Syrian Refugee Finds Solace and Safety at Istanbul LGBTI Guesthouse

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Growing up a gay man in Aleppo was hard, especially in the conservative neighbourhood where Sammy* lived. When Syria’s conflict broke out, Sammy was terrified by the prospect of military conscription. He knew his sexuality would make it even more dangerous for him. In 2014, he fled to Istanbul, Turkey, in search of safety and acceptance.

A year later, Sammy met Wajed* and fell in love.

They spent every day together and started building their life as a couple. But prejudices began to surface when people in their Istanbul neighbourhood came to know the nature of their relationship. Both Wajed and Sammy were verbally and physically attacked on several occasions but fearing retaliation they didn’t make any complaints to the police 

They stayed with Sammy’s brother for some time. One night, an argument broke out between them, which incited Sammy’s brother to pull a knife on the couple. They quickly packed up their belongings and ran from the apartment in the middle of the night.

A UN interpreter living nearby heard about the two young men and their story. The interpreter put Sammy and Wajed in touch with Kivilicim, the manager of The Trans* Home, a shelter run by trans people. A project of the Istanbul LBGTI Solidarity Association since 2013, it’s a home for trans people, who currently have no place to stay, are threatened by violence, as well as LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers from North African and the Middle East.

So far, the guest house has been home to Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Afghans. Guests can avail of facilities, have a comfortable place to sleep, hot meals and a support system from the community.

“We have similar concerns and problems. In spite of the language barriers, we can all relate to each other,” said Sammy, reflecting on his time in the guest house.

Although the Trans* Home was working hard to provide for as many people as possible, facilities were extremely limited. The water system was hardly working, the walls were crumbling and everything was old and worn. Security of the guests was also a constant concern.

One of the rooms in the guesthouse before renovation.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has supported the guest house by rehabilitating the building, providing new furniture, a new water system and perhaps most importantly, new security cameras to increase protection for the guests. According to Trans* house, these renovations have benefitted about 330 individuals, including Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Turkish people.

For the first time in their relationship, Wajed and Sammy can live together safely as a couple. They have even made many new friends, who have had similar experiences.

“I love being part of the LGBTI community here,” Sammy said.

The staff at the guest house has also been helping the couple process their Turkish residency to improve their future opportunities.

“Now, I’m planning ahead with Wajed and working to put the past behind me,” added Sammy.

With limited resources, many Turkish cities and villages deliver services to both local populations and refugee and migrant groups. IOM, with the generous support of the United States State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, provides support to help local Turkish authorities shoulder this responsibility through building resilience and self-reliance of affected populations; improving access to basic services at the community level; and strengthening social cohesion.

*The names in this story have been changed to protect identities