New Irish-made podcast sheds light on what it's like to be an LGBTQ+ refugee

'I Am Not Your Refugee' is a new podcast that platforms the voices of refugees from Turkey, Greece and Jordan.

Cover image of podcast 'I Am Not Your Refugee'.
Image: Bairbre Flood

A new podcast series, ‘I Am Not Your Refugee’ looks at refugee-led projects in Ireland, Turkey, Greece and Jordan. Journalist and producer Bairbre Flood tells us about how she met and spoke to Mehdi and Nihal, two members of the LGBTQ+ community in Yalova, a city just outside Istanbul, and to Mahmoud Hassino, who presents the series. Read on to discover their stories.

Mahmoud Hassino set up Syria’s first LGBTQ+ magazine before he was forced to leave in 2011 and he was part of Mr Gay Syria, a groundbreaking documentary drama that celebrated the lives of gay refugees in Turkey. Now living in Germany, he works with counselling centre Schwulenberatung Berlin to help open the first major refugee centre exclusively for LGBTQ+ people.

Recounting his life story, Hassino said: “As a Syrian gay man, Istanbul’s Pride was the only Pride event I could join. Istanbul was a haven for LGBT people coming from Turkey’s neighbouring countries, where homosexuality is criminalised. In 2014, a group of Syrian LGBT people started a group called ‘Tea and Talk’ to help LGBT Arabic speakers navigate their way in Turkey and in Istanbul.”

“Since I left, there’ve been even more restrictions placed on the movement of refugees within different areas in Turkey and outside of Istanbul it can be more difficult to live as an LGBT refugee,” he said in the podcast.

About an hour outside Istanbul, across The Marmara Sea, the quieter, more conservative Yalova is home to about 2,000 of Turkey’s LGBTQ+ community. Mehdi, a refugee featured in the podcast, met me at the ferry port and we went back to the small flat he shares with Nihal. Mehdi is a gifted writer, fluent in four languages, with a hefty laugh and a big heart.

“In Yalova, I can’t go to another place, to another city,” he said. “And if I found a job in Yalova, I must have authorization for working. And they don’t give authorization for working. One woman who worked for the government told me ‘I don’t give you authorisation to go to Istanbul. If you go to Istanbul without authorisation, I block and I stop your ID’ [sic].”

Medhi continued his story saying: “One time I don’t accept my life, because I found a job in the French embassy but the government in Yalova don’t give me the authorization to go to Istanbul so I lose this job. And next time I found a job in the Saudi Arabian embassy and the government don’t give me authorization to go to Istanbul and the third time and it’s the last, I found a job in Netflix… so they don’t give me authorization. So this time, I tried to kill myself.… it’s enough for me really. It’s a big prison. Here is a big prison [sic].”

Nihal has been living in Turkey for nearly four years and, without Mehdi’s help, would’ve found it difficult to rent the flat they’re in. While the Turkish government does give an allowance to Trans people, it’s barely enough to live on and Trans people are heavily discriminated against in employment and housing.

Nihal talked to me about her situation, while Mehdi translated: “She said refugee it’s problem here. They can’t live here. And the Trans [people], they can’t live here but she’s Trans and refugee. Is two problems for her to live here, not just for her, for all Trans [people] in Turkey [sic].”

Nihal has two degrees from Iran, her home country, but can’t get work in Yalova. ‘The first pain, you lose your family because nobody accepts you,” said Mehdi. ‘The second pain, you come here in this country and nobody accepts you, and the third pain nobody helped you. Yeah, and maybe the fourth pain, everybody don’t help you so you think: I am wrong person [sic].”

Mehdi then told me about his desires for the future. “You know the story of Harvey Milk?” he asked. “I like this guy because he wants to do something to his life. But he can’t do anything. So he does something for another life. Yeah, for me, he’s good because he has two lives. His life and another life. I want to do something like that.”

He continued saying, “One guy here, his mother died. He is from Morocco. And he cried a lot. And he can’t call his family because nobody will accept him. And he can’t go to the funeral because he hasn’t the money for the ticket…I want to do this group for helping people who need money. The medicines for example, who need to rent a room or buy something – I want to do that [sic].”

After the interviews, we had a kebab and a beer. It was too cold to walk by the sea shore so they walked me to the ferry and Mehdi told me about Nour, a Trans woman from Syria he’d been close to. “Nour was picked up by the police and sent back to Syria. I’m not sure, but I think they found something in her pockets, maybe drugs she had for herself and they used that as an excuse to send her back. She was lovely – a gentle person. And they killed her back in Syria. We got the news a few months ago.”

There was music on the street – some boys were joining the army. “They do that sometimes”, Mehdi said. “I’m so sorry about Nour”, I said. The wind was freezing. We got to the ferry and hugged and they asked me again to keep in touch. “Don’t forget about us. Maybe there’s some way Nihal can get out of here.”

“I don’t mind for myself as much,” Mehdi said. “But for Nihal, she stands out so much here. If anyone can help her…”

If you wish to listen to the ‘I Am Not Your Refugee’ podcast, you can find it here.

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