A young gay Syrian’s story – from Syria to Turkey

This is the story of Maher, who had to escape and migrate from Syria to Lebanon, then to Sudan, and finally to Turkey. A life wrapped in the war in Syria and dual discrimination both as a Syrian and as a gay man in Turkey. 

Source: Yıldız Tar, “Suriye’den İstanbul’a eşcinsel bir gencin hikayesi” (“A young gay’s story from Syria to Turkey”). Kaos GL, 24 October 2014, http://kaosgl.org/sayfa.php?id=17785

Millions of Syrians were forced out of their homeland as a result of the war in Syria and ISIS assaults. Some headed over to Europe; many lost their relatives during as their travels was well as the war.

Maher  Daoud, who we interviewed in a coffee shop in Kurtuluş, Istanbul, was  among the millions who had to leave their homeland. He had to leave Latakia in the 23rd year of his life which began in the city. Maher tells  the story of migration from Latakia [al-Lādhiqīyah]  to Lebanon, then to Sudan, and finally to Istanbul. He speaks fast, telling his story at once, as if someone were following us.

“Art is like breathing”

Maher,  who is now 24, is a young gay artist. He studied architecture in Syria.  However, he was forced to leave before being able to graduate. He also draws aquarelle and acrylic illustrations. Maher says that, in each of  his drawings, a gay story is hidden. To Maher, to make art is to breathe.  Because Syria does not have a “gay life,” art is the only space within which he can breathe.

I ask about the situation in Latakia. Maher says that life in Latakia is horrible:

“Latakia is Bashar al-Assad’s city. As such, the pressure was always intensive.  To speak, to do something was almost impossible. It was so in art too. I  had to put a lot of effort to be able to open my second art exhibit.  You have to get signatures from a lot of places. I had to deal with  almost every police officer in the police station. They examine each and every painting, find some to be “appropriate” and some “inappropriate.”  They kept asking why I was making such paintings. They were trying to judge whether I was against Bashar al-Assad.”


Maher dislikes talking about politics. This also has to do with the notion that “it is a sin to speak politics in Syria.” He thinks that politics changes nothing. He desires more art.[1]

Things became even tougher with war. He says that the war between Bashar al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)  made things much more difficult in Syria. To Maher, the rebellion for “freedom” was initially beautiful. However, everything changed when Assad began the massacres and when those opposing Assad began using the same methods [sic].

Even if Assad was not in Syria, I would not have stayed, ISIS is there!”

Maher reminds us that, as a result of the massacres by Assad, FSA, and ISIS, people who actually wanted freedom were forced to leave the country. He says that the Syrian populaton decreased from 24 million to 18 million.

“I could not have stayed in Syria even if Assad was not there. I am gay and a direct target of ISIS,” says Maher, who did not lose his hope for “freedom” despite the massacres. He says that the FSA wants to establish a society exclusive to Sunnis under the guise of freedom, while Assad is doing just the opposite: “Freedom is not like this. The domination of a religion or a sect cannot be freedom. A secular and cross-cultural atmosphere is a necessity for freedom.”

Police harassment in the streets of Latakia

Police invaded every street in Latakia following the war. The fact that police is checking for IDs continuously is affecting gays significantly.

“If you are gay, you are gay. Of course, the police knows this. It is impossible to hide it. You try to live under contiunous police  harassment. My friends were subjected to police violence. And this situation had become routine.”

Escape to Lebanon, then to Sudan

Despite all the pressures of the war and homophobia, Maher says that he left a part of himself in Syria. He tells the story of his departure from Syria:

“I  was trying to go from Syria to Sudan. For this, I had to first  go to Lebanon. It was truly difficult to get out of Syria. As in Turkey,  the problem of military conscription exists in Syria. They tried to prevent me from getting out of the country on the basis that I had not completed my military duty. I was able to leave because I was a student. I said I was going to join the military next year.

“I paid $400 to be able to pass through the Syrian border to Lebanon. My troubles did not end when I arrived at Lebanon. War was waiting for me at Tripoli [Ṭarābulus]. Finally I was able to get out of all the chaos and buy my ticket to Sudan. I lived in Sudan for a while after receiving my resident’s permit just like anyone else. My family came to Sudan as well.”

