Many refugees and asylum seekers can face discrimination, even on arrival in Europe. For members of the LGBTQI+ community, the threat of violence and discrimination can be even more pronounced. That’s why a project in Greece has been working to create a safe place for LGBTQI+ people in the heart of Athens.
“Right here is where my long journey ended,” says Joseph Baruku staring out at the grey winter waves of the Mediterranean on a seaweed strewn Athens shoreline. Joseph is originally from Uganda. He came via Kenya and Egypt to Greece to escape the discrimination he faced at home. However, Europe was not really his target. "I thought Europe was one country," he explains.
In Kenya, Joseph experienced similar prejudices towards gay people that he had faced in Uganda, and so he went to Egypt. There, it seems it was a chance meeting with a group of Eritreans which led him to Europe via a container ship to Turkey, he thinks, although he's hazy on the details of his journey. “I
had to cross this deadly sea which has claimed so many people,” he says quietly
looking down at the debris gathered on the beach, children’s shoes, rubber boots, lifejackets and old tyres.
Joseph is speaking in a video for his project in Athens, “Athens Housing Collective”, which is a collaboration between him and Safe Place International, a US registered non-profit organization which “seeks to empower refugees, immigrants, single mothers, LGBT+ and other marginalized communities develop and implement projects which benefit their communities.”
The Athens Housing Collective (AHC) was set up in 2017. Many refugees and asylum seekers, regardless of their gender or orientation face discrimination in Europe. In Greece, which is struggling to deal with the more than 60,000 people who have arrived in the last few years, many landlords refuse to rent to refugees and it can be difficult to find jobs. "Being LGBTQ in Athens is extremely hard," explains Rachal from Safe Place International over the phone from Athens: "There is a huge housing shortage in Athens and Greece," Rachal says. "When they arrive in Athens, they face almost imminent homelessness," she adds.
The project started with just one apartment but has grown to 60 places in Athens. Members of the collective live across 13 apartments and shared accommodation. They are not just provided with a bed to sleep but access to food, healthcare, psychosocial support, job training, language training and employment.
In the last two months, says Rachal, the project has opened up a community center which offers showers and laundry facilities for those who are still on the waiting list for the collective and may be homeless. There is space for people to chill out, play ping pong or get some work done. Yoga and workshops as well as training programs are offered. It is open from 10-6pm Monday to Friday. Most importantly, think Rachal and Joseph, "it is a place where people can express themselves as they want and be who they are."
"Probably 95 percent of those who use the community center are homeless," estimates Rachal. "People live in parks, in squats, all over the city," adds Joseph, "but lately the police have been clearing out a lot of the squats," thus increasing the problem of homelessness for many of the most vulnerable people. "Everyone on the housing program gets a case worker whom you meet weekly," says Rachal. These case workers help with language, finding a job and looking for somewhere to rent on completion of the program.
Many people on the program have already found jobs, says Rachal proudly. They've already helped around 150 people. "There are so many still in need," agree Rachal and Joseph. Although it is difficult to identify people sometimes as they can be scared to come forward. "People would never disclose their sexuality in the camps because of the homophobia and transphobia that is present," says Rachal. She interviews people for at least 45 minutes to assess people's suitability for shared accommodation and whether they fit the criteria to be accepted into the community.
"We all need a safe place," says Joseph. "I don't see much humanity in Greece. [...] People point at you, call you names, because you are a refugee and being LGBTQ makes it worse." He hopes that people all over the world start to respect each other and their choices and help create more safe spaces and then hopefully things will gradually change. The Athens Housing Collective is one small step towards that vision. At the moment people are waiting about three months on our list before being housed, estimates Rachal.
‘I’m a gay. I wanted to save my life’
Before he got to Athens, Joseph arrived on Lesvos. From there, he was picked up by police and taken to Moria refugee camp, where the video tells us “drug abuse, violence and sexual abuse have become commonplace in the overcrowded conditions.”
"When I went to the psychologist [in Moria],” Joseph remembers, “she asked me: ‘why did you leave your country?’ ‘I’m a gay’” he replied. “I wanted to save my life.” At first Joseph faced discrimination in the camp too. He remembers people pointing at him and says some people were beaten up for being gay. He decided “enough was enough, I have to be free."
The camps, he explains are not places where many people feel able to come out and express their sexuality. For trans people "who can be seen more easily on the street," it is even harder. "There are people from your community and they judge you," Joseph says.
In Uganda, homosexuality is deemed illegal. According to Amnesty International, those found engaging in sex with someone of the same gender can face sentences from seven years to life in prison. Before 2013, it could be punishable by death. In society, too, it is often frowned upon and many gay people are beaten up or killed, banned from visiting their villages and ostracized by their communities.
Banished from home
On the phone from Athens, Joseph breaks down when he recounts the story which led to his eventual flight. It was his father who took him to meet the village elders and accused him of being gay at the age of 19. At first, Joseph denied it but the elders wouldn't believe him and he was sent to prison for two weeks. After that, he carried on denying it for a while before eventually admitting it to his mother. She told his father and tried to take him to a traditional doctor, believing that his homosexuality could have been caused by the traditional witches.
Eventually, though, his mother accepted his “nature” and said “Joseph you are still my son, I gave birth to your body, and God gave birth to your soul.” His mother’s acceptance was not enough to save him from his community. “They termed me as evil,” he explains. The elders in the village had a meeting, his father was present. They told him he had one week to leave the village. His mother told him to leave fearing that he would be killed by the villagers if he didn’t.
