my heart is on fire



I’m not yet finished jotting down the spelling of Neal Berneya’s name before he tells me the war killed half his siblings. He neither hastens over this fact nor allows it to fill the space between us, moving on nonchalantly with why he came to Denmark - his boyfriend’s death. Killed by a stray bullet on the Lebanese-Syrian border, everything reminded him of Nor, who he had been seeing in secret. Neal, a gay man from Damascus, told me, “At that point, I felt like ‘Holy shit, I can’t stay here.” Within six months he’d leave for Europe.

Neal is one of thousands of lesbian, gay and transgender asylum seekers caught up in the swell of humanity surging into Europe from the Middle East. However, unlike many fleeing their country’s political turmoil, refugees who are queer often also flee a life of homophobic harassment, abuse and legislated discrimination.

Here in Europe, though, the men and women discover still more obstacles to navigate. In camps, trans and gay refugees face violent assaults, rape and humiliation from other refugees, and in the dating world, Europeans frequently exotify or irrationally fear these people from another culture. Neal, on one coffee-date, was told flatly that he must intend to hurt his Danish suitor or kidnap him, and on another was lured into an non-consensual threesome in a club bathroom, only narrowly breaking away.

LGBTQI* asylum seekers and refugees live at the intersection of xenophobia and homophobia, homeless in their home countries, yet struggling for a foothold in Europe as well. But somehow, under this oppressive force thrives community. Organizations across Europe have formed to provide resources and a sense of unity for these members of a minority within a minority and queer people are finding support amongst each other. Europe offers many queer refugees new freedoms and the chance to discover their identities in a safer environment than at home. And as the particular issues they face gain recognition, NGOs are helping to pick up the slack. “I know the situation where you need help and can’t find it,” Ibrahim Mokdad, an LGBT refugee activist says. “So that’s why I offer help. If you want to call it activism, volunteer work, you can, but I call it supporting one another.”

So it is this work of building community, of living among xenophobia and homophobia, of migrating and seeking refuge that this body of work addresses. The people I met while doing this work are whole and complex individuals. These vignettes highlight some of what makes them who they are and who they hope to become.

Neal Berneya, 23, of Damascus, Syria in his Copenhagen apartment.

“I’m very used to losing people to mystery.” — Neal

Can posing for a selfie they took while in Germany, before the attack.

Çan Mohammed Ahmed

Can isn’t sure what pronoun to use when I ask them. They’ve used “she” in Iraq and Turkey, where they lived as a woman but have since used “he” after arriving in Germany. They want to live as a woman, but on a Friday in June of 2016, another refugee in Can’s camp in Cologne attacked them with a knife for being a transgender person. “He was screaming Allah Akbar, and running after me,” Can said. “Since that day I don’t want to go out as a woman, anymore.”

After some more thought, Can tells me they’ve decided “they” is best for them.

Can decided to flee Turkey after a suicide attempt. “For me, it was all about my mental issues,” they said. “I don’t feel like a man, I don’t feel like a woman. I’m in the middle.” People always taunted and humiliated Can for the way they acted or dressed and after years it culminated in gashing his wrist in a suicide attempt. He recovered and started to save. He would seek asylum in Europe.

Now in Germany, and not yet feeling safe to live as they want, Can finds community with other queer refugees in his city. With the help of an activist, Ibrahim Mokdad of Rainbow Refugees, they filed a police report about the knife attack and found new housing out of the camp system. But every morning, Can passes the mirror by his bedside and sighs. “I want to break the mirror when I see it,” they say. “I see my beard and my chest hair. It takes me back to my reality and I wake up.”

A map which shows the location of Can’s assigned camp upon their arrival in Germany. Kyffhäuserstraße 26-28 would be where a fellow refugee attacked Can and they became too afraid to present as a woman.

“I want to break the mirror when I see it.” — Can

Can yells at a Turkish man who, during the Düsseldorf Pride Parade, ripped Can's Turkish flag out of their hand, yelling at them, saying they were a disgrace to their country and do not deserve to hold the flag.

Can poses for a portrait dressed in men's clothing, despite the discomfort they say it causes them, becaues they would rather live as a gay man than feel unsafe living as a trans woman in Germany among the refugee community which can be homo- and transphobic.

“My heart is on fire.” — Can

Azad Ibrahim

Azad’s apartment strikes you with its order. After slipping on the shoes he provides for visitors, the cleanliness float from every corner, off of every ordered table and bookshelf. Azad is a doctor. He worked in Syria until the inquiries to join this or that military group became too frequent. Since coming to Cologne nearly two years ago, he’s moved in with his German boyfriend, Christian, whose apartment they share and he neatens. “Many LGBT refugees don’t have any idea how to deal with the gay community here,” he says paternalistically, “high numbers of refugees are using drugs like ecstasy or GHP and many of them don’t know the safe dosages or side effects.”

For Azad, one the other hand, European gay culture wasn’t a complete shock, having lived in Turkey and Lebanon. But he feels as though many of his fellow queer asylum seekers are lost. “They are overwhelmed by the access to gay culture.” He also doesn’t see himself as like many of the other gay refugees — he wants to mostly mingle with a European crowd. They are stable, he says - doing well in their lives. But, on the other hand, he explains, the refugees do understand him in ways Europeans can’t. “European gays don’t make as much of an effort,” he says, “we have the same language and culture. It’s nice.”

