Syrian Trans Refugee Mişa: Trans Guesthouse has become a home for me

Discussions on trans refugees were held as part of the trans pride week. Mişa, a Syrian trans refugee woman, lamented “I imagined that I would be happy in Istanbul. Apparently, I was wrong.”

Source: Yıldız Tar, “Suriyeli Trans Mülteci Mişa: Trans Misafirhanesi evim gibi oldu” (“Syrian Trans Refugee Mişa: Trans Guesthouse has become a home for me”). Kaos GL, 20 June 2015, http://www.kaosgl.org/sayfa.php?id=19661

Organized by the Istanbul LGBTI Solidarity Association, 6th Trans Pride Week continues. As part of the various panels and workshops taking place during the week, a discussion on trans refugees was held. Problems of trans refugees seeking shelter and various solutions to their problems including the trans guesthouse were presented.

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The panel, held at the İsmail Beşikçi Foundation, was moderated by Deniz Tunç. The speakers were Mişa, a trans refugee woman and occupant of the trans guesthouse; Zeynep Kıvılcım of the Istanbul University Political Sciences Faculty, Cansu Alözkan of the Refugees and Immigrants Solidarity Association and Selin Berghan of the Pink Life Association.

Trans Guesthouse provided shelter for 50 people

In her opening speech, Deniz Tunç provided updates on the Trans Guesthouse.  According to Tunç, the trans guesthouse provided shelter to almost 50 people. “We have hosted as many as 20 LGBTI refugees from war and we will continue to accommodate them as long as our resources allow us. It is, however, time to stand in solidarity with the guesthouse.” Tunç continued.

“I imagined that I would be happy in Istanbul, Apparently I was wrong”

First panelist Mişa, a Syrian trans refugee woman, talked about the hardships of being an asylum seeker and what she went through in Istanbul.

“When I first got here, I imagined that I would be very happy here and that I would have a good future. I thought people would be open-minded and respectful but apparently I was wrong. I escaped Syria because it is a homophobic country and I was not respected there. In Istanbul though, every day is a different adventure. I do not have a job. Istanbul is an expensive city. I do not have an ID card. I have no income to speak of. The only place I can live in is the Taksim area and it is very expensive here. I have thought about returning to Syria after going through all of these problems. I risked going back, even though my life was in danger there. That is when some people told me about the Trans guesthouse and that I could stay there. I met the people in the organization and they told me that I could stay with them until I get my life in order. Later, I registered with the United Nations as a refugee. If it were not for the Trans Guesthouse, I would be on the streets now.”

“I rented an apartment but they did not leave me in peace”

Mişa went on to say that after receiving financial support from her mother she left the Trans Guesthouse and rented an apartment for herself. She told of how she rented an apartment out of a commonly used building and how she was prevented from living there and had to go back to living in the guesthouse.

“There was an ad in the paper implying that it was a place where LGBTI could live in peace. But people kept disturbing me during my stay there. They kept ringing my doorbell for no reason, stealing my stuff and acting horribly towards me in general. I wanted to leave the apartment but the person running the establishment did not give me back my deposit. I told them, ‘you keep saying this is a LGBTI-friendly establishment so what kind of treatment is this?’” They replied ‘suit yourself’ and kicked me out.”

“Trans Guesthouse has become a home”

After that, I went back to the Guesthouse. I felt safe there. The guesthouse is not only a place where I stay, it is also a place that I miss like a home or family. Istanbul LGBTI works hard and I would very much like to help them and do some work for the association in the future.”

Zeynep Kıvılcım talked of her work with Syrian refugees who are women and LGBTI. She shared that she started her work with information and advice from other non-governmental organizations who were working with refugees. She continued, “we asked organizations that worked on refugee issues about the Syrian LGBTI refugees but realized that these people were invisible.”

“The interview in Kaos GL encouraged me to continue”

Kıvılcım said that, despite her many efforts, she did not succeed in reaching LGBTI refugees for a long time. It was only after she read an interview on Kaosgl.org that she could continue her work.

“When I asked the LGBTI organizations working in the field, I was not able to reach Syrian LGBTI. Finally, they told me about an interview on kaosgl.org with a gay Syrian refugee. I read that interview, reached the interviewer and through him, finally met a young gay man from Syria. A new door had opened when I had lost all hope of reaching anyone.”

Kıvılcım talked about the importance of organizations like the Trans Guesthouse, saying “every organization working on Syria was saying that there could be no immediate solutions to the shelter problem. This is where solidarity acts such as the trans guesthouse became important. After contacting a lot of places, I was then able to reach Istanbul LGBTI and Trans Guesthouse. When I asked them whether LGBTI refugees could seek shelter there, the answer was positive. Trans Guesthouse is now where Syrian LGBTI refugees are referred to by ASAM (Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants).”

“LGBTI refugees also lack informal support structures like family”

Kıvılcım listed some of the problems of LGBTI refugees that she based on information she collected in the field.

“After the interviews we conducted, I can safely say that Syrian refugees are facing unsafe conditions for living and shelter. LGBTI refugees have a much more difficult time of it, because most of the time they are also denied support from their families. Informal support through family ties is one of the main survival strategies for refugees and LGBTI refugees do not have access to this. Support from religious organizations in the field is similarly lacking for the LGBTI. Lastly, the places where Syrian Refugees work, usually in terribly crowded and horrible conditions, are also places where Syrian LGBTI are systematically abused and mistreated. They are subject to systematic sexual abuse both in the workplace and their temporary shelters.”

“Government is unavailable when it comes to LGBTI Refugees”

Cansu Alözkan from ASAM also emphasized that the hardships faced by the LGBTI refugees are much more severe compared to the rest of the refugees. She added, “if there are certain abuses regarding women refugees or children, organizations like mine could force the government’s help into helping. We cannot solve shelter problems right away but we give it a try by getting the government involved. However, when it is LGBTI refugees that are seeking help, none of these procedures work.”

“The Republic of Turkey only accepts LGBTI in Prisons”  

Selin Berghan made the closing arguments of the panel by registering some of the problems of trans inmates in prison. She recorded that trials of trans woman inmates are rushed and that they receive their sentencing much faster than other defendants.

Berghan also criticized the “LGBTI Prison” project which has been on the government’s agenda. Berghan said, “The Republic of Turkey only accepts LGBTI in prisons. They are planning to construct an LGBTI prison but there are a number of issues outside prison.”

Berghan talked about the conditions in the prisons:

“Where the inmate will be located is always a problem. The inmate’s ward is determined according to whether the trans inmate is pre- or post-operative. If she has not had a sex change operation then the trans woman is placed in the male population. Then, the prison administration isolates the inmate in order to prevent potential violence from ward mates. Considering that not many trans women have good relations with their families and that they have very few visitors, trans women are more isolated than the rest. Despite these conditions, some trans women prefer the isolation in order to escape physical and sexual violence common in prisons. There are also a considerable number of obstacles for trans women to keep them from using the common areas and joining common activities. Trans women staying with male population are also deprived of amenities such as wax or tweezers. These are quite important items since they are part of the inmates’ identity as trans women. Also there are other incidents such as forced haircuts. These cause great traumas to inmates.”

Trans Pride Week continued today with the panel on “Trans Identities and Mental Health.” The weeklong organizations will end with the walk from Taksim to Tünel tomorrow at 5:00pm. LGBTI Pride Week will start on Monday, July 22nd.

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