“I’d rather not reveal my identity,” says N., who sits in a yellow armchair holding his hands tight. N. is quite timid. Although he is 27 years old, he seems much more mature for his age. Displacement and its outcomes make people older, you can see its traces on their faces. N. is coming from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He has been living in Thessaloniki for the last 5 months and he is a beneficiary of Safe Refugee, SolidarityNow’s specialized assistance program for LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers.
Addis Ababa, in Amharic, the official language of the country, means “new flower”. Even though the name represents something new and fresh, the city – like the whole country – remains deeply conservative. Under Article 629 of the Criminal Code, both male and female same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This is because homosexuality can lead to shame-induced suicide. That is why N. declares without a second thought. – “Now I feel safe. When I was in Chios and in Turkey I couldn’t imagine I would have this life”.
N. worked in various local NGOs, supporting vulnerable social groups (mainly children and women). Apparently, everything went well in his life. He was doing a job that he loved, he was earning good money, he had good friends, and he didn’t have any problem with his family. In fact, he had plans to continue his studies by doing a master’s degree in psychology. However, N. was forced to live a double life as he had to keep his sexual orientation a secret. Everything began to change after he has been targeted by the police.
Any indication of intimacy between people of same sex, from grasping hands to passing hands around the shoulders may have a different and dangerous interpretation by the society and the police. Many young people in Ethiopia find “shelter” on the web, where, through various websites, they meet people.
N. was communicating with a guy from Addis Ababa, who had met him through a dating site. This person lived abroad but he was planning to visit Addis Ababa. The two of them met and spent some time together. When they went to his friend’s hotel, the security arrested N. They took him to the police station where he stayed for one day in the prison. “It was disgusting. It was very unpleasant experience for me, “says N. and tightens his grip in the armchair. His problems didn’t finish. He went to court where he was found guilty of homosexuality, but he was acquitted for lack of evidence. The court terrified him. “In my country, being gay is very bad, it’s like being the devil. After all these, I didn’t want to stay in Addis Ababa anymore. The next stage would be to put me in jail, “says N. He took the final decision to leave when one of his brothers called him and threatened him by saying that he would kill him if he will find that he is homosexual. “I didn’t want my family, my father and my mother to learn the truth. It was then that I decided that I wanted to live! “Says N.
How can someone want to remain in a country where in 2014, Patriarch Abune Mathias, head of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church, condemned homosexuality. During his announcement he said, “I would like to confirm to all Ethiopian that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church will fight this grand sin fiercely to the end”. According to the Star-Sponsored Homophobia report, a global survey of sexual orientation laws, developed by ILGA (International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex), published in May, homosexuality is outlawed in 32 African countries.
N. left Ethiopia in January 2017. He paid smugglers to get him across borders to neighboring Sudan. He has been stacked along with other Africans in an unknown place, where they gave them food and water once a day. For a month he didn’t know if it was day or night. Eventually, they gave him a fake passport and an air ticket to Istanbul. They told him that someone would wait for him at the airport. The guy took him outside the airport area and told him that he would return, but he never came back. L. didn’t know where to go and what to do. He just wandered around the city. Later that night, he was walking on a street, when he heard two people, a woman and a man speaking his language. He approached them and asked for their help. His two compatriots accommodated him for 15 days and advised him that it’s better for him to leave Turkey. They even gave him $ 500 to pay the smugglers to get him in Greece. He tried twice to sneak across the borders. The first time he was arrested by the Turkish police. He spent 10 days in prison. The second time he succeeded, and he arrived in Chios. In Chios, the situation was quite difficult because he didn’t feel safe and he had to keep his sexual orientation a secret.
N. became beneficiary of SolidarityNow’s Safe Refugee program -implemented by UNHCR’s support 5 months ago. Since then his life has changed radically and for the better. “Now I feel safe. I feel free. No one criticizes me because I’m gay”, N. confesses. We asked him if he has left behind his past. “It is difficult to erase the past. You don’t take easily the decision to leave your country. When you live there, you have almost everything, your family, your friends, your job … But when you leave, you lose everything for a long time, because you do not know when you will return. It’s hard to forget all that, but to some extent I prefer to be here because I have rights here, because Greece is an open society. I saved my life, but my feelings are mixed. At the same time, I feel unhappy because I left my country, but I am also happy for my new life”, says N. Few months ago, he wanted to leave Greece but now he sees his future here. N. has made 6 good Greek friends, who have been standing next. Moreover, his main priorities are to learn Greek, to continue his studies in psychology and to find a job in a NGO.
“Sometimes, people are coming here, and they have great expectations, but the reality is completely different. It would be very useful for people like me, to have a better understanding of what they will face in the country they want to go. I think it would be useful for us who have gone through this situation to be able to somehow share our experiences, “says N.
*N. lives in one of the SolidarityNow accommodation structures in Athens under the Safe Refugee program implemented by the organization and is part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ESTIA Support Program for Integration and Housing and funded by the European Union Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).
**Through the Safe Refugee Program, SolidarityNow provides accommodation to refugees, in independent apartments in Athens and Thessaloniki. The program’s beneficiaries receive free psychosocial support, legal counselling, they participate in educational and recreational activities, and are members of a wider support network that aims to improve their living conditions and support them during their stay in Greece.