LGBTQ Activist Risks Arrest and Deportation to Help Other Refugees
Leaving my home is an experience I will never forget. The day I left I was full of mixed emotions. But, the most important thing to me that day, was to transfer all of the music files that I had. I wanted to take my music with me.
I had to leave everything else I knew. The only way I knew how to live was in the city I was born. My cousins came over the day we left to tell jokes and lift my spirits, but I couldn’t react, or laugh, or even be nice to them. I was going to the other side, and I didn’t know what that other side carried. I was rude to them and I regretted that afterwards. I hope they understood why I did that.
I’m not sure if we kept a key, but we locked the door. We never really realized the power of that decision until we landed in Turkey and realized that we’re not going to be able to go back home for a long time. I have been living in Turkey for almost ten years.
My name is Aws. I’m 28 years old and I’m from Baghdad, Iraq.
My family and I are committed secularists, having denounced our Muslim faith. My father was raised in the Shia tradition and my mother in the Sunni. Both sides thought we were with the other. In Iraq it is dangerous to go to a Sunni neighborhood if you’re Shia and visa versa.
Starting in 2006, when there was an escalation of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni militants, my family and I were attacked and threatened by members of extremist Sunni communities as we did not attend prayer in the mosque of our Sunni neighborhood. We were seen as outsiders and that made people suspicious and afraid.
I was stopped in our street by a stranger driving a car who started questioning me and told me I didn't belong in the neighborhood. He tried to get me into his car in what was probably a kidnapping attempt. After that, I was scared to leave the house. I had friends from school who were kidnapped because they were from Shia families.
Soon after, our neighbor, the only other Shia man who lived on our street was kidnapped and found dead in the garbage heap the next day. My sister witnessed the kidnapping. We believe this act was committed by Sunni extremists who are Al Qaeda loyalists.
We woke up one morning to find our dog shot to death. After that, we moved to a Shia neighborhood, but things only got worse.
My mother doesn’t wear the Muslim headscarf (Hijab) and comes from a Palestinian Jordanian family. She has fair skin, uncovered brown hair and speaks with a strong Palestinian accent.
They accused her of kidnapping children and imprisoning them at the family home. She spent fifty days in jail before she was released.
She missed New Year’s Eve while she was in jail. It was the first year that she didn’t dress up like Santa for us.
I listened to a lot of Western music (mostly metal), socialized in mixed-gender groups, and occasionally drank alcohol. I was attacked by strangers throwing rocks and had to escape. In school, I was called “Kaffir” - meaning “infidel” - which in the Islamic faith means someone who deserves to be killed. Men threatened me on the street and said they could even find me at school. I stopped going to school and didn’t leave our home. My friends stopped hanging out with me and talking to me because they no longer felt comfortable being seen with me.
Finally, we found a new life in Turkey, but it wasn’t an easier life.
In some ways, being a refugee is more difficult than living in a war.
In my home country I still had friends and work. I lived an upper middle class life. Once we arrived in Turkey, we left all that behind. Refugee status prohibits me from working or traveling between cities.
My family and I are registered with the UNHCR in Turkey as refugees and as such, we are unable to work legally to provide for ourselves. Any travel we do outside the city we settled in, Eskisehir, is illegal. We are expected to live, eat and pay for rent and bills without work. Of course, this is impossible. I have done some ‘under the table’ work for very low wages and in very unstable and unsafe circumstances whilst trying to contribute to supporting our family. Once, I was stopped by people who claimed to be the police, who asked to see my work permit and ID. When they learned of my refugee status, they hit me, pushed me, and forced me to leave my clients alone in the street. We feel we are powerless to argue the case due to our lack of rights and status as refugees in Turkey.
We do not feel safe in Turkey because it is a Muslim country and a large portion of the population is very conservative. As a foreigner and refugee family in Turkey we have been assaulted in our home in Eskisehir. In March of 2014, two men came to our apartment at night and pretended to be the police. They told us they had to search our apartment. We were vulnerable because of our refugee and social status - we couldn't argue with them or stop them. They kept my mom, cousin and me in the kitchen. Then they went into the room where my sister was sleeping, and where we kept all the money we had and they stole it. We found out from other Iraqi families that this group of criminals were targeting refugee families in the area and taking advantage of our weak situation.