So began a period of studying and working in Uganda’s capital Kampala. Joseph earned a degree in computer science. He promised to transfer his mother and sister to the city as soon as he earned enough to rent a house. Now, he wishes he had brought his mother more quickly. "I had a very poor background. I wanted my mother to have a sofa to sit on and a TV to watch," Joseph recounts sorrowfully. "Now I realize it is not those material things which count."
Because of Joseph's sexuality, his mother and sister were also facing discrimination. "The locals believed my Mom and sister were lesbians because my Mom gave birth to a gay and my sister came from the same person. They think that being gay is catching. If I sit next to you, then you will be gay too," says Joseph.
On the night he went back to arrange for their transfer, in 2014, (having paid to be allowed to come back to the village for one night) thieves came to their house and killed his mom and sister. "Two massive men came from behind and they cut my sister. When they cut my Mom she screamed, 'Joseph run'. Joseph took off. "I slept in a ditch that night," he says. He could see the straw roofs of his village burning. When he rang his father in another village the next morning, in the hope that he could take his mother and sister to the hospital, his father replied, "they are dead because of you. If you hadn't come back, they wouldn't have died, and you are next..."
Joseph hasn't seen his father since. Later he heard that his father was in prison. He tried to help, but his father refused his help. He heard later that he died when he was in Kenya.
Journey to Europe
Joseph escaped Uganda for Kenya, but was chased out of that country too. Then, he decided to pay a smuggler in Egypt to get him to Lesvos. “Many gay people, many trans people risk their lives [even in Athens] explains Joseph. Ostracized and with few friends, Joseph says that LGBTQI+ people tend to gravitate towards squats, or sleep rough. “I have seen so many gay people [on the streets] risk their lives,” says Joseph.
Joseph’s mission became trying to offer shelter and refuge to gay refugees who “need to survive.” He started with one house and “before I completed the furnishing we already had six people. I didn’t know how big it would be,” Joseph says smiling.
‘A big heart’
One of the first inhabitants of the shelter was Carmel from Congo. In the video, she explains how she was violently raped which caused her serious mental health issues. The impact of finding a safe place for her can be seen in her testament to Joseph. “Joseph is very good, he’s a good man,” she says smiling broadly. She talks about having to sleep in parks in the day because at night, when she was scared, she tried to keep walking, to avoid another violent attack. Another former inhabitant, Faiz from Iraq agrees. “Joseph has a big heart,” he grins.
Lafortune from Cameroon explains that Joseph takes on other people’s problems as though they were his own, in order to solve them. “Nobody chooses to be a refugee,” says Joseph seriously. He explains his motivation thus: “At times when I see the situations I went through, so paining. At least it would be good not seeing anyone else passing through that.”
“Many face systematic and culturally sanctioned violence [in their home countries]”, explains the Safe Place video. Manasif from Pakistan sits with folded arms in his new room in the collective. “In our country, there is no place for LGBT,” he explains. The problem is that on arrival in Greece, he also felt out of place. Joseph himself is modest. He credits Safe Place and Justin, its founder for creating all this. "He helped me with my first month's rent when I arrived in Athens," Joseph explains.
Dreaming of the future
After all he has been through, Joseph has taken one of his mother's life lessons to heart. Today, he measures success by making people happy. “Success may not depend on the amount of money you have. It may not depend on how many materials you have, it depends on the amount of people you can make happy.”
Although Joseph was always comfortable with who he is, in Athens, he seems to have finally found a place he can feel safe. “I’m a proud gay and a proud guy from Uganda,” he says smiling. “I’m thankful to God that he created me the way I am.”
Joseph hopes to set up his own NGO one day to serve the LGBTQI+ community and to build a family with someone he loves. He wants to make sure that more and more people realize that "being gay is not something bad, it doesn't mean you are possessed by demons." He learns other African languages so he can talk to them and spread his message.
The group recently celebrated Pride Athens with the rest of the LGBTQI+ community in the country. The project hosts people for up to a year and helps them get back on their feet. Another former resident, Faiz from Iraq hopes that now he has found stability with AHC he can start helping others like him. Joseph wants the project to grow and grow and loves seeing other people happy. Integration is important to the whole team and making connections within the community.
There is nothing worse than someone losing hope, says Joseph. “If they see this house, they get new hopes in them.” Fortune agrees, “there is no one better than [Joseph] because of him, people have smiles on their faces, and perhaps they can start to look forward to a better future tomorrow too."
Joseph says he is "lucky, I have a job now." He has refugee status and is able to stay in Greece. He wishes though that it was easier to move around Europe for people like him. The Dublin agreement makes things difficult, he confides. Joseph says he is proud of himself for the difference he has made in some people's lives. He still misses his mother and sister. When asked if he has built a new family in Greece in a way he answers quickly: "I have built an army, and I am the general." But instead of spreading hate and death, Joseph is trying to conquer people with love.
"I see so many people who are depressed and have totally lost hope." His solution?: "I give people hugs, so many hugs [...] filled with warmth and love [...]. I try and put myself in other people's shoes. I sit with them and then tell them the first thing you need is love. When you feel the love, you will appreciate the support you are given and then you will give it out too."