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Gay Syrian refugee couple build a new future in Germany

    Friday, December 11, 2015 - 13:41
    Photo Credit: 
    Gay pride march, Berlin, 27 June 2015. © ADAM BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

    By Lorna Hayes and Khairunissa Dhala from Amnesty’s refugee and migrants’ rights team at Amnesty's International Secretariat

    Said and his partner Jamal – who is living with HIV – fled Syria after being tortured for their political activism. They are excited about starting a new life in the capital, Berlin, after being resettled there.

    “We were so happy that we cried,” says Jamal* about the moment he and his partner Said* found out that Germany had opened its doors to them.

    “It was a moment of victory,” Jamal continues. “We were shocked that we were accepted for resettlement so quickly, [after just] six months.”

    They were lucky – many other refugees who qualify for resettlement wait much longer for that all-important phone call to say they can settle down for good somewhere peaceful and safe.

    A new home in Berlin

    The couple is surrounded by cardboard boxes and furniture, unpacking and getting organized in their brand new home. Their relief and happiness shines through – it’s been a long time since they’ve had a permanent home.

    Back in Syria, Said and Jamal used to work as journalists and were involved in politics. Then the security forces detained and tortured them, and it became too dangerous to stay. They fled to neighbouring Lebanon in 2014.

    But Jamal, who is living with HIV, couldn’t get the medical treatment he needed in Lebanon. And in January 2015, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, offered the couple a lifeline. Through Germany’s humanitarian admission programme for Syrian refugees, they were offered a place in Berlin.

    Jamal and Said relax in their new home in Berlin, Germany, September 2015. © Amnesty International

    Treated like a family

    “We left Lebanon on 8 January 2015,” says Said. “The weather was so cold when we got off the plane.” “We were excited and afraid at the same time,” remembers Jamal. “We didn’t know what to expect. We were prepared for anything.”

    After staying in a refugee transit camp for 12 days, they were sent to live in a Wohnheim – shared accommodation for families and young people. “We had our own apartment – we were really lucky that they dealt with us as a family and not as two single guys,” says Jamal.

    After nine months they decided to move on because they felt uncomfortable. “Someone from my German class knew I was gay and told our neighbours,” says Jamal.

    Applying for their own flat meant going to lots of interviews with their social worker. Eventually, they got the help they needed from an organization supporting people living with HIV.

    Building a new life

    When they first arrived in Germany, Jamal was worried about running out of the anti-retroviral medication he needs to stay healthy. But after getting help from a doctor, he can focus on other things, like learning the language. Said jokingly quips that he is jealous that Jamal is learning German so fast.

    They both attend classes five days a week and need to complete a basic course before they can apply for a job. Meanwhile, they’re both doing some journalism online - so far unpaid.

    Having a social life again has been a huge relief after the stress of being on the run for years. “It was one of the most difficult things,” says Jamal. “It takes a long time to build trust. But we’ve already made some good friends – German, Israeli and Norwegian.”

    And they both love Berlin for being a welcoming and easy place to be openly gay. “It is so different to Lebanon and Syria,” says Jamal. “In Lebanon there are two [gay] clubs, but it [being gay] is illegal.”

    Giving something back

    Right now, they are both focused on building their futures, starting by finishing their university studies. “I’m also interested in becoming involved with one of the political parties here,” says Said. “We were activists in Syria and we were involved in the protests [in early 2011, around the time when the conflict broke out.”

    “I want to work with other refugees who come to Berlin,” says Jamal. “I am a refugee so I know what they need. It would be great to be able to help others in the way that I have been helped.”

    “Most Syrians who arrive here have psychological problems because of what happened to them,” adds Said. “They feel that they’ve lost everything: friends, family, jobs – their life.” 

    Jamal says some refugees hide their sexual orientation or HIV status because they are afraid. “And if they hide, they don’t get help. We could help translate for people dealing with sensitive issues. Imagine if I wasn’t open about my health issues – it would be a disaster.”

    Overall, being resettled has given them the chance to start rebuilding the life they were forced to leave behind in Syria. “We want to start working, be independent, have good jobs and a salary,” Jamal and Said say. “That’s what we’re used to.” 

    *Names have been changed to protect the men’s identities.

    Learn more and Take Action: The Syrian Refugee Crisis