Syrian Refugee Crisis: The LGBTQ Perspective

In collaboration with Casey Tomchek and John Sabbey.

Rami, a resident of Sweden, reflects on his past and current situation

Driven from Syria, his place of birth, Rami takes his spot among thousands of refugees fleeing the worn-torn country every month. After nearly twenty days of traveling across nine European countries, Rami arrived in Sweden, with hopes to build a new life with safety and opportunity. While Rami is labeled as one of many refugees, his struggle was enhanced by the fact that he is gay.

In 2011, peaceful protests against the Syrian government turned violent, creating what is now a conflict larger than Syria itself, with the government and rebels being backed by powerful countries, warring factions, and an increased presence of ISIS influence (Gilsinan, 2015). As the country becomes more unstable, over 3 million people are forced to flee or face the danger of being stuck in the crossfire of the ongoing conflict.

Rami, a Syrian native, fled his homeland to meet his family in Lebanon only a year after the Syrian conflict heightened. In addition to the dangerous situation unfolding, Rami’s sexual orientation forced him to mask his identity with everyone aside from a few trusted friends. As stated in Article 520 of the penal code of 1949, homosexuality is outlawed in Syria with punishment of three years in prison (Reid, 2014). The law forbidding homosexuality, while still in the books, is currently de facto suspended. That being said, the rise of ISIS has created more hostile conditions for members of the LGBTQ community.

Since the Syrian Civil War started, the LGBT community has lived in fear and oppression. While the Syrian government has always outlawed homosexual activity, the conflict heightened the outlaw to a witch hunt. Rebels of the Islamic State carry out vigilante executions on members of the LGBTQ community, individuals who have been outed by family, friends, or acquaintances. In some cases, citizens might bait gay men into meeting up and then torture, rape, and/or murder them.

The LGBTQ communities in Lebanon and Syria find difficulty trusting others, even their family or their own community. Parents will sometimes out their children and have them killed if they learn about their sexual orientation in a practice known as honor killings. A gay man might out another and take part in killing him to shroud the fact that he also identifies as gay. In some instances, gay men will join the ISIS militants to build a reputation and gain some protection from the other members (Bobseine, 2013). That is why Rami had to choose between living in the closet forever or leaving the country.

Unfortunately, Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon, including Rami, must travel on roads littered with ISIS checkpoints. For the refugees fleeing to Lebanon, the road that connects Syria to the liberal-leaning Middle Eastern country is said to be one of the most perilous journeys one can make. Home to roughly 50 to 60 ISIS checkpoints, this passage to Lebanon has earned the nickname the Corridor of Death. ISIS personnel will often search through the phones of refugees for any indications of gay sexual orientation, such as gay dating apps or instant messages that they deem homosexual. If any checkpoints suspect a refugee of being gay, the best case scenario would be a swift death for that individual. More unfortunate victims are often subject to torture and rape before they are killed (McDougall, 2015).

While Rami remained safe on the road to Lebanon, his status as a Syrian made it near impossible for him to find work when he arrived in Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. Syrian refugees in Lebanon face harsh racism and prejudice, and are often used as scapegoats for any plight of the Lebanese government. Not only was Rami being scrutinized for his nationality, but if any word of his sexual orientation spread, his situation might’ve become more dire.

Even in the more progressive Lebanon, gay individuals are still ridiculed and labeled as outcasts within society (Chamas, 2015). “The popular kids at school used to verbally and physically bully me for being a pop culture fanatic and little bit feminine”, says Rami. While the repercussions are typically less severe than in Syria, ostracization and hazing is typical for LGBTQ individuals. Feeling pigeonholed and fearing aggression from Lebanese officials and citizens, Rami decided to pack what little he had and migrate to Europe.

Several days after arriving to Sweden, Rami met up with another gay refugee named Logal, who he met during his travels. In their exchange, Rami learned of Logal’s ties with the LGBTQ community. Logal introduced Rami to his gay friends in Stockholm, who immediately embraced Rami as part of their community. Through his newfound brotherhood, Rami connected with the owner of a gay bar who offered him a job as a waiter. With his new family behind him, Rami gained the courage to live openly as a gay man. The Swedish gay community has been a beacon of hope for Rami and many other LGBTQ refugees who spent years in silence in their home countries.

It isn’t official until it’s Facebook official

Standing on stage during Stockholm’s gay pride week, Rami spoke of his journey from Syria. “I’m just so happy now I’m in Sweden,” he said,

“I want to thank Sweden for being my second country when my own original country is too busy being destroyed by so many stupid people.”
Rami takes the stage at Pride Week and talks about his personal experience as a refugee

This story was created by a team of students at the 2016 Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. It exists as part of a digital publication called MOVE which aims to educate readers on the social, political, and cultural impacts of global migration. All stories published in MOVE were created at the 2016 Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change by students and faculty from around the world.