ISTANBUL — M was standing at a bus stop on the outskirts of Damascus when a group of armed men pulled up in a car and ordered her to get in.
M wears thick-framed glasses and her black hair cut just above the ear. She stood out in a largely devout neighborhood where most women wore headscarves, making her a target that day in July 2014.
“You are not covered — and why is your hair short?” she remembered her captors asking, slapping her across the face and striking her on the back of her head. They demanded she recite a verse from the Qur'an to prove she was a Muslim, and she was lucky they picked one that she had learned as a child.
“Why are you imitating men?” they demanded. “All this entitles you to execution.”
They held her blindfolded for two days; she kept time by counting the calls to prayer from a nearby mosque.
The 46-year-old M lived in an area that was a battleground that summer as government forces attempted to push the rebels back from the Syrian capital, and many of her neighbors had been wounded when the area was under siege. She practiced alternative medicine for a living, caring for the wounded regardless of which side they supported, without accepting payment.
This charity is what ultimately saved her life. At the end of the second day, a leader who her captors called “the sheikh” said an order had been issued for her execution for being a “mistarjili” — literally, a woman who acts like a man. But, she said he told her: “Listen, I will not impose the ruling … I asked all the people in the area and they told us that you are a person who helps all people.”
The group released her with nothing but her ID card and a warning that the reprieve was only temporary.
“At any moment you might be killed,” the sheikh warned her. “You should leave the area immediately."
“Why are you imitating men?”
Her neighborhood was being shelled, so she never went back to the small home where she lived for 15 years. Instead, M borrowed money from a friend and headed to Turkey later that summer as soon as she could get a passport.
For seven months, she was barely scraping by working a series of black-market jobs that required her to work 12-hour days. But she felt a surge of hope in April when she learned that she was eligible to be considered for resettlement to someplace like the United States or Europe by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She went to an office of the NGO that takes new cases, told them about what had happened to her in Syria, and waited for someone to call her with good news.
Six months passed. The phone never rang.
“My dream was to live in a country that respects a queer woman like me as a human being,” she told BuzzFeed News in Istanbul last month. “I felt that finally my problems will be solved ... but it turned out to be an illusion.”
If she had the money, she would do what her roommate did earlier this summer: hire a smuggler to carry her to Europe on a boat. But that costs about $2,500, more money than she can even dream about. In Istanbul she hasn’t been able to find work for several months even washing dishes. She is on the verge of being thrown out of her tiny room, which smells of sewage and has drug dealers conducting business just outside her window.
The people who met her when she arrived say her time here has aged her at least a decade. Deep worry lines cut into her sunken face, and her clothes sagged off her withered frame.
Finally, she decided to do something she describes as a way to commit suicide: She bought a ticket back to Syria.
“I’m returning to my death, but what choice do I have?” M said.
M's account could not be independently verified because getting reliable accounts from inside rebel-held areas is nearly impossible. M also asked that her name and the name of where she lived be withheld to protect her safety. But her story is far from unique. In September and October, BuzzFeed News interviewed more than 15 LGBT refugees in Turkey from several nearby countries who had fled everything from Islamist militias to sexual assault to death threats from family members. Many had been pushed out of more than one country, caught up in anti-LGBT crackdowns that have rippled across the Middle East in recent years. M’s disappointment in the resettlement system overseen by UNHCR was nearly universal.
UNHCR actually fast-tracks LGBT refugees for resettlement because it considers them especially vulnerable. But the process still leaves many in despair, showing that the system wasn’t really built to rescue large numbers of people in immediate danger. The fates of refugees who are desperately seeking security are in the hands of a bureaucracy that spans multiple governments, agencies, and NGOs. These institutions generally don’t have nearly enough staff to keep up with the workload created by the influx of Syrians since the war began.
LGBT refugees will usually have to wait about two years for a ticket out of Turkey, said Selin Unal, spokesman for UNHCR's Turkey office: one year for UNHCR to decide if they’re eligible and a second for another country to grant them a visa and fly them over.
“We are trying our best to shorten waiting periods,” Unal said, but given the numbers seeking resettlement, “this period is not really too long.”
