LGBTQI refugees find support at the DRC Urban Project in AthensSexual minorities continue to be oppressed and persecuted around the world. As a result, gay people often seek protection outside their home countries. In the Greek capital, DRC Urban Project supports refugees and asylum seekers who face difficulties in finding a safe place to live.
Mehran* fled Iran with a little more than the clothes on his back. It took a long journey through unfriendly countries and like many LGBTQi people, he moved on hoping to find a place where he could be safe.
He reached northern Greece in early 2019 and crossed the border at Evros. He was 25 years old, alone and scared, but was forced to flee his country because of the threat there to his life. In January, a 31-year-old man was publicly hanged after found being found guilty of breaking anti-gay laws.
In Iran, same-sex intimacy can result in imprisonment, or the death sentence making it one of the harshest regimes in the world when it comes to homosexuality and human rights.
But it is not the only one. More than 80 countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality something which pushes many people into leaving their homes and families behind.
As well as being state sponsored, such persecution is also socially accepted in many countries. Throughout his journey and later, during his first months in Athens, Mehran experienced hostility and isolation.
Being homeless and spending most of his time around the city’s Victoria Square, Mehran was often harassed, his phone and other personal items were stolen, and he struggled to survive.
“I was often reluctant to go to the Municipal Reception and Solidarity Centre to get a free meal as I was bullied there too,” Mehran says. He would often ask for others’ support to make sure he got a food ration.
At the DRC Athens Urban Project, Mehran found support. There it was obvious that, like other LGBTQI refugees and asylum seekers who visited the Project before, DRC staff would need to build a base of trust before helping him overcome his sense of fear and vulnerability.
“We are aware that it may take time and that we need to gain people’s trust to do our work,” DRC Legal Interpreter, Zarif Bakhtyari, explains.
“We do so by introducing the way we work. We refer to our Code of Conduct, we stress how important confidentiality is and we make sure they understand everything in their language.
“Then, they tell us what they need: a safe place to live; legal support for their asylum process and connection with their peers.”.
After submitting an accommodation request on his behalf and carrying out follow-ups by an appointed social worker, Mehran was placed in an apartment with other members of the LGBTQi community, under the ESTIA project- the Urban Accommodation programme currently led by the UN’s Refugee Agency.
“I was hopeless,” Mehran says. “But I felt comfortable as I realized that DRC was not judgmental but open to listening to me. I felt safe about coming out on my sexual orientation and everything else.”
According to Dimitra Vlachou, who is a DRC social worker, young single men are the most neglected group in the context of the humanitarian response, and, despite their vulnerabilities, they are often left homeless and exposed to harassment and exploitation.
“Given their state, it’s almost impossible to reach out to them and properly follow-up their case,” she says.
DRC’s Social Service also referred Mehran to educational and empowerment projects and introduced him to LGBTQI communities in Athens, which made him feel calmer and safer.
“Finding a place to stay with people with similar experiences as mine has helped me in every aspect of my life,” he says.
- The DRC Athens Urban Project started operating at the Kipseli Municipal Market in May 2018.
- It is a multipurpose centre which supports the integration process of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Greece.
- It has provided social and legal aid services to more than 1,000 people up to now.
- It also provides Greek language classes and cultural workshops open to locals, refugees and asylum seekers.
- Through the individual services and open activities, it aims to strengthen social relations and promote mutual acceptance between the host community and third-country nationals.
*Mehran is not the real name of the interviewee following his wish to protect his identity.