This was a bus ride like none I have ever taken. I have spent almost 5 hours traveling on narrow passes at high elevation, watching a picturesque landscape unfold, to get to the Turkish city of Kayseri.
I am the only non-Turkish traveler on this double-decker bus, which seats over 70 passengers. No one on the bus speaks anything other than Turkish. I’m inconspicuous as long as I don’t have to talk to people. But when the bus conductor comes to ask for my drink preference (in Turkey bus conductors serve complementary snacks and drinks during the ride, just like how flight attendants used to take care of their customers on US domestic flights not so long ago), I am forced to speak in English. All of a sudden, people start looking at me curiously, and a few young men follow me with their eyes, marking me, perhaps, as a gay man of Iranian origin, in a way that is quite discomforting. They continue watching me until I get to my final destination.
This is not the easiest way to travel. But I intentionally chose to take a bus to this conservative town in central Turkey to experience what many gay refugees have to go through. They must regularly travel back and forth between Kayseri, where they live, and Ankara, the Turkish capital, where the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and all refugee support facilities—from medical doctors to psychologists—are located.
Kayseri is home to a group of gay men and lesbians who have fled Iran and are now waiting in Turkey to be resettled in a Western country. The government of Turkey does not allow non-European refugees to stay in Turkey, and it is the responsibility of UNHCR to find a host country to take them in.
Currently there are over 18,000 refugees in Turkey, some of whom have been waiting for over 2 years to be resettled elsewhere. While in Turkey, the authorities insist that refugees can only stay in one of 30 designated small cities. These locations are assigned based on the asylum seeker’s nationality, gender, age, and reason for seeking asylum.
While waiting for their asylum cases to proceed, the refugees find it impossible to get a legal job. However, all refugees are legally required to pay a $200 residency fee every six months, which is waived only in extreme cases. Those who do not pay the fee may not leave Turkey for resettlement in another country.
Asylum seekers also find it extremely difficult to gain access to medical treatment, a right to which they are technically entitled. It takes endless paperwork to obtain permission to visit a hospital free of charge and they are legally required to acquire a financial waver prior to every procedure they need. Couple this with an almost inevitable language barrier and with the limited number of facilities accepting refugees, and the challenges multiply exponentially.
In a society where job opportunities are rare and financial resources are limited, refugees usually encounter public hostility. But for LGBT refugees, the picture is particularly frightening. Gay people, especially in more conservative areas, are perceived to be moral degenerates who will destroy social cohesion and promote prostitution. In this context, many view gay refugees as the “bottom of the barrel”—the public (and unfortunately sometimes the authorities) see them as parasites who not only suck blood from their host’s body, but who will fatally damage this body if left unchecked. For this reason, some “concerned citizens,” and occasionally local law enforcement agents, take it upon themselves to continuously intimidate gay refugees to make their lives as unpleasant as possible.
For LGBT refugees in Turkey, this is the daily struggle they must contend with: away from family and friends, with painful memories of persecution and harassment in their native country, they are now unwelcome strangers, living in extreme poverty, isolation and hopelessness, waiting for what feels like an eternity to find out if any country on the planet will give them a chance to live like human beings.
In the next few days, I will spend some time with these forgotten people, who have committed the ultimate sin: being gay.
Click here to follow this story and read Hossein’s next blog from Kayseri.