Those who “have been resettled are probably very grateful to UNHCR for having helped them and given a chance to build their life in a new environment,” she added. “We acknowledge the difficulties of a daily life for refugees during a waiting period … [and] we do not spare any efforts in order to support and assist [them].”
The two-year wait is far shorter than the one faced by refugees not considered vulnerable — advocates who work with other categories of refugees report that UNHCR is telling their clients they won’t even have their first meeting with an agency caseworker until 2022 or 2023.
But to an individual, those two years can feel like an eternity. Refugees are generally barred from working and often survive doing back-breaking black-market labor or sex work. One sign of how at risk they feel is that all of those who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story asked to be identified by their first names or nicknames. Many — especially trans people who stand out on the street — will be victims of hate crimes from Turks or other refugees who come from the very countries they are fleeing, according to the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), which advocates on behalf of LGBT people.
UNHCR-Turkey now reports 700 LGBT people in its system, but ORAM believes there are many more who don’t know they can seek asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity or are too afraid to out themselves. In 2014, UNHCR asked the governments that resettle refugees from Turkey to consider the cases of 227 LGBT people, most of whom were from Iran.
The process for resettlement is well known to Iranian LGBT people because most have friends who have gone through it in the past several years. But it’s newer for Syrians, who just began to seek asylum in large numbers since the start of the war. Before the conflict began, the Assad regime was brutal with political opponents, but it was secular and didn’t seek out LGBT people for harassment the way authorities do in places like Iran. What primarily makes Syria dangerous for the LGBT people now arriving in Turkey is Assad’s loss of control in much of the country to the Islamist rebels trying to overthrow him.
LGBT Syrians arrive along with millions of other Syrians — from both sides — fleeing the fighting. Their vulnerability gives LGBT refugees a path to resettlement that most other Syrians won’t be able to access, but they must go through a process that often feels incomprehensible and capricious.
Refugees bound for the U.S. — which takes the lion’s share of refugees resettled from Turkey — will generally pass through five different stages each requiring a new interview. Months can pass between each step without word on the real status of their cases, and there is little support if they can’t find somewhere to sleep, face a medical emergency, or are assaulted. There are precious few resettlement slots: The U.S. resettled just 5,162 refugees from Turkey in the last year. (Fewer than 100 of all refugees resettled in the U.S. in that period identified themselves as LGBT.)
Many advocates who work on LGBT asylum issues say they believe UNHCR’s staff is genuinely committed to getting these refugees out as fast as possible. But, said ORAM’s Neil Grungras, the system itself is “bureaucratic and inefficient from the get-go” — and now the agency’s 330 staff members in the country are completely overwhelmed as the total numbers seeking asylum in Turkey climb past 2 million.
“The system is failing them,” Grungras said. “The people who are truly vulnerable aren’t being whisked out of harm’s way soon enough.”
This is what that failure looks like.
Istanbul has become an increasingly important safe haven in recent years as other cities — like Cairo and Beirut — have become ever more dangerous for LGBT people.
Back in June, Nader, a bushy-bearded 26-year-old Syrian, helped organize about 100 Arab refugees to turn out for the city’s 13th annual pride march, exhilarated at the chance to celebrate with tens of thousands of people. They carried signs like "Stop the persecution of gays in the Arab world" and "Your life isn't worth more than mine."
So it felt like a deep betrayal when local officials banned the march at the last minute and police turned tear gas, plastic bullets, and water cannons on participants. (Turkish LGBT activists are not sure why the event was shut down after years without incident, but it fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and came in the wake of a defeat at the ballot box for the party of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
“I thought we were safe, but the police were attacking us and the people just watching,” said Nader. “That was my last straw with being here.”
Nader had worked hard to build a life in Istanbul since arriving in June 2014. He had started a weekly support group for Arabic-speaking LGBT refugees called Tea and Talk, drawing people from as far apart as Morocco to Iraq. He had also fallen in love with a sweet-faced 21-year-old from Damascus named Omar, moving in with him a couple months after they first met in one of Istanbul’s best-known gay clubs in December. They set up house just before Valentine's Day.
