Where LGBTQ War Refugees Finally Feel Safe
Updated: Jun 13, 2019
Story by Danny Deza · Photos by Danielle Villasana · 6.20.18
Seventeen-year-old Haron sits on a bench in Gezi Park, unsure of what to do next. Night is falling as rain clouds begin to roll over Istanbul. With just $50 in his pocket and no place to go, he finds a nearby tree, unzips his suitcase, and covers himself with jackets and sweaters. Rain hits his face as the magnitude of his journey from Syria begins to settle.
It’s November 2015 and Haron is a refugee who fled duel dangers: the civil war that has torn apart his country, and the constant abuse he received from his community for being gay. Haron arrived in Turkey with hopes of reaching a more LGBTQ-friendly place in Europe. But with little money, his journey is at a halt, and without a plan, he is left stranded and alone.
“I arrived in Istanbul that day and didn’t know anyone,” Haron recounted in a recent interview. “I lived in the park for two months, and every day I’d wake up to police in my face telling me to get up and go somewhere else.” (Like others interviewed for this article, Haron requested that his name be changed because of the ongoing threats he faces.)
Turkey is now home to around 3.6 million Syrian refugees. In 2015, there were approximately 400 self-identified LGBTQ Syrian refugees in Turkey, according to the Organization for Refugee, Asylum & Migration. The actual number is likely much higher because many are too afraid to speak out. They are accompanied by LGBTQ asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, and other countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Homosexuality is illegal in many of these countries—even punishable by death in some—but legal in Turkey, making Istanbul a beacon for queer refugees.
At the bottom of one of Istanbul’s many hills, along a windy road lined with mosques, barber shops and tea gardens, is Istanbul’s only shelter for LGBTQ refugees. Not far from ancient Byzantine walls, Aman LGBT Shelter currently houses 14 LGBTQ refugees, the majority of them from Syria.
On a sunny spring afternoon at the top floor of Aman, a handful of residents sit in their rec room drinking coffee and enjoying sunny views. Residents dance to Lady Gaga tunes, which battle the constant serenade of seagulls, call to prayer, and bread sellers yelling down below. Mary, a 20-year old transgender refugee from Damascus, passes coffee around to her roommates followed by echoes of “Thanks, Mom.”
Each of these laughing residents has traveled long and far for this slice of peace. But they still face an uphill battle. Hostility to the LGBTQ community here in Turkey has risen in recent years. The Istanbul pride parade has been banned the past several years, turning a once peaceful event into an annual clash between LGBTQ activists and the police. Many Aman residents are fearful of going home and fearful of staying here. They see only one path forward: get to a more LGBTQ-friendly country in Europe, or die trying.
* * *
May 2012, Damascus – Haron, 14, has no intention of waking up for school. His mother stands over him, gently nudging him to get up and get ready. When her wake-up call falls on deaf ears, she pulls sleepy-eyed Haron out of his bed. He throws on some clothes and rushes past his father and older brother having breakfast before they head off to work. His three younger siblings are still sound asleep upstairs. Like lighting, he is out the door.
Outside, rebel fighters clash with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, bringing the frontlines of war to the suburbs. It’s year two of the Syrian civil war, and the Damascus region has seen a slew of terrorist attacks and heavy fighting. Haron and his family are determined to leave Syria.
Moments before Haron is about to take his seat in class, he is thrown off balance by a massive explosion. Classroom windows shatter, sending glass, smoke, and screams into the air. Once the smoke clears and the yells give way to silent shock, another explosion blasts, forcing Haron to retreat under his desk.
Teachers frantically send students home. Damascus is under attack, they say. Haron runs through chaotic crowds. As he turns onto his street, he finds himself standing in front of a pile of rubble, still burning and engulfed in smoke. The home Haron left less than one hour ago is gone, hit by a bomb. Somewhere under the smoke is his family.
A neighbor at the scene recognizes Haron and covers Haron’s eyes. But anxious to find his family, he bites the neighbor’s hand and breaks free.
“It’s like a dream. A very bad dream,” Haron recalls. “Every sound and image are covered in shadows. People were removing blocks, and getting out the bodies of my family. I saw them.”
Two suicide bombers had blown up cars containing more than 2,000 pounds of explosives in Haron’s neighborhood, killing 55 and wounding 372. Haron has escaped death but lost his entire family in the blink of an eye.
