"I made the decision to be free or die"

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‘I made the decision to be free or die’

On World Refugee Day – 20th June - Jo Lateu talks to Farah Abdi about the difficulties that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) asylum-seekers have.

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Har-Far Refugee Camp in Malta (Sludge G under a Creative Commons Licence)

You were born in Somalia, but you lived in Kenya for most of the time when you were young. Were you happy when you were a child?

It was difficult to deal with my sexuality. I noticed this when I was five years old. But in general, yes, I had a happy childhood in Kenya. My mother supported and helped me and my brother. We learnt the language and went to school.

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Farah Abdi

Why did you have to leave Kenya in 2012?

I left because I did not want to live a lie any more. I did not like hiding who I really was. I think everybody has the right to live their life freely (if this does not restrict the rights of others). If you are gay in Kenya, you can go to jail for a maximum of 14 years. That’s not fair! Being gay is not a crime.

You went on a long and dangerous journey to find refuge in Europe. Can you tell us about it? What countries did you travel through, and what difficulties did you have?

After Kenya I went to Uganda. I stayed there for a day and then I went to South Sudan. My problems started in South Sudan: the militia beat and robbed me and put me in jail. I went to North Sudan next. There I had to hide my sexuality again, because it’s an Islamic country. Then I crossed the desert - it took me 12 days. It was too hot during the day and cold at night. We almost died because we didn’t have enough water and food. We had to pay money to continue crossing. Libya was the worst. I was there for seven months and I was put in prison because I tried to cross the sea. I had to pay to get out of the country. It is common to break human rights in Libya and world leaders are doing nothing about it. I finally arrived in Malta in November 2012.

How did you continue?

I hoped for a better tomorrow each time. I also made the decision to be free or die. There is no point of living a life where you are not yourself.

You arrived on Malta, a small island with problems because there are a lot of asylum-seekers. The Catholic Church has a lot of power there. Were you worried that, as a gay man and refugee, you would not be welcome?

Before I arrived in Malta the only thing I knew about it was that it entered the Miss World competition every year. I always watched it! I found out the rest when I got there. In Libya, most of us migrants thought that we were going to Italy. We also planned to move north after we got to Italy. We didn’t know about laws like the Dublin Regulation that force you to stay where you don’t want to be and where no-one wants you.

Was it difficult to become a refugee in Malta? Was it more difficult because you’re gay?

Someone once told me that gay rights in Malta are not as bad as in some of the countries in eastern Europe. But gay rights are also not as good as in western Europe. Malta is half way between, and it has got better recently when it recognised gay unions. So it was not hard to get my refugee status because of my sexuality.

Some officials noticed my sexual difference and one of them said I could go to therapy. I did not tell them I was gay because I didn’t want to. When I started therapy, it took me a while to say the words ‘I am gay’ to myself before I could say it to the world.

I had to wait a long time for my asylum interview because my psychologist said it was important for me to be comfortable to speak about being gay, because it was so important in my application.

I finally did my interview and the case worker working with the government refugee agency was really caring and sensitive with me. I got refugee status (the highest legal status in Malta) after two months.

I don’t like to be an example. I was lucky, I was educated and could express myself properly. All this helped me to do a lot of things in this country. Other people are not as lucky.

You now work as an interpreter for Maltese NGOs working with problems with migration. What help and advice can you give other refugees, especially those from the LGBTQI community?

I am happy now with who I am because of the therapy I had in Malta. I presented my case well because of the help from the therapy. I think all migrants need therapy – especially people who have any problems with sexuality. I know you cannot make people have therapy but you can tell them it’s a good idea.

People often don’t think about migration together with LGBTQI rights. Why is it important for the UNHCR and other international organisations to make the connection?

This is a problem that most people don’t see the migrants often cannot say who they are, because of the fear. I think NGOs and the UNHCR should create a safe environment that will make it easier for people to feel safe enough to be honest.

How could border agencies work better with LGBTQI refugees?

They can train their staff so that they can support the victims and make them feel safe. Often it feels like everyone is against them because they came in the country illegally.

With thanks to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM) for this interview.

More information: ORAM website: http://www.oraminternational.org/en/ and LGBTI Refugee Project Portal: http://www.portal.oraminternational.org/

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2014/06/20/lgbt-asylum-seekers/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)