Safe in the Netherlands? Meet Lya

LGBT+ refugees are coming to the Netherlands in search of a safe environment to live. Once they apply for asylum, they are often forced to live in dangerous places, where they experience bullying, discrimination and assault. Are we doing enough to protect them? Secret Garden interviewed one of the LGBT+ refugees who thinks we could do better.

I grew up in Beirut and I have been living in the Netherlands since 2019. Life in Lebanon was like being in a house with many rooms, except that you cannot open some of them. Since I was very young, I knew I liked men. But growing up, I realized that it was impossible for me to be open about myself. I knew of several people who were reported for homosexual behavior to the police and put in jail without any real evidence.

In Beirut, I worked as an animator for an NGO called War Child, providing psycho-social support to Syrian children who escaped the war. I have been living with HIV since 2015 and lost my job when War Child relocated to Cyprus. At that point, my life became extremely difficult. I could not find another job and I was left without adequate health care in a country whose government provides no support whatsoever for people living with HIV.

In 2018, I left for Turkey to see if I could make a new life for myself and ended up in a city close to the Syrian border. Unfortunately, things did not turn out very well for me there. One of the worst things was that I could not find any doctor who would prescribe me HIV medications. This was also the time I came to terms with being a trans person. After a few months, I returned to Lebanon. But soon my family found out about my desire to transition and my mother kicked me out. That’s when I decided to leave for the Netherlands to seek asylum. Elie, from Secret Garden, gave me some information about the Dutch asylum system and helped me figure out what to do on my arrival here.

After registering at the Refugee Reception Center in (AZC) in Ter Apel, I was moved from one refugee camp to another. The camp in Budel was by far the worst. It is located in a very isolated area next to a motorway. It is a dangerous place for LGBT+ people. During the time I spent there, I was harassed repeatedly. The local staff of the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) did not do much when I requested their help. For a while, I was forced to live next to a guy who was making my life like hell. I asked to be transferred to a different camp. But the COA staff only agreed to move me to another house within the same camp, which did not really stop the harassment, as I would still meet this guy and be subjected to his abuse. There are plenty of complaints about Budel from LGBT+ people who have been tormented by other refugees. COA is either ignoring these complaints or doing very little about them.

LGBT+ asylum seekers need safe housing and a system that protects them. In the refugee camps in Arnhem and Wassenaar, I found two LGBT+ contact persons who looked after us and made us feel safe. My experience in those camps was more positive. I have very fond memories of a COA staff member called Donna, who was unbelievably helpful. Once a week, she would organize a meeting for LGBT+ people, which made us feel both connected and supported. Another COA staff member called Nikkie was also very supportive. In Arnhem and Wassenaar, the possibility to share a room with other LGBT+ people – not available in Budel –made a huge difference for my well-being and that of my friends.   

In Lebanon I was terrified to question my gender identity and to live my sexuality. Coming to the Netherlands has enabled me to express myself and to be true to whom I want to be. I now identify as non-binary and work as an activist for Trans United Europe, an organization that supports black and people of color (bpoc) who identify as trans. Through the activism that I do and through the friends that I have made in the Netherlands, I have come to appreciate a sense of community that gives me hope about the future.

Yet, Covid has been really tough for asylum seekers like me. The pandemic hit the Netherlands when I was at the Wageningen camp. That’s when they told us that the Immigration Service (IND) would stop processing our applications for a while. It felt like a slap in the face, especially given that I had already been waiting for 9 months: consider that we were told that the average time for processing applications was 6 months. I started having the most horrible thoughts, like that I would die from Covid before getting the chance to live the life I have been so desperately waiting for. The health regulations within the camp have been a bit of a joke. Safe distancing, for example, has been almost impossible to practice. I share a room that is 4m² with 3 more people and we all touch the same things. If one gets covid, we all do. I’ve been worrying a lot about what it would mean for someone with HIV like me to become ill with covid. That’s why I’ve recently started taking anti-anxiety medications. I’m doing my best to take care of myself, as the asylum system is not really taking much care of people like me right now…

*The Netherlands still do not offer a separate housing facility for LGBT+ asylum seekers.