Haron’s family had known he was gay and accepted their son as he is. But now he was left with no family and no support network, on his own to tackle trauma and also vulnerable to neverending rumors and crude remarks from neighbors. A nearby family took Haron in, but he resolved to leave Syria as soon as possible. He quit school so he could work full-time as a cleaner and save enough money to leave.
Traveling between cleaning clients became more difficult as neighborhoods began to establish checkpoints throughout the city. Checkpoint officers would harass Haron, questioning him for hours about his appearance and sexuality, making his commute to work a daily nightmare. Then, verbal abuse became physical, evolving into rape. Hours of detainment turned into days. Haron decided to pack his bags and leave immediately.
“I felt unsafe to go to work,” he says. “I took whatever money I had and left. My friends were going to Germany, so I thought I could, too. I had nothing to lose.”
He hired someone to act as his guardian to sign off on travel paperwork, and then he boarded a plane to Istanbul.
* * *
Justin Hilton, 51, a tall, shaggy-haired Californian, co-founded Aman LGBT Shelter with people like Haron in mind. A happy husband and a father of two, Hilton spent many years working with LGBTQ activists and on natural disaster relief in Nepal. As news of the Syrian civil war intensified, Hilton thought of the LGBTQ community. “If you’ve got this many millions refugees, I imagine some of them are LGBT,” Hilton explains. “So how does that work in the camp? How does that work in the neighborhoods they live in … where people are not crazy about gay people either? How does that all shake down? I don’t know but sounds like a population which needs to be served.”
It started with an extended layover in Istanbul, when Hilton set up meetings with local nonprofits and refugee rights activists who confirmed that many LGBTQ refugees were now living beside those who shared the same hateful beliefs of the community they had fled from. Hilton left saddened by their stories, but determined to do something.
At the age of 15, Hilton was a homeless teen and addicted to drugs. He would go without food for days, unsure of where he would sleep next, dependent on the random acts of kindness from strangers. After being diagnosed with hepatitis, he checked himself into rehab, cleaned himself up, and made his way back to school. Four decades later, he works as a real estate investor and often reassigns portions of his earnings to his volunteer work. A few months after his first trip to Istanbul, Hilton partnered up with Owen Harris, an Istanbul-based refugee rights activist, and together they hatched the plan for Istanbul’s first shelter for LGBTQ refugees. Hilton would work on fundraising from California, while Harris worked on the ground in Istanbul.
In June 2017, Aman opened with 14 beds, a social room, and volunteer-run programs including English and Turkish classes, community outreach, job search assistance, and guidance throughout the asylum application process. They were at full capacity in two days.
“People don’t realize LGBTQ refugees exist, they fly under the radar,” Hilton says. “We really need shelters wherever there are large refugee populations. How we respond to the most vulnerable populations determines our future as a species.”
Haron and his roommates at Aman say a safe space for LGBTQ refugees was direly necessary. Many shelter residents had been attacked and beaten by former roommates when they found out about their sexual orientation. They did not feel safe renting apartments in Istanbul’s Syrian neighborhoods.
“We are getting a certain stratosphere of folks who are being targeted and being trafficked, or who were in communities who are extremely hostile to them,” Hilton says. At Aman, Hilton continues, “We feel safe together, and we feel safe in this building. We feel safe where we are.”
* * *
July, 2016 – Haron sits on his friend’s couch in Istanbul, helpless and unsure of what to do. He wipes the sweat from his forehead as he fights back tears. In the nine months since he has arrived in Turkey, things had started to stabilize, but just took a horrendous turn for the worse.
Haron’s friend Muhammed Wisam Sankari, also a gay Syrian refugee living in Istanbul, disappeared two days earlier. He was found mutilated and beheaded. The next day, Haron began to receive death threats from his friend’s attacker, who trolled through Sankari’s phone contacts. “‘I know where you live,” the attacker said. “I will find you and kill you.”
“I received ten calls a day for a week, telling me he was going to kill me next,” Haron says. He fled to Konya, a city in central Turkey, where he lived for four months until the calls stopped. When he returned to Istanbul, he stayed at an apartment with fellow LGBTQ refugees in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood. But just a few weeks later, Haron’s photo was posted on a Facebook hate group, targeting him for being gay and half-Lebanese.
Haron was referred to Hilton and Harris, and was quickly accepted into the Aman LGBT Shelter. Living here has given him stability and a safe place to plan his life, along with a network of friends who understand the horrors of what he has gone through. For the first time since that last walk to school, he says, he has a family surrounding him.