Istanbul was the last stop for Nader on a four-year exodus since he left his native city of Homs, Syria, for good in August 2011, five months after the uprising against Assad began. He grew up in a Sunni family in the Bab al-Sibah neighborhood, which was the frontline in sectarian fighting with members of the city’s Alawite community before the conflict became a full-fledged civil war. The city was wracked by a cycle of killings between the two communities, and many of Nader’s childhood friends gravitated to Sunni militias.
One day, a close friend took Nader to see a house in Homs where a massacre had taken place and showed him the remains of a group of Alawites. “We’re taking our revenge,” he said. Horrified at what his friends were becoming, and scared they would come for him because of his sexuality, Nader moved to Damascus immediately.
“I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood.”
Nader had actually fooled around with some of those friends now fighting with groups morphing into the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. “I used to have a wild sex life in our neighborhood,” he said, and he never really hid that he was gay as he became an adult.
Once behind the lines of President Assad’s forces in Damascus, he even told an old hookup buddy turned rebel fighter on the phone that he was “gay for sure.” A few days later he learned that the friend reported the conversation to his group’s imam, who proclaimed it debauchery and said “the Islamic rule for it is throw him from off of the high building.”
So when anti-Assad fighters successfully attacked the Al-Midan neighborhood in the heart of the Damascus in January 2012, Nader made plans to go to Cairo.
But Cairo proved not to be very welcoming either, and he said he was twice beaten up in the streets during his year there, caught up in the unrest amid mass protests that gripped the city during the one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Next he tried Amman, Jordan, but discovered the city was awash in Syrian rebels fleeing Assad’s forces, including some who looked familiar from Homs.
In June 2014, one of them recognized him and tried to grab him on a street in the city center.
“You are the faggot — we captured you!” Nader remembered the man shouting. “You escaped from Syria so you think you are safe right now. [But] we will fuck you, we will kill you!”
The yelling drew a crowd, and Nader managed to shake him off in the commotion. Two days later he bought a ticket to Istanbul, and went to the NGO registering new cases for resettlement to North America or Europe, the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants (ASAM).
Earlier this month, Nader finally got a call from UNHCR that Norway had agreed to take him. He will probably be moving within six months. There was only one problem: It would mean leaving his boyfriend almost entirely alone.
Omar’s resettlement petition appeared to have gotten stuck in a personnel shake-up at ASAM. Though he’d registered in June, he had to essentially re-do his first interview with a caseworker three months later because the official he spoke to the first time had left the job without forwarding his paperwork to UNHCR. (ASAM did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.)
The pair spoke to BuzzFeed News hours after they learned Nader would be going to Norway, and Omar’s eyes were visibly red from crying. They had thought about sending Omar on the boats but they were afraid he would be detained by authorities before reaching Norway. They even had a long-shot idea about going to Brazil — the only country they said they had found that performs same-sex marriages and grants visas to Syrians — to get married in order to enable Nader to bring Omar as a spouse.
“He’s leaving and we don’t know when we will meet again,” Omar said.
They were basically considering anything they could think of so they wouldn’t have to rely on UNHCR.
“I don’t trust them,” Nader said.
Follow the process of applying for resettlement in Turkey
This is the bureaucratic maze that generally awaits refugees seeking resettlement from Turkey — if they don’t run into any problems:
Most start by giving a basic outline of their story to ASAM. They’re also supposed to register with the Turkish government, which will assign those in UNHCR’s resettlement process to remote “satellite cities” where they must regularly appear at a police station to prove they haven’t left. (Generally only Syrians, to whom the Turkish government have given special status, can choose to live in large cities like Istanbul.)
ASAM refers eligible cases to UNHCR, and refugees can wait months or years to be summoned for a “pre-interview,” where they’ll give the in-depth version of their stories and submit any corroborating documents: medical records of assault, threatening messages from family members, arrest records. Next they have the UNHCR “interview,” where they tell their story in yet more detail — the appointment can take a full day or require a second interview.
If UNHCR decides to grant them refugee status and refer them for resettlement, the agency will have a short conversation with each of them about where they want to be resettled, though the decision depends almost entirely on which countries have open slots at the time and not on their preference.
