centre, supported our community and participated in many of our workshops and events.
“Thank you Safe Place International. One day, I want to support them just as much as they have done for me. You allowed me a new life and are the only family I have left.”