“Before the shelter, I didn’t have anyone to trust. I didn’t have LGBTQ friends,” Haron says. “When I got here. It changed. … You have someone to talk to when you are nervous or sad. And when I talk to someone, they give me very useful advice, especially Mary.”
Mary is a soft-spoken bodybuilding enthusiast with a buzz cut and perfectly manicured eyebrows. She moves comfortably in her deep v-necks and studded earrings. Her bed in Aman, is surrounded by her drawings of nature and portraits of people from her dreams.
After being sexually abused by a soldier at a checkpoint near her university in Damascus, Mary stopped going to school out of fear of facing her attacker again. To avoid hostility from neighbors, she would cover herself in a hijab. Her parents, supportive of their transgender daughter, sold their house, bought her a passport, and sent her to Istanbul where the plan was to live with her aunt before traveling to Germany.
But just a few days after arriving in Istanbul, Mary’s aunt kicked her out after learning she is transgender. Mary hopped from apartment to apartment, repeatedly beaten and harassed by her roommates. Now, after moving to Aman, Mary no longer has to worry about being unsafe at home, and finally feels free to be herself.
“People call me the mom of the house,” she says. “I immediately wanted to give back when I came to Aman, I want to do many things. I want to be an activist.”
Shelter managers helped Mary find a job working as a social coordinator for Positive Living Association, an organization providing HIV/AIDS services and education for both refugees and Turkish citizens. Her backpack is full of red and yellow flyers which provide information about HIV testing in Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and English. After a long day of work, she spends her nights walking around refugee neighborhoods, passing flyers to local businesses.
Both Mary and Haron, along with the majority of their shelter roommates, are in the process of seeking LGBTQ asylum status through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Refugees go through an extensive interview process to assess their needs and level of danger. If their application for asylum is approved, they will hopefully be placed in a host country. This process can take anywhere between six months to several years.
* * *
March, 2018 – Haron’s eyes are bright blue today. Ever expressive, he tries to match his outfits to his colored contact lenses. Now 19, he has landed a job as a museum tour guide for Arabic- and English-speaking tourists. It’s his day off and he strolls down the famous Istiklal Street, a long walkway dotted with shops set in 19th-century palaces, live music at every corner and the smell of roasted kebab twirling in the air from vertical rotisseries. A trolley zips tourists up and down, while ice cream sellers taunt customers with their wares.
He takes a seat at a nearby cafe and orders a lemonade. He squirms at how sour it is and laughs. He is still boyish, wide-eyed, and hopeful for the future.
Just shy of the shelter’s one-year anniversary, many residents have found jobs, a sense of safety and connection. Haron now works at a wax museum as a tour guide to Arabic- and English-speaking tourists. Haron has moved to an apartment nearby, where he feels safe being near his Aman family. He’s received LGBTQ asylum status from UNHCR and is currently waiting to be placed in France. “I am ready to start over,” Haron says, “and make a new home.”
Mary and a handful of other residents have already been placed throughout Europe, landing in Germany, Holland, and Norway. “So far we have had 100-percent asylum status approval for our residents,” Hilton says.
Although this is great news for the 14 original residents at Aman LGBT Shelter, it is a much different reality for the countless LGBTQ refugees around the world, stuck in limbo with no support.
Lesbos, an island off the coast of Greece, is known for its beautiful beaches and captivating sunsets. But in recent years, it has also become a center for refugees awaiting placement. The island’s Moria refugee camp houses more than 5,000 asylum seekers in a space originally meant for 2,000.
And just east of Moria is Hilton’s next project. On March 1, he signed a lease on a two-story house, lined with citrus trees and a garden, overlooking the sea. This is his group’s second LGBTQ shelter. With beds for 11, it also acts as a welcoming center for other LGBTQ refugees.
Hilton and his new nonprofit Safe Place International have also partnered with Athens Housing Collective, a project that consists of 11 separate apartments housing about 30 LGBTQ refugees. They hope to double this number by next year. Hilton and his team also aspire to open a shelter in Lebanon soon.
“We have residents from Cameroon, Uganda, Azerbaijan, Algeria, and more,” he says. “It’s been such a relief to get these refugees in a safe place and help expedite their cases with the UNHCR.”
Lesbos’s new LGBTQ shelter residents have started to paint their new home and plant the garden. Once they’ve settled, residents will help welcome new ships of refugees arriving on the island, while working on their own asylum cases.
“Being in the shelter was a good thing for me. It helped me and it can help people in many places,” Haron says. “It’s not just a problem in Istanbul, we are everywhere.”