KALMAR, Sweden – Sara, a 22-year-old openly bisexual who was recently granted asylum in Germany, has seen her life change in remarkable ways since leaving Syria. She is also adamant: “I wouldn’t go back, not even for a visit.”
“Today, I am free on all levels. My new friends and even their families love me and support me. The whole society is on my side. People here are open-minded and accepting,” she said.
Nearly five years of war have forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes and their homeland, risking everything for the chance of a safer life in Europe. But there is a smaller group of refugees fleeing not only the day-to-day bloodshed and chaos, but a more targeted form of violence aimed at their sexual identity.
Discrimination against non-normative sexual and gender identities in Syria is nothing new. As in many parts of the Arab world, it is illegal to be homosexual in Syria and same-sex partners have long been the target of honor crimes, harassment and imprisonment.
But the arrival of Islamic fundamentalist factions such as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has radically intensified persecution across the country, pushing some Syrians to join the stream of refugees headed to Europe in search of sexual freedom and expression as well as safety.
“The Islamic State executes homosexuals by throwing them from the tops of high buildings,” said Logal Kako, a 21-year-old Syrian man who’s been openly gay since he was in high school.
On December 2 last year, a religious “court” run by ISIS sentenced two homosexual men to death by throwing them from the roof of a nearby building. Videos posted online by ISIS document countless instances of similar incidents. In many areas in Syria these days, these sights have become commonplace.
For Logal, the intolerance started when, aged 14, he stood in the middle of his high-school classroom in Tartous and told his classmates he liked boys – a nerve-racking move for any high schooler. His classmates were divided on the matter, and while some accepted him, most others showed hostility.
“Facing a society governed by strict religious and social conventions was extremely hard. I lost many friends – some because they themselves could not accept me, and others because their families prevented them from being around me. Maybe they worried that I would sexually harass their kids,” he said laughing.
“Most of the kids at my school just didn’t want to play with me at recess.”
Logal, who has been in Sweden for over a year, said he can’t imagine how frightening life must be back home now. And although he misses his friends in Syria, returning is out of the question. “I feel normal here. If someone harasses me, the law protects me. In Syria I never felt protected. I was even too scared to go to the police,” he said.
“I’ve always been critical of sexual and social conventions in Syria,” Logal said. Growing up, he’d been constantly teased by neighbors and classmates for being different. Kids called him names, and made fun of the way he dressed. Sometimes things would get more physical; beatings on the playground or after school happened regularly.
When the uprising in Syria turned violent, Logal said he wanted to leave as soon as possible because he couldn’t stand the idea of serving in the army and fighting against his own people. But almost equally important, he said, was a chance to find sexual freedom and acceptance.
Since he was young, Logal said he’d dreamed of moving to Sweden. He had relatives there and had heard about the country from them. He even had a picture of the Swedish royal family hanging on his wall. So when violence near Tartous began to escalate in late 2014, he abandoned his English literature studies and smuggled himself out of Syria and illegally into Sweden.
In Stockholm, Logal volunteers with an organization dealing with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) issues, working as a translator for Arab refugees joining the group. And while his father, who remains in Syria, still refuses to accept his identity, his mother has come a long way from believing that homosexuality is a sickness. “She even sent me her greetings during the last Stockholm Gay Pride day,” he said.
For the time being, he is content to be far away from the bloodshed and intolerance. His dream had been to create a Syrian version of the organization he currently works for in Sweden, but, he said, “The situation in Syria has become too complicated.” Before he can do so, he feels there needs to be a long-term campaign aimed at raising awareness of the LGBTQ community and “its rights to live and interact like other members of society.
“Arab society should embrace us as an organic part of it,” he said.
Unlike Logal, Sara never told any of her friends about her sexual orientation growing up. “I always worried that my female friends would avoid me, thinking I might fall for one of them and put them in an uncomfortable situation,” she said.
She wasn’t harassed, she said, because she simply kept her sexual preferences a secret. “The hardest part was that I had to live a lie,” she added. “I had no other option.
“That is why, at some point, I felt I had to leave in order to quit lying to myself … to gain self-respect again.”
In Germany, Sara said she has found a group of young homosexual and bisexual Syrians, peers with backgrounds and experiences similar to hers. Together, they encourage one another and give each other the strength to embrace their identities.
“They speak of their sexual orientations with confidence and ease. Their strength provided me with the courage to come out and not feel guilty,” she said.
And while she’s told many of her friends back home about her long-hidden sexual orientation, it remains a secret from her mother.
“I can’t come out to her because I don’t want to disturb her … to make her upset with me,” she said. “She is the only family I have.”
Top image: In this Oct. 22, 2015, photo, Daniel Halaby, a gay Syrian living in southern Turkey, shows a photo on his laptop of Islamic State group militants throwing a man off a roof for allegedly violating the extremists’ ban on homosexuality. Halaby told the Associated Press that even two years after fleeing to Turkey to escape ISIS, he wakes up from nightmares that he has been captured and is about to be thrown off a building. Halaby spoke on the condition that he be identified by the name he uses in his political activism, and that neither his face nor location be revealed. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)