Germany: Berlin's LGBTQ refugee center a haven for those fleeing civil war, homophobia

Mahmoud Hassino, 43, fled for Turkey in 2011 as a devastating civil war started to break out in Syria. After spending three years in Istanbul, Hassino’s Syrian passport was set to expire, and he was fearful authorities in Damascus would refuse to renew it due to his well-known views against the Assad regime. This fear led him to head to Berlin on a tourist visa and quickly apply for asylum.

“When I went to Turkey, I tried to look at it as just moving to a different country. Berlin is different; you feel as if there is no going back,” Hassino told NBC News. Only two months after he submitted his asylum request, it was approved. Fortunately for Hassino, he arrived in Berlin in 2014, just before the European refugee crisis began to overwhelm the city’s bureaucracy, leaving tens of thousands of asylum seekers without adequate shelter and support. Between 2015 and 2017, nearly 1.4 million refugees have been registered in Germany, more than anywhere else in the European Union.

Refugees and asylum-seekers face enormous challenges in their journeys from nations where their very lives are at risk to welcoming countries. The plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender refugees is even more complex and, at times, dangerous. It is for this reason that Schwulenberatung Berlin, a prominent LGBTQ charity founded in 1982, decided to open Germany’s first major refugee center exclusively for LGBTQ people. The center, which opened in 2016, houses 120 people and provides them with access to legal services and counseling and functions as a safe space for LGBTQ refugees to share their experiences.

In many cases, when LGBTQ refugees are placed in overcrowded temporary shelters, like sports stadiums, they face the same discrimination they were trying to escape in their home countries. With many of them coming from Syria and Afghanistan, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, respectively, they are often targets of homophobic attacks by other residents in their shelter who also hail from these non-accepting countries.

“A great number of LGBTQ refugees don’t just flee because of war or civil unrest, but because of the discrimination, stigmatization and often torture they receive based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Stephan Jäkel, the manager in charge of refugee affairs at Schwulenberatung Berlin, told NBC News.  Read more via NBC