"Famille au grand cœur," an association run by a group of refugees and asylum seekers, is setting up in Montpellier in the south of France. The collective aims to offer welcome and support to young new arrivals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
In Montpellier, 12 asylum seekers and refugees from Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia, Morocco and Armenia have recently joined forces. All of them arrived in France in the last few years after having to flee their countries of origin because they belong to the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). They want to use their experiences of exile to help others in the same situation.
22-year-old Thomas Hassah Addison fled Liberia after being persecuted for his sexuality. His exile took him to Libya, then on a boat across the Mediterranean, and finally to Italy, where he fell into the hands of a man who pushed him into prostitution. He managed to escape and reached France in July 2020 on board a train from which he was thrown off in Montpellier for not having a ticket.
Gevorg Hovhannisyan, a 26-year-old Armenian, decided not to return to his country after studying in the south of France. In Armenia, both society and his own parents "do not accept LGBT people," the asylum seeker tells InfoMigrants. "I want to lead a normal life and I can't do that in my country. In France being gay is not an issue, even if there is sometimes homophobia."
Their lives, as well as most of those of the ten other young men, crossed paths in the Montpellier branch of the association Le Refuge, dedicated to homosexual victims of persecution. Recently they decided to create their own group specifically oriented towards migrants, calling it "Famille au grand cœur." The project prides itself on being 100% run by refugees and asylum seekers and aims to help LGBT newcomers aged 18 to 25, mainly in the Occitanie region in the south of France.
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'They are refugees because they are LGBT'
The association provides psychological support and the opportunity to talk about subjects that are often difficult to put into words. But the main focus remains providing a safe welcome. "Famille au grand cœur" is trying to develop a network of families that can temporarily house these asylum seekers and refugees. They envisage offering six-month stays that can be renewed.
"The goal is to make it easier to find a place to stay and integrate into French society. Living with a French family makes it easier, especially to learn the language," says Gevorg, the association's assistant secretary, referring to the isolation to which he believes migrants from this community are particularly prone. "They are refugees because they are LGBT and they have often experienced traumas. We want to allow them to forget the difficult moments from their past that forced them to leave their homes."
Thomas and Gevorg are themselves still entangled in the administrative process of applying for asylum. Both are waiting for their appointment with the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra). This is a crucial interview and the outcome is never certain. "Unlike asylum applications based on political motives or religious conversion, applications based on sexual orientation do not require any documentary evidence (...). This asylum application is instead examined in terms of personal conviction," explained a spokesperson at the National Court of Asylum (CNDA) cited by the site Dalloz Actualité in 2019.
"These young people are themselves on a journey of integration in France, some have jobs, others do not, and yet they are still finding the strength to help other young people who are in more difficult situations than them. I think it's beautiful," said Nicolas Noguier, former president of Le Refuge, who now acts as a coach for the group.
Even though the project is still in its early stages, "Famille au grand cœur" has already received funding and its members have been welcomed by the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in France, says Noguier.
'They were subjected to homophobic attacks in CADA'
For the members of the association, the desire to create their own support group stems from the realization that this community needs specific and more personalized care. For example, accommodation in official reception centers for asylum seekers (CADA) is often not the best situation for these particular cases, explains Gevorg.
"Two members of the association were subjected to homophobic attacks in CADA. They didn't feel comfortable there. I didn't want to go there myself, there's too much of a mix of people in these structures, I had a feeling it wasn't going to be cool," says Gevorg, who was finally able to find a place to stay with a private family.
Being among other LGBT people is also very important. "Seeing someone you can relate to is the biggest help you can get," says Thomas. This young man describes Liberia as "the worst country in the world to be gay." There, he did not know anyone who was like him or anyone whom he could trust.
He admits to suffering even now from anxiety and insomnia, which he treats with antidepressants. And he doesn't consider himself an isolated case: "Young people from countries other than mine have also had traumatic experiences."
An LGBT person can apply for refugee status out of fear of persecution because of his or her sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and/or sexual characteristics, according to the UNHCR.