* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
On the anniversary of Sarah Hegazi’s death, asylum seekers must be treated like human beings.
Sarah Hegazi was an LGBT+ activist and refugee based in Canada. Omar Ghoneim is a human rights activist and refugee based in France and M. A. Gad is an activist from Egypt.
“The walls have ears” is a common Egyptian proverb, but one might also say that “the shadows have eyes”. In Egypt, there is nowhere to hide, something of us know only too well. We are chased and hunted by a state and society that shamelessly violates our privacy, our bodies and our minds.
But ironically, this society, despite being homophobic, racist or misogynists, thinks of the West as the land of opportunity, culture and science. Indeed, particularly for those of us who are part of the LGBT+ community, “the West” is seen as a sanctuary, or as we call in Arabic, an alternative watan.*
Yet when we get to the West, struggling through the agonising process of applying for a visa and clearing airport security, what’s left of our humanity is a mere concept we once held. Our energy, like a sponge, is pressed and oppressed until we’re drained completely. We arrive in the West hanging on to life from a string.
Foolishly, some think this will be the moment they will be treated as human beings, only to find themselves in a situation that reminds them of home – where, for example, gays can’t kiss openly on the street without running the risk of being attacked. Many choose to apply for asylum, but the torturous process is little written about, particularly how it is designed to judge the worth of those in need of protection.
Asylum seekers will often be asked the same frustrating questions time and time again. Perhaps this is designed to make sure that you’re not lying, but more likely it is to break you down. But you must keep calm, despite your confusion or anger, despite your memory betraying you.
There are mountains of evidence that trauma affects memory. Yet, this is rarely taken into consideration by the courts. Trauma can be overwhelming. At times, asylum seekers aren’t even aware of what they’re going through; it takes time, for a traumatized person to make sense of what’s happening to them. But asylum seekers don’t have this privilege. And when you tell your story, it comes out in a haze – a factor that in turn will affect your application.
Asylum and immigration sum up our humanity like nothing else. Our need for refuge, their fear of the unknown, either brings out the best of us or the worst. The asylum process takes a long period of time, in which the asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are provided with limited resources. The toll on your spirit and your mental health is inestimable.
Yet, against all odds, you’re expected to integrate immediately into the same society that was trying to expel you, the society that is treating you like an undeserving and ungrateful burden.
On this day last year, we lost Sarah Hegazi, a dear friend and a kind soul who died by suicide. She couldn't find a shelter away from discrimination, not even in Canada. The truth is, the image of the West as a haven of diversity is not just a myth detached from reality in Middle Eastern minds; it’s a myth detached from reality for Westerners as well.
Our message to the West is that we aren’t asking for asylum to be arbitrarily granted to everyone. We are simply asking for our human rights.
A humane system is the solution to save the asylum seekers and refugees who are hanging to life from a string. It might save someone else from having the same end as Sarah.
We owe her this, the fight is not over.
And that’s our message to all queers in the Middle East: the West isn’t a haven or a sanctuary; it’s a place like any place. It has its own richness of history and battles of ideas. Homophobia is still present and alive, despite the Pride parades.
The difference is that the West remains the place where you can still fight, dream, and, above all else, hope.
* An Arabic/Urdu word that means homeland or a country of one’s own, but it is also a sensual and intimate word, that sometimes describes a lover in classical poetry. It connotates love, belonging and safety.
Note: This article is based on an unfinished 10-page-draft written by Sarah Hegazi and Omar Ghoneim