With no options to work and fulfill my potential in my small city of registration, I felt I had no choice but to move to Istanbul, where there are more opportunities, in 2015. Because I remain registered elsewhere, my eight years of residence in Istanbul have been illegal. This means that I live under constant risk of detention or deportation.
While working as a tour guide in Istanbul, I also started volunteering with international organizations serving refugees. Not only did I meet people who had been through difficulties worse than I, which gave me a sense of humility, but I also had the opportunity to touch the lives of others. One of my greatest pleasures while living in Turkey was the day that I delivered the news to an 18 year old girl that she would be able to attend university.
After volunteering, I was hired first by Humanwire and then by Safe Place International where I worked as a shelter manager serving homeless LGBT+ refugees. I care deeply about the rights of LGBT people, especially those who are refugees like I am. However, Turkey is a dangerous environment for LGBT activists, especially immigrant and refugee LGBT activists.The previous manager of the shelter was attacked in the street and many of our residents have been threatened and suffered from violence.
I found a purpose for my life through supporting people in this position. LGBTQ refugees are one of the most vulnerable populations. I hope to protect and support them through my work. I thought I was a victim until I started working at the shelter. Then I saw how lucky and privileged I was as a straight man.
During COVID-19, I created The United Hands for Refugees. I also co-founded the De-Otherize Dialogue Project. I’m an advocate, co-founder, director, oversee over fifty volunteers, and am currently working on a movie project that I hope will break down hatred and stereotypes.
My purpose and passion in life, given the opportunity, is to help others in the same situation as my family and I. However, my potential to help others will never flourish here in Turkey.
In order to advance the human rights of others, I need to have complete human rights myself.
This risk of deportation, and its accompanying stress, has grown particularly acute in the last few months, after a government crackdown last August on irregular refugees and asylum seekers. During that time, the government here detained and illegally deported thousands of refugees. As a result of the crackdown I have lost my job and my home. I have been staying on friends’ couches, and I've been struggling financially and legally; nevertheless, remaining in Istanbul offers me the best chance to support myself.
Now, avoiding the police and possible deportation consumes much of my time and mental energy. I avoid the metro stations and public squares because I am afraid of getting detained or deported. These struggles are a constant reminder that I need to leave Turkey for a country where I can live with dignity and basic human rights. That is all I wish for right now.
I dream of living in Canada. Canada’s cosmopolitan culture and world class education system also fits with my personal and professional goals and values.
Canada is a leader in the international arena of human rights. It is the perfect place for me to reach my full potential. For me, a huge part of unlocking that potential is education. I have attended a Canadian High School here in Istanbul (Simcoe Academy). It would be a natural step to continue my education at a university in Canada. My plan is to attain an undergraduate degree in political science/international studies in the realm of human rights before pursuing a masters in international law.
After graduation, my intention is to work with Canadian and international NGOs in order to champion human rights around the world. Specifically, my own home country of Iraq. Iraq will need brave advocates and activists to put the pieces of our society back together. I would love to use the skills that I gain in Canada to help marginalized populations such as women and religious minorities to organize and realize their fundamental rights.
One day, a few years ago my friend was telling me about his life in Toronto. He told me that people in Canada accept and celebrate people from different ethnicities, backgrounds and religions. This is what I’ve been missing my whole life. A society that would accept me even though I am different.
If I can connect to an American soldier, I can connect to people different from me.
When someone is different from you, move closer. If you come closer to a person and talk, you will find you have a lot in common, even when you come from different places.
Recently, Aws was arrested while helping other refugees obtain basic necessities. He was released after 4 days.
Aws and his family have applied for asylum in the United States and Australia and have been rejected by both countries. They have found sponsors in Canada and are waiting to hear whether or not their application has been accepted.
Watch a video Aws created sharing his story:AWS Story
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