By Lucy Westcott for Newsweek
Two gay refugees from Syria and Iraq testified Monday about the constant fear of violence and death they experienced living under authoritarian governments, militant groups and the Islamic State (ISIS) in the first-ever meeting on LGBT rights at the United Nations Security Council.
Their testimony was part of a closed session co-sponsored by U.S. and Chile, held to highlight the risk of violence faced by LGBT people in ISIS-held areas.
Homosexuality is generally not accepted in the cultures of many Middle Eastern and African countries which has led to the persecution of many in the LGBT communities. Protecting the rights of these groups is further complicated in areas where armed conflict is raging.
In Syria and Iraq, the presence of ISIS “has increased the vulnerability of millions…and further entrenched structural and cultural violence against women and [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] persons,” Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, told the Security Council on Monday. Stern urged U.N. agencies to create programs to assist LGBT people and for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and governments to help resettle LGBT refugees.
ISIS is well-known for documenting their acts of brutality against anyone who violates their strict interpretation of Islamic tenets, including gay people. Since beginning their campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate across Iraq and Syria in last year, ISIS has killed at least 30 people for “sodomy ” including by stoning, shooting them to death, beheading them and throwing them from the tops of building.
Monday’s session featured a disturbing slideshow of images depicting the killings of those accused of sodomy by ISIS between June 24, 2014 and August 2, 2015.
Subhi Nahas, a gay Syrian refugee, addressed the Council in person while “Adnan,” a gay Iraqi, spoke by phone and used a pseudonym for his own security. Nahas said he hoped his testimony would highlight the struggle faced by many LGBT youth in ISIS-besieged areas, while Adnan told the Security Council he had to leave a society where “being gay means death.”
“I was hoping that my message will prove that LGBT is not just a terminology invented by the West, but there is an LGBT community in the Middle East and in Africa and they stand together and they want their rights too,” Nahas told reporters outside the Security Council on Monday.
Nahas described how attacks on gay people in Syria ramped up in 2011 as rebel militias and armed groups, as well as Syrian government troops, arrested and beat gay men in bars, parks and other locations known for being frequented by LGBT people. In 2012, Nahas was arrested along with 11 others at a government checkpoint while on his way to university. He said he was held longer than the others as soldiers mocked him for being gay before letting him go after a few hours.
After his detention, Nahas went back home. His father became increasingly violent toward him and he was afraid to go out.
A few months later Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian militant group linked to Al-Qaeda, took control of Nahas’s hometown, Idlib, and vowed to cleanse the city “of everyone who was involved in sodomy,” Nahas said. “I was terrified that would be my fate,” Nahas told Newsweek on Tuesday.
“I knew I would face death if I didn’t do anything, so I contacted my friend in Lebanon and I arranged my escape there,” he said.
From Lebanon he went to Turkey—two countries with “lots of homophobia [that are] very narrow-minded,” although slightly better for LGBT people than Syria, said Nahas—then to San Francisco, where he has lived since June. Now Nahas works for the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM), a policy group that helps resettle LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. In Turkey, he was threatened by ISIS operatives.
Nahas said he felt “very empowered” to address the Security Council. “We’re doing something really big,” he said.
My own family turned against me when [ISIS] was after me," said Adnan. "If [ISIS] didn't get me, members of my family would have done it."
Neil Grungras, founder and executive director of ORAM, says most LGBT refugees originate from the Middle East—namely Syria, Iraq and Turkey—and Africa—primarily Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia.
Members of the LGBT community "really fear persecution" as they “watch these horrendous sights of people being hurled off buildings,” Grungras said. "They won’t come out and request protection because they’re too afraid to tell anyone," he said.
According to ORAM, approximately 400 self-identified LGBT Syrian refugees live in Turkey, which is now home to nearly 2 million Syrian refugees. That number is likely much higher, but they are afraid to speak out, Grungras says. Fewer than 100 LGBT refugees are resettled in the U.S. every year, a number ORAM is trying to increase. Gay women are much less likely to seek refugee status than men, something Grungras puts down to women being less empowered, having less resources or, in many cases, needing their father's permission to travel or get a travel document.
Chad and Angola, two members of the 15-member council, did not attend Monday’s meeting, according to diplomats who spoke with the Associated Press, although their reasons for doing so were unclear. Being gay is illegal in Angola, and while homosexuality is legal in Chad, the country’s government isseeking to outlaw it. The remaining members of the council made statements at the meeting, except for Russia, China, Malaysia and Nigeria.
Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., spoke with the media after the Security Council session, which she called “a very moving meeting and “a sign that this issue is getting injected into the mainstream at the United Nations.”