From Ethiopia to Athens Housing Collective: overcoming stigma and isolation
“I became a member of AHC in May 2019. And for me it wasn’t just about having a roof over my head, but about feeling safe, for the first time in a very long time. Before I met them, I felt like giving my life away to the railway many times.” Danela
by Ophelie Lawson on October 10
On October 20th, 2017, Danela, a transgender woman from Ethiopia, arrived in the Greek Island of Lesvos on a boat with 75 other people.
“There was way too many of us on this boat,” she says, “None of them had room, we were all squeezed. Not only did we not have space but we also couldn’t see a thing. Because we left and arrive during night time”
It was being persecuted for who she is and for who she loved that made Danela flee Ethiopia to ask for asylum in Greece.
“Twice during our journey, the boat stopped because we ran out of gas. It was a 3 hours journey. The longest of my life. I was scared. We were all really scared. And I can’t even swim.”
Danela left Ethiopia after seeing her boyfriend losing his life for being gay right in front of her eyes.
“We were caught in a hotel. We were sleeping in our room and a cleaner entered. We had forgotten to lock our door this night. And as soon as she saw us, the cleaner lady screamed and called people on us”
Being gay is still criminalised in Ethiopia, and the repression and oppression of LGBTQ communities makes it impossible for them to be seen in public settings.
Article 629 of the Ethiopian Criminal Code defines same-sex relations as ‘illegal’ and as a criminal offense.The Article provides that “whoever performs with another person of the same sex a homosexual act, or any other indecent act, is punishable with simple imprisonment.” (The National Sexual Rights Law and Policy Database)
“People from the hotel came into our room even before the police were called on us. Abed, my love, died that night. They started bitten us up. Someone had a machete. Before I could even realised it, someone reached Abed. A minute after, his head was detached from his body, just in front of my eyes”
Violation of the same-sex relation ban can lead to incarceration, and in certain instance death and torture. Which is the case with Danela’s story.
The number of countries still criminalizing same-sex relationships has dropped to 72 on June 11, 2019, after Botswana’s High Court overturned colonial-era laws criminalizing homosexuality.
In eight countries, same-sex relationships are still punishable by death. In other countries, even if the law is not officially against them, tradition and social norms make life for LGBT communities impossible/cruel/terrible.
In Ethiopia, both the law, tradition and social norms make it hard for LGBTQ people.
“As soon as I had realized what had happened. I fainted. I woke up in Prison, where I stayed for 7 months and 8 days. The thing I experienced there were inhuman. I was mentally abused, tortured. It was the toughest time of my life.”
Danela’s parents died when she was 10 because of their appartenance of the Oromo community. It was her uncle who paid for her release. 7 days later, she was on her way to Greece.
In Europe, sexual orientation and gender identity constitute solid grounds to claim refugee status, and the UN Geneva Convention is clear about that.
“I am not a terrorist, I am just gay” continues Danela.
The number of refugees risking their lives by trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean is at its highest. An estimated 54,224 arrived by sea in 2019 to Europe, according to the UNHCR. The ‘Desperate Journeys’ report, also released by the UNHCR, reported that approximately 2,275 died or went missing crossing the Mediterranean in 2018, ‘despite a major drop in the number of arrivals reaching European shores.’
“When I arrived in the camp on Lesvos, the UN welcomed us with jackets, towels, and coats. We were all freezing. I remember the very first days, everybody treated us like family. It felt like freedom.” she confesses. “But I realised soon enough that life as an LGBTQ person in the camp was not much better than in Ethiopia. And my life became more of a nightmare. I had to change tent 5 times because people would harassed me, discriminate me, call me names.”
I was to scared to speak to the UN. I didn't want people to come after me for snitching. And somehow, the camp and its culture. It was just like being back in Ethiopia.”
Reaching the mainland did not make it easier. For 6 months, Danela had to sleep in a park/outside where she met other people without shelter, and they would spend their night all together.
It was through Colour Youth, (an LGBTQ youth group created in 2011, and aiming to form a strong youth community, a space for LGBTQ youth to better express ourselves and assert their rights), that she came across Safe Place Greece.
“At this point, I became really tired. I was tired of every day being a struggle. I wanted to end it. But at the same time, I wanted to keep on trying. I had two choices: dying, or trying. So I searched on google for LGBTQ organizations, and this is how I found Colour Youth. I went to them and asked for help. For shelter. But because they don’t provide that, they told me about SPG, and gave me Joseph’s number. Not long after, I was given my life back. I was given accommodation.
AHC did not only help me with a shelter, with food and with support with my asylum claim, but also with love, and counseling. If it wasn’t for them, I would have taken a more darker path. I would have probably taken my life away.”
Since Danela has been with us, she has tried to help us in many ways, by doing volunteer shifts to help us in the center, by supporting our community and participating in as many workshops, events that we hosted. It gratitude for our support, she has even painted for us.
“Thank you Safe Place. And one day, I want to support them just as much as they did. You allowed me a new life and are the only family I have left.”