Last night was a sleepless one: I spent the night in a small, rather uncomfortable hotel room filled with the lingering aroma of cigarette smoke. But as I tossed and turned, I remembered that many LGBT refugees would find my room in this rather run-down hotel to be a luxury. Most of them share a humble place with several people, and consider themselves lucky if they can go to bed with food in their stomachs.
Yesterday, one of the refugees told me how he ended up living for a whole month on bread and tea, which he could afford to buy only once a day. Another person was thrilled that the UNHCR gives him and his partner 81 Turkish Lira (about $55 US a month) to live on. In a country where the official poverty line is $450 US, this is peanuts. But most refugees are not even able to get this much cash to survive on. This refugee told me that he went through so much hardship and humiliation both in Iran and Turkey, that when the UNHCR interviewed him about his case, his story brought the UN officer to tears.
Yet another refugee told me how degrading it was to report his status as an asylum seeker to the local Turkish police station in a small conservative town. As soon the translator found out he was gay, he summoned other police officers to the interview room to laugh at the “freak case.” The translator asked him intimate questions about his sex life, and then laughed out loud as he told the other officers that, “the fags take it up their ass.” The police recorded the “hilarious asylum interview” on their mobile phones and sent the audio files around for the entertainment of other police officers. Soon the gay refugee discovered that, thanks to the authorities, everyone in the small town knew about his sexual orientation and his asylum case.
I asked the refugees to join me for a meal in a buffet-style restaurant filled with middle-class Turks. There was nothing fancy about the restaurant and the food was simple and delicious. As I invited my guests to help themselves to whatever they liked, I saw them hesitate. After a few seconds, one turned to me and said: “Thanks for the offer, but we really don’t know what these dishes are.” I reminded myself that those who can’t afford to buy even a loaf of bread a day are hardly capable of treating themselves to what is considered “everyday Turkish cuisine.”
Over the meal, I learn how difficult it is to find—and keep—a job in Turkey. One gender conforming gay man was fired from his job because he didn’t look like a Muslim (even though he is). Another worked for a week, was fired, and was paid only two days wages. A third had to work for 8 hours a day but could only make 200 Turkish Lira ($120) a month washing dishes. When you are a gay refugee, people exploit you, call you names, even physically assault you, and then ask you to leave the job, refusing to pay you what you earned.
After the meal I got a chance to take a walk in downtown Kayseri. It is a beautiful city, bounded by snow-covered mountains. To me, the people are warm and friendly. But I know this is not how many gay refugees experience this city. To them, society is often hostile and inhospitable. I wonder how my life would have been if I was in their place—without money in my pocket or travel documents to give me freedom of movement. It is a chilling thought.
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