Most will go to the U.S., so they will next be interviewed by the International Catholic Migration Commission, the contractor processing refugee cases for the U.S. Then they are interviewed again by a “circuit rider” from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on one of their periodic visits to Istanbul — that person goes over their story again from beginning to end primarily to check that they are eligible to be resettled under U.S. law. Then their personal information is sent to other U.S. security agencies to look for red flags like service in a hostile military or support for blacklisted groups, which would disqualify them for a visa. Advocates say cases can wind up on long holds even if relatively minor questions about their record are raised.
If they get final approval, they wait for an agency in the U.S. to agree to handle their resettlement and wait to be given a spot on flights purchased by the International Organization for Migration. They are forbidden from flying on their own if they find an earlier flight, and are required to start repaying the full fare in installments six months after arriving in the U.S. Before their flight date, they also must secure an exit permit from the Turkish government.
"It is truly a challenge," said Veysel Essiz, senior program officer at Refugee Rights Turkey. "You flee your own country to find at least some safety, but the feeling that the overwhelming majority of refugees in Turkey have is that they will be in limbo for eternity."
The wait in Turkey can be dangerous, especially for those who don’t manage to learn Turkish and so wind up more dependent on other refugees to share housing and navigate day-to-day life. And those who are visibly queer often worry about being assaulted.
Reza, a 34-year-old gay Iranian who wears makeup and has feminine mannerisms, told BuzzFeed News he was head-butted by a man on the street in the southeastern Turkish city of Denizli where he is living while waiting for resettlement. He said he came to Turkey after being beaten, sexually assaulted, and detained by police on several occasions, and now is too afraid to leave his apartment in Turkey alone.
“He beat me because I had red lipstick on,” he said of the December 2014 attack.
Refugees who find themselves living in enclaves with others from their home country — often the only way they can find housing — regularly find the same kind of threats they fled have followed them.
But even those who could pass as straight put themselves in danger when they try to live a relatively normal life. Ahmad, a slight, 23-year-old Syrian who wears a fedora and smokes a Sherlock Holmes pipe, told BuzzFeed News he was forced to share an apartment with Syrians who had fought for al-Nusra and would make jokes about ISIS executing gays — a situation several gay Syrians in Istanbul have encountered.
He arrived in Istanbul in April and said he was assaulted for the first time in June. He got jumped by a group of Syrians outside his apartment building — they had apparently seen him hanging out with some gay friends in the central shopping district.
“You gays put us all to shame.”
“Did you finish hooking up with your friend?” he remembered them saying before they jumped on him. “You gays put us all to shame.” Photos from the incident, which he submitted to ASAM to demonstrate the danger he is in in Istanbul, show his face purple and swollen.
He was attacked again about a month later — this time by a friend of a friend he thought he was meeting for a date — and he said that if it happens again, it would be “the next level” and he would be killed. If he had the money, he would be on a boat to Europe despite the risk of drowning and rumors he’s heard about smugglers killing refugees and selling their organs.
“It is dangerous, but it’s better than me staying here,” he said.
It’s been six months since he registered and he’s heard nothing from UNHCR. He is also worried that he’ll be sent to the U.S. while he is desperate to get to Germany.
That’s where he believes he will “find the first love of my life,” a man named Mohammed.
They had dated for four months in Damascus six years ago, when Ahmad was around 17. Ahmad came to Turkey carrying dried flowers — which now have withered to just a stick and bundle of grass — that Mohammed had given him on the day they first had sex. But not long after, Ahmad lost his cell phone when he was mugged, and he hadn’t memorized Mohammed’s phone number nor even knew his last name — it was not uncommon for people who were afraid of being outed to keep their family names secret from each other when they began dating.
“After that, I didn’t know anything about Mohammed,” Ahmad said.
But he knew Mohammed had a brother in Germany, and they had fantasized about traveling there at a time “when there was no war or anything called a refugee.”
“My inner feeling is that [Mohammed] is in Germany, and I’m going to find him,” Ahmad said.
Ezeddin Fadel contributed to this report.