Syrian LGBTI refugees are struggling to make a new life in neighbouring Turkey, where growing conservatism means that their rights are increasingly under threat.
“[LGBTI individuals] are the biggest outsiders among the refugees in Turkey,” Turkish journalist and documentary film maker Ayşe Toprak explained. “These are the people whose relatives and friends died in the conflict, who fought for their lives, escaped Syria, and sought shelter in Turkey. But here their struggle only continued.”
Toprak’s feature-length documentary on Syrian LGBTI refugees, released last year, followed a group of gay Syrians as they tried to make a new life for themselves in Turkey.
Mr Gay Syria was screened at more than 60 international film festivals around the world and won the best documentary award in Chicago, Torino, Milan, Sarajevo, and Pristina among others. It is now being shown in Turkey, too, where Toprak hopes that it may help change attitudes.
The film follows efforts by one man, Mahmoud, to organize a Mr Gay Syria contest amongst fellow LGBTI Syrian refugees in the hope that the winner could take part in international finals in Malta.
Mahmoud himself now lives in Germany, where he has continued his activism.
“I have been working actively on the problems of LGBTI people since 2006. The situation for these people in Syria was bad then, and it is bad now,” he said.
Mahmoud noted that gay activism had been concentrated in Damascus and Aleppo, two cities since systematically attacked by the regime. Militant groups had also repeatedly targeted gay Syrians since the revolution began in 2011.
He also expressed hope that Mr Gay Syria would have a wider impact on attitudes.
“I believe that this documentary plays a part in getting LGBTI individuals together and helping them talk about their problems openly. At the same time, it can be seen as an important tool for recognizing the problems Syrian LGBTIs have,” he said.
Compared to Syria – where “unnatural sexual intercourse” can be punished with a prison sentence of up to three years – Turkey is much more open towards the LBGTI community.
LGBTI people in Turkey enjoy more freedom, particularly in secular and cosmopolitan cities such as Istanbul, where they are visible in the media and arts scene.
However, the conservative Turkish government is now trying to limit those freedoms. Public gatherings of LGBTI people have already been banned in the country’s capital Ankara and other cities are expected to follow.
There are physical threats too. In 2016, a young gay Syrian refugee was found murdered and mutilated in Istanbul. Muhammed Wisam Sankari had previously told police that he feared for his life, having been abducted, tortured and raped by unknown assailants.
The Social Policies, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation Studies Association (SPoD) advocates for LGBTI refugees living in Turkey and runs a 24-hour Arabic language hotline targeted at Syrians.
An SPoD official who asked to remain anonymous – she explained that one of her LGBTI colleagues had recently been kidnapped and raped – described the multiple challenges callers told them about.
“They mostly call to ask where they can go for an HIV test, but sometimes they feel lonely and just want to have a chat,” she continued.
Finding a regular source of income is a problem for all Syrian refugees in Turkey, and LGBTI persons are no exception.
“They generally work in textile workshops for 15 or 20 Turkish Liras [far below the daily minimum wage of about 80 Turkish Liras]. Since they are exposed to very harsh working conditions… many of them choose to be sex workers instead,” the SPoD official said.
“Refugee trans women in Turkey mostly earn their living as sex workers, while many young gay refugees are involved in a particular type of work and are known as ‘rent boys.’”
These young men and boys usually hang out in cafes, bars and hammams in Istanbul’s Mecidiyeköy neighbourhood. They avoided working on the streets due to their fear of organised criminal gangs and preferred to use social media apps and safer spaces to find clients.
“Our work is more difficult since we want to reach the people engaged in illegal activities,” the SPoD oficial said. “There is a lot of pressure on these people already, from the police, gangs and pimps.”
She stressed that most Syrian LGBTI people faced the constant threat of homophobia both at home and in the wider community.
“This is a very difficult situation, especially for those Syrians who have to live with their families in Turkey,” she continued. “Even the term ‘homosexuality’ cannot be mentioned in those circles, so they are forced to hide their LGBTI identity.”
Under these circumstances, many go on to seek asylum in a third country. Toprak said that most of the men featured in her film have since left Turkey. Just one participant, Ayman Menem, was still based in Istanbul where he coordinates weekly “Tea and Talk” sessions for LGBTI Syrians.
Two others, Omar and Nader, moved to Norway, where Toprak said that they have had a particularly hard time adjusting to their new life.
“They did not find what they had expected,” she continued. “They haven’t made any friends yet and feel very lonely. They cannot get used to the Norwegian culture and find people in that country to be much more introvert than Arabs. But, at least, they feel safe.”