More though than his social life, Azad worries for his father. Growing sicker as the years past, he and Azad were incredibly close in Syria. “He’s everything to me. I’m a person who doesn’t let people into my life easily but he and I, we listen to each other,” he says, “He gave me my freedom. He encouraged me to study medicine. He put his dreams into me.”

Two months ago Azad’s father suffered a stroke and now has trouble remembering his son. “Because I am far away he can’t remember me as easily,” Azad says, “it feels so bad but Christian is helping me.” He hopes he will be able to bring his father to Germany.

A photo of Azad's parents in Syria which his mother sent to him. Azad is very close to his father, describing him as his best friend. Azad’s father, however, is quite sick, and has difficulty remember Azad when they Skype.

Azad on a truck somewhere between Turkey and Germany.

“I would say most LGBT refugees are using drugs or not using condoms. There needs to be basic sexual education.” — Azad

Behoosh Kamaei, 30, of Iran, fled Iran for being gay, where it is punishable by death, following two separate arrests for the 'crime'. After a journey through Eastern Europe he's come to Sweden but is disappointed by the homophobic Muslim community here and as an atheist, himself, cannot understand why people cannot let others live their truths.

“My family thinks I am Satan.” — Behoosh

Behoosh Kamaei of Iran drafted this cover letter in Swedish to apply for a job at a retirement home as a nurse in Helsingborg, Sweden where he’s received asylum. His Swedish teacher helped him correct it. To me, he speaks about a lack of support for refugees. “No one gave me any information,” he says, “no one told me this is this, this is that. I learned everything by myself.”

Ibrahim Mokdad with his balcony garden in his flat in Cologne.

Ibrahim Mokdad

“At the age of nine I had feelings for boys,” Ibrahim Modkad says while smoking sheesha on his balcony. He goes on about an afternoon several years later when he and his parents were watching afternoon television where a transgender person was the guest. He realized then how he related to that person’s feelings of confusion. “I said to my parents that when I grew up I wanted to be like them,” he said, thinking it was normal because it was on TV. “My dad became angry and beat me and sent me to my room.” Ibrahim sobbed. “I cried,” he tells me, “not because of the beating, but because I couldn’t hear more about the interview.”

Ibrahim would later go on to study in Beirut and there discover more people like him in a slightly more tolerant city. For years he lived as a quasi-out gay man, enduring violence, humiliations and microaggressions, but he always tolerated it.

“One day though, during Ramadan, I met someone on Grindr. It was a trap.”

The man, who was in fact homophobic and only using Grindr to find gay men to harass and victimize, attacked Ibrahim. The man fought with him, and they ended up on the his balcony. “I was screaming for someone to help me,” he said, “and because the man couldn’t shut me up, he pushed me from the balcony and I fell, landing on a parked car.” Ibrahim shattered a leg, broke a rib, and fractured his lower spine. His assailant was charged with attempted murde. After eight months of recovering and major surgery on his leg, involving the insertion of a metal bar with two four-centimeter screws, Ibrahim was charged with the crime of homosexuality. He and his assailant would meet for the second time in the courtroom.

“In court, when he saw me, he said, in Arabic, ‘mesh kol mara, teslam el gara’ which means, ‘not every time you will be rescued,’” Ibrahim said. “This made me realize he wants revenge and is when I decided to leave.”

His goal was to reach the Netherlands, after traveling by boat across the Mediterranean, but due to complications from his injuries, he ended up hospitalized in Cologne. “I kept saying to the doctors I wanted to go to the Netherlands,” Ibrahim said. “Eventually a nurse asked me why, and I explained that I am and thought it was better for me there.”

The nurse replied, “No it’s okay. You are here in Cologne. It is okay to be gay here.”

“It was the first time in my life, I had heard it’s okay to be gay.”

Now Ibrahim works full-time as an activist and community organizer, speaking on behalf of queer refugees and documenting cases of homophobia for non-profits.

“I want Europeans to know that we are educated people. We are productive people. At some point we don’t need your ‘help’ because we are not weak. The situation was weak for us. We are strong. We are strong enough to prove ourselves.” — Ibrahim

Ibrahim Mokdad poses for Can while they go back towards downtown Cologne to visit Ibrahim's boyfriend who is visiting from Berlin. While waiting for the train a woman spontaneously asked why I was photographing them, to which I answered for a project on LGBT refugees. She then asked Ibrahim if he "always dressed like that or if he was exaggerating." He looked a bit offended but politely answered that he always dressed like that.

A copy of Lebanese legislation, allowing law enforcement officials to force those accused of homosexuality to submit to an “anal test” to prove if they’ve been penetrated anally. Ibrahim was subjected to such a test.

Ihsan "Shani" Debboun's hand-written asylum request for the German government, which she was uncomfortable having photographed legibly due to the personal stories of abuse and family issues it details.

