The trauma of a perilous boat journey to Greece still fresh in her mind, Tolay performed a ritual she’d felt too unsafe to undertake for the previous three months.
“When I put on my makeup, I was crying,” Tolay, said a transgender woman from Iraq in one of her first acts on European soil to reclaim her identity.
“It was like I was dreaming.”
For the 26-year-old, as for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex refugees and migrants who have found themselves in Greece, the promise of Europe is not just of safety, but acceptance, amid the challenges of having to adapt to a new way of life.
Now, efforts are gathering pace to build support systems and a sense of community for those unable to move on from a country that has been home to around 62,000 refugees since border closures early last year.
Fighting for a decent life
Tolay’s story includes a period of happiness in Damascus, Syria, where she found a sense of peace.
It was a peace that did not last, however, and she eventually fled the Middle East after her abduction and gang rape at the hands of a militia in Iraq.
Having made it to Greece, Tolay recently attended her first “LGBTQI+Refugees Greece” fundraiser and party, a chance for people to have fun and be themselves. Tolay, a former dancer, said it was “like oxygen coming back into my body.”
The group meets regularly on a more formal basis to discuss everything from theatrical projects to allocating funds to members. It was set up last June by Suma, a transgender woman.
In 2015, Suma fled a Middle Eastern country she doesn’t want to identify when a trans friend died after being tortured in police custody. But she found little assistance or sympathy in Turkey, where she lived for a year.
Fleeing to Greece by boat, she escaped a refugee camp there, fearing for her safety. She went to Athens but found little in the way of support from refugee-focused organizations.
So she decided to create a group that now has around 25 members and places an emphasis on involving all in decision-making.
“No one seemed to consider us as vulnerable cases,” said Suma. “No one will give us safety and a decent life, so we should ask, and sometimes even fight, for it.”
More getting involved
It appears the work by such grassroots networks is resonating more widely as more aid organizations become involved.
The U.N. refugee agency already seeks to identify LGBTQ refugees and migrants. It has backed a new campaign by Greek NGO “Solidarity Now” that offers LGBTQ-specific assistance, including psychological support and housing.
Identifying members of a community that has learned the hard way it can be better to pass unnoticed, remains one of the biggest challenges.
“How can we help them if we don’t know they exist?” asked Solidarity Now’s Margarita Kontomixali, who is coordinating efforts.
Kontomixali was also quick to point out discrimination is not limited to communities from which refugees and migrants have fled.
“We are not Germany, or the Scandinavian countries, we are far behind,” she said, referring to acceptance of the LGBTQ community in Greece.”Things are changing here, but only very gradually.”
A new start?
In the case of Suma, this has proven all too true. Having set up the group and facing continuing discrimination, she smuggled herself to Sweden in November.
Those remaining in Greece face the discrimination that comes with their LGBTQ status, along with the daily stress of life in a country they never intended to make their home; but, for some, there is now the sense that a new start may be possible.
Eliot is a part of the group Suma founded. Syria’s war turned his life upside down.
Images were found on his phone at a checkpoint in Damascus revealing his homosexuality, and Eliot told VOA he was repeatedly raped by some of those guarding the checkpoint.
The 30-year-old said he is dismayed by UNHCR efforts to relocate him to Romania, where he fears he will face more discrimination than in Greece.
As he appeals the decision, Eliot lives with Tolay in a house provided by Praksis, one of the few NGO’s to offer LGBTQ assistance last year.
“Here, I can feel free, I don’t have to be shy, or worry about someone killing me while I sleep,” he said.
He also has a steady boyfriend, “He’s lovely, and he respects me,” said Eliot.
“Maybe I won’t find my dreams,” he added, “but I am happy to find something small. I just want a normal life.”
Tolay and Suma’s full names have not been used in order to protect their identities.