Dual discrimination in Sudan

Maher encountered discrimination in Sudan based on both his being Syrian and his gay identity. “Let us be honest, Sudanese people and us are not of the same nationality. Our lighter skin color creates problems. You can tell this even from the way people look at you. Again because [sic] of my gay identity, Sudan became an impossible place for me to live. I am not exaggerating, I once was almost raped by three people in a bus. I could barely get out of there.”

Istanbul… Discrimination continues

Following  his experiences in Sudan, Maher decides to come to Turkey in order to get “a little bit more respect”. The respect he expected to find in Istanbul is not there…

“If, in Istanbul, you tell people that you are from Syria, they react saying  “Oh my god, are you from Syria? Please die.” There are of course some people who approach the issue more  positively, but there are also those who approach me as if I am going to kill them when they learn that I am Syrian; they ask “Are you from ISIS?”

Again, I saw that Turkey is very much like Syria. In Syria too, it is of significant importance whether you are Alevi, or Sunni, or Christian. People here keep asking me about my religion and my sect. They decide whether they ought to talk to me or not based on that.”

A “reality” of Istanbul: Street harassment

He hesitates for a moment when I ask him about being gay in Istanbul. He looks into my eyes and says “In a single word, difficult.” He says he has been harassed on the street. The first Turkish words he learned ended up being “Come here, come” [“Gel gel”] and “Fuck off” [“Siktir git”]: “I did not know much about what these words meant but when I go out, people either curse at me or harass me from their cars.”

“If you are from Syria, you are a second class human”

Maher says that he lost count of how many times he has been harassed on the streets. He talks about only one of them so “we can grasp the problem better:”

“I’ll never forget this one time my friends and I were out for the night. I left the place and was on my way home. All of a sudden, a lot of guys got out of a car. They started following me. I did  not know what to do. I looked around looking for a police officer but then remembered that I am a gay Syrian in Istanbul. Even if there were police officers around, they would not have protected me, right? To people in Turkey, I am a refugee and below them. I did not know what to do and escaped by running.”

“I pretended to be Spanish”

Maher says that the attitudes of gays in Turkey towards Syrians is not that “embracing” either. Even though his gay roommates helped him with being gay in Turkey, he also had negative experiences:

“Being Syrian means being an Arab. And in Turkey, while European migrants and tourists receive significant respect, we do not. Being Spanish or Italian is perceived as brilliant. My life line is usually to tell  people that I am Spanish. When they ask for my name, I say Pedro. No  problems arise when they get to know me as Pedro. Then I tell them that I am Syrian and that my name is Maher. Then the attitudes and looks  change.

“On the one hand, everyone says ‘you are not like a Syrian.’ To them, they say so in order to emphasize that I am a good person. But I am from Syria and I am not ashamed of this.”

“You are Syrian, go file a complaint anywhere you want, you have no rights”

My last question is about what is perhaps the most important issue Maher faces. I ask him about how he earns a living. Maher says that he was raised as the child  of a rich family in Latakia. However he says that his family no longer wants to see him because [sic] of his gay identity. Currently, his  family is in Sudan and he is unable to receive any financial support.

However, he cannot find a job in Istanbul. The owner of a store he had worked at did not give him his biweekly check. Maher cannot obtain his earnings even though he agreed to make much less than the minimum wage[2]. When  he protests, they tell him “You are Syrian, go file a complaint wherever you want, you have no rights.”

The only job left to Maher is sex work. And the possibility of selling his paintings. Maher says that he does not have any issues with being a sex worker. He adds that if there were other opportunities, he would have prefered those: “I do not sell my body. My body is still mine. It will remain to be mine. But if there was another job, I would prefer that.”

[1] For a similar argument calling for art as a form of subversion against the dillemas of politics, see Julia Kristeva’s Women’s Time.

[2] Minimum wage in Turkey is about $380 (PCM). According to the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions, the current poverty threshold is about $1000 and the current hunger threshold is about $300. Average rent in  Istanbul, the city with the highest rent rate in Turkey, was about $360 –  $450 in 2012.


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