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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Historic UN Security Council briefing focuses on LGBTQ refugees
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-09-02

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As a then 25-year-old man, Subhi Nahas could have spent an afternoon walking through magnificent olive orchards before taking-in the flawless night sky and losing himself under the marquee of stars covering the mountain ranges that surround his hometown of Idlib in Northern Syria.

But it was 2012, his country was being torn apart by civil war and, as a gay man, Nahas was terrified to step one foot outside his house.

He had already been the target of a group of soldiers from Bashar Al-Assad's regime, who herded him off the bus he was riding to university, took him to a secluded house and assaulted him.

The soldiers were eventually replaced in Idlib by militants from Jabhat Al Nusra—a jihadist cell of Al-Qaida—who arrested, tortured and executed anyone they suspected of being gay.

Then, ISIL ( Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ) came.

"It stepped up the violent attacks on suspected LGBTI people, publishing images of their exploits," Nahas would later recall. "At the executions, hundreds of townspeople, including children, cheered jubilantly as at a�wedding. If a victim did not die after being hurled off a building, the townspeople stoned him to death. This was to be my fate too."

It was a story Nahas told members of the United Nations ( UN ) Security Council Aug. 24 in New York. It was a historic moment—the first time the council has ever convened to discuss LGBTQ rights.

The issue of LGBTQ refugees forced to flee their homes in any of the over 75 countries worldwide where homosexuality is illegal or where the state sanctions brutal attacks upon them is one involving multiple levels of marginalization.

It is an internationally immense problem yet so shadowed that even raw data on the numbers of people who cross borders or are able to survive when they do is hard to come by.

Neil Grungras is the founder and executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration ( ORAM ). Since 2008 and in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ( UNHCR ), it has been the only international resource dedicated solely to the plight of LGBTQ refugees.

Its research, training and advocacy programs have already resulted in significant changes in the way LGBTQ refugees are treated in some countries but the problems remaining for them to tackle are monumental.

For individuals like Nahas who managed to escape from Syria in 2014 first to Lebanon and then Turkey, life is one spent in limbo.

Denied work permits or any of their new country's benefits, many turn to the sex-trade just to be able to eat. "Most of these people don't make it out alive at the end of their ordeal," Grungras told Windy City Times.

Grungras regards his work at ORAM as a life-calling. "I spent a lot of years as a gay activist in San Francisco," he said. "Both of my parents were refugees and by the time I went to law school it was clear to me that I was going to be a refugee lawyer."

Since graduation, Grungras has spent 30 years in that role. "I started to encounter an invisible population worldwide of LGBTQ people who are too terrified to tell anybody and who are not being protected by their home country or their country of origin," he said.

Grungras stressed that the situation for an individual seeking asylum in a country like the United States or Great Britain is completely different from an LGBTQ refugee who manages to escape, for example, Uganda.

"They're not going to London, they're going to Kenya," he said. "Kenya is not a country of asylum for Ugandans. So they're not going to get permanent legal status there. Even if you do go to countries-of-transit that have a fledgling asylum system, they tend to criminalize LGBTQ people and, even if they don't, surviving is difficult and dangerous. In Turkey, murders of transgender people in 2015 haven't even been investigated."

"Death threats followed me to Turkey," Nahas told the UN Security Council. "ISIL operatives circulated freely where I lived and it was only a matter of time before I would be found and killed."�

Instead, Nahas found Grungras and his organization before ISIL could make good on their threats. Today he lives in San Francisco, working for ORAM as a representative and administrator. He is hoping to finish his college education.

Jason Heeney left Chicago for Israel in 2010. He now serves as the board president for ORAM and so joined Nahas at the UN briefing led by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power and Chile's UN ambassador, Cristian Barros.

"This was one of our proudest moments," Heeney said. "Subhi's speech was eloquent and moving."

He added that Nahas spoke to at least 200 people representing nearly 40 countries.

It was a daunting prospect but one Nahas was impelled to confront if only for a particular right that LGBTQ people living in countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia or Iran are denied.

"Everybody says to us, 'You don't have a voice,'" Nahas told Windy City Times. "They don't recognize that we exist. There is so much prejudice and violence. People want to try to do something but the laws make it very difficult."

Moving from a deeply conservative town in Syria to one of the most openly accepting cities in the world has presented Nahas with its own challenges. "I'm still adapting," he said. "I'm used to suppressing my emotions and hiding myself. It's going to take a long time to process. I was trying to reconstruct my relationship with my family but after [giving] this speech, I know they will never try to reconnect. They are still my family but they are not going to accept that I spoke about LGBTQ rights."

"We set out to raise awareness about this issue and the role that the UN could play moving forward in helping to protect the rights of LGBTQ people," Heeney said. "This was a first step—given the probably 20 countries who pledged to support this work. I hope this level of consciousness raising will bring the issue of LGBTQ refugees to the forefront of our community's work. This is an opportunity to build a movement for a huge number of people who are not as lucky as folks in the U.S. They are stateless and fleeing for their lives."

"It's up to us an international LGBTQ community to stand next to each other and help each other do something," Nahas said. "If we do not stand as one body and defend our rights, nobody else will. Then all of this will have been in vain."

For more information about the work of ORAM, visit ORAMInternational.org/en/ .


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