LGBT Refugees Flee ISIS, Find Nowhere Safe

BY NATHAN JAMES

Among the massive tide of refugees desperately trying to escape the sinister depredations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria(ISIS) terrorist organization, as it continues to occupy large areas of Iraq and Syria, despite the loss of nearly a quarter of the land it previously captured, are many members of those countries’ LGBT communities.  As they evacuate their former homelands, where ISIS has executed gay men in utterly horrifying ways, these uprooted individuals are discovering there may be no real sanctuary for them, as they seemingly face violence at every turn.  In countries like Turkey, young gay men are arriving daily, often without documentation, frightened, uncertain of their futures.   Believing they’ve left the worst of the horror behind them, the nightmare often catches up, with sometimes fatal outcomes.  One such young man was Mohammed Wisam Sankari, who arrived in Istanbul last year, just ahead of ISIS forces.  Understanding the danger he faced, Sankari left his native Syria, looking for a sustainable place to call home, where he could live as his authentic self without fear.   It was not to be.

Just under two weeks ago, Sankari’s decapitated, mutilated body was found in Istanbul’s main Yankapi district, a very real exposition of the rampant anti-gay climate still prevalent in Turkey.  Since the murder, no arrests have been made, and local gay men must struggle with constant threats and police indifference.  Speaking to the Turkish gay rights group Kaos GL, Sankari’s roommates decried the lives of terror they are forced to live.  “We complained to the police headquarters, but they did not do anything,” said Rayan, Sankari’s friend of one year, who recounted Sankari’s kidnapping, beating, and rape.  According to these young men, life in Turkey as out, gay people is characterized by endless strife.  “I am so scared. I feel like everyone is staring at me on the street. I was kidnapped twice before. They let me go in Cerkezkoy and I barely got home one time,” Diya, another of Sankari’s roommates, told Kaos GL.  “I went to the UN for my identification but they did not even respond to that. No one cares about us. They just talk. I get threats over the phone. I speak calmly so something does not happen. It does not matter if you are Syrian or Turkish, if you are gay, you are everyone’s target. They want sex from you and when you don’t they just tag along. I don’t have identification, who would protect me? Who is next?”

As Turkey’s LGBT refugees ponder that awful question, another query arises.  What, if anything, is being done to address this state of affairs?  Turkey today is a country in turmoil, having just weathered a failed military coup attempt against its President, Reccip Tayyip Erdogan, which has upended Turkish society.  As Erdogan institutes massive purges of suspected coup participants, there’s little left for consideration for Turkey’s refugees, gay or straight.  Although homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, the NATO ally is a Muslim-dominated country, and its LGBT community is not generally accepted by mainstream Turkish society.  With the influx of LGBT exiles looking for a place—any place—to safely lay their heads down, and the Turkish authorities unable, or unwilling to protect them, the larger issue is, to whom, then, does it fall to keep LGBT refugees in Turkey out of danger?  The answers are few, and convoluted.

The government isn’t going to help.  When Istanbul’s LGBT community defied a ban on Pride parades by having a rally in June, local police broke up the gathering with tear gas and rubber bullets.  This leaves international organizations, like the United Nations, or major democracies, such as the United States, as possible sources of intervention.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been working with US nonprofits like San Francisco-based ORAM to resettle LGBT individuals in places like Turkey.  These groups assist some refugees with relocation to the United States, but here, too, there are ominous political signs on the horizon that may signal a big change in policies towards immigrants coming from countries where the dominant culture is Islamic.

Enrobed in the raiment of his party’s leadership, Republican nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly stated he would impose a ban on Muslim immigration to the US.  If he is elected, such a prohibition would presage dire effects on any of the gay, stateless, Muslim refugees so imminently threatened by the cultures they live within, as they literally keep running for their lives.  Aggravating this possible walling off—literally and figuratively—of the United States from LGBT emigres struggling to survive, are the continuing backlash against the LGBT community, here at home, most visibly manifested by the spread of anti-LGBT legislation in states like Mississippi, North Carolina, and Indiana.  That Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence willingly signed an Indiana bill into law permitting people and businesses to legally discriminate against LGBT people, just underscores the quandary.  Homophobia still ranges the world.

It does not augur well for these young LGBT people, who have been set adrift on the face of the world, that so much hatred has been made large in human affairs, so that the prospect of a free life without terror is a diminishing possibility for them.  A true cultural shift, on both sides of the Atlantic, will be needed if any lasting, meaningful change is to happen for these frightened, at-risk people.  Here at home, that means, more than anything else, getting out of the house and pulling that lever on November 7th.  It means taking the plight of our LGBT brothers and sisters truly to heart, and voting with them, and ourselves, in mind.  Electing those who will act positively to effect lasting change, starts with us.  It means finding and supporting those organizations that work diligently every day to rescue LGBT refugees from the atrocities of ISIS, or the savagery of homophobes in places they’ve fled to.  It means understanding that just as these threats imperil LGBT people on the other side of the globe, we, too, can all too easily find ourselves suffering right along with them, but for a slight shift in the political and cultural winds.  

Living up to the ideals of our rainbow flag, means looking far afield, giving real thought to the plight of our “family” overseas.  The doing begins at home.