Ihsan "Shani" Debboun

After navigating through the cosmetics store where she works and directly behind which she lives, I meet Ihsan Debboun, her hair still wet from the shower. It’s noon and the air is hot and wet, foretelling rain, yet the humidity does nothing to dampen her urgency. The day we meet, she has an appointment with the German immigration office in Cologne, and Ihsan, or Shani, her nickname, will not be late.

Born in Morocco to a Jewish mother and Muslim father, Shani is as driven as she is storied. Always a self-described tomboy, growing up a religious and sexual minority in a Muslim country, she was no stranger to sideways glances and rumors. “In Morocco, if you are Jewish, you go to hell,” she says while fast-walking down the subway platform in Cologne, “so it’s not just that I’m a lesbian, it’s also that I’m Jewish — it was always not good for me.” Add on to that societal discrimination, a severely abusive father and a distant relative who wants her dead after discovering explicit pictures of a girlfriend and Shani, and one understands her reasons for leaving home.

“My father doesn’t know what ‘father’ means. He was always hateful,” she says, “I hated to come home — it was so chaotic. I needed to ask myself, why should I be here?” And so she left, yet unlike many refugees, Shani first started working for cruise ships around the Mediterranean and used an Italian work visa to enter Germany after flying in. “I was never in a camp. I came to Germany to stay with a friend, and arrived like a tourist,” she says. Shani didn’t think about applying for asylum at first. She wanted to start a life, start a business. “All the time, I refused help. I wanted to make a life for myself, by myself,” she says. But soon, it became to impractical not to obtain refugee status, and after an initial denial, it was granted.

Today, Shani is hoping to receive her travel documents from the immigration office. We rush from her apartment to the train station photo kiosk and onwards to the Cologne branch of immigration services. Setting her bags down in the waiting room seats, she shows me Tzo Tzo, a small wooden mouse she carries around with her whenever she needs luck. She sits him on top of her passport photos and waits for her name to be called.

“I could spend all my time in the Job Center, waiting for housing, for money, but I don’t take it this way,” she tells me, “I was born to survive by myself.”

Her name is called and she goes in. Twenty minutes later, she returns grimacing. One more delay. Everything is in order, she says, but her documents won’t come for a month or more and she’s still unsure what travel restrictions she faces. She looks disappointed behind her restrained expression.

Back at her apartment, we discuss her past. “I need to move forward,” she says, “the whole story is painful but I cannot be looking back too much.”

“The future,” she explains, “you build it by living in the present. In two years, I want to have a kid, be married, and I will be a one hundred percent real mother. When you go too much into the past, it’s depression. I was there, but I left it behind.”

Shani’s German-issued identity document which permits her to reside in Cologne. She hopes her new travel documents will enable her to see more of Europe.

“My dream is bigger than my reality and if I stop reaching for my dreams I’m dead. And me as a refugee, it doesn’t stop me at all. What I want, I go and get for myself.” — Ihsan

Ihsan "Shani" Debboun calls a friend to let them know about the disappointing meeting with immigration regarding her documentation during which she learned her passport would take another six weeks to arrive.

Pouya Mohammadi

Pouya Mohammadi’s life changed when his neighbors caught him having sex with his boyfriend at home. Growing up in the southern city of Shiraz, Iran, homosexuality was punishable by execution, or at least social ostracization, and for a wealthy family like Pouya’s, neither was an option. Within days, Pouya’s uncle brought him to the Turkish-Iranian border and arranged a trip for Pouya to start a new life in Denmark. He was only 15.

Since that day three years ago, Pouya has integrated into Danish society. First, through living in a refugee camp, then by transferring into a traditional Danish school, learning the language and earning high marks in math and science. Despite his success and the sporadic financial help from his relatives, Pouya has not seen his parents or younger brother since he left. His father, who travels often to Europe for work has made no attempt to visit. When asked about how he copes with the emotions of abandonment, he says he often needs a hug, but it just isn’t possible.

Pouya as a child, held by his father. They have not spoken to each other since he fled Iran.

“I never had a chance to say goodbye to my mom or my dad.” — Pouya

Düsseldorf Pride, 2017.

“If I go back they will kill me. If not the police or the militia, then it will be my family.” — Sajad

Sajad Allawi

“I’m lonely now,” Sajad Allawi, 21, says in his cramped, converted hotel room housing him and another asylum seeker on the outskirts of Cologne. He moved to this camp after his brother, with whom he fled to Europe, saw him with a rainbow flag necklace. His brother confronted Sajad about it, calling him crazy and asking him why he would be doing this to himself. After that, Sajad applied for a transfer. He worried his brother might assault him.

“In Cologne I have safety and freedom. Here you can do what you love,” he says, “wear your hair how you want and have piercings.” But Sajad’s future in Cologne is uncertain. His asylum application was rejected and although it’s going through an appeal, deportation is a possibility. “[If I get deported] my heart would be broken. My dreams would be broken. If I go back [the militia or my family] will kill me.”

Additional Resources


* Rubicon Köln* Rainbow Refugees of Germany


* The Swedish Federation for LGBTQ Rights


* LGBT Asylum

Thank you to Soren Pagter and Sara Brincher Galbiati.