Close on five years into his forced conscription into the Syrian army, bombs smashed into the military base in the city of Deir ez-Zor, where Fadi Salim* was stationed. Injured in the attack, he was sent for medical treatment in the capital, Damascus. It was there where, two weeks into what ended up being a six-month stay, he met Abbad Asfour*. They fell in love.
“If we want to be together, we have to leave Syria,” Salim told Asfour. That was 2015. A year earlier, a report by Graeme Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights programme, was published in The Washington Post. The report — “The double threat for gay men in Syria” — listed the watchdog’s findings on human rights violations of gay men in that country: forced anal testing, rape, torture and harassment as well as excommunication and “honour killings” by families.
Although fully aware of the risks of being gay in the country, Salim says: “I didn’t want to leave Syria. But then, after I met [Abbad], I started feeling something serious towards him … So we started planning to leave Syria.”
Because Salim was serving in the army (and therefore not allowed to leave the country), the plan was for him to be smuggled out. Asfour would catch a flight to join him in Turkey and they would find smugglers there.Their destination: Germany.
Salim reached the Turkish border a few weeks later. “We had to run for about three or four hours without stopping, because if we stopped, they would catch us. After we got to the Turkish side, we still had to keep running because the Turkish border patrol was firing at us. They were shooting and shooting, and it was really horrible.”
A month after leaving Damascus, he knocked on the door of a Turkish friend. “I said, ‘I just want to shower’. I just wanted to be in a room alone and … I basically didn’t shower for a month. Once I went to the shower, I think it was the first moment I realised I am free. And you know when they say ‘cry me a river’? I was literally crying rivers under the shower.”
The month apart from Asfour was, he says, really hard. “So when I got to Turkey, I called him and said, ‘I know we don’t have enough money to get you out, but I will figure out a way’.” The couple borrowed money so Asfour could book a flight to Turkey, and then they could be smuggled into Germany.
Getting from Turkey to mainland Europe meant a rubber boat trip for the couple to the Greek island of Lesbos. Asfour, who could not swim, recalls that “they had to pump the boat [full of air] in front of us. It was all so surreal. They told us to get in. Women in the middle and men on the sides. I realised then that, shit, it is going to happen. There was no one to stop us now. I was still hesitating. It was just creepy, you know, to look at the boat … and the sea.”
But, Salim says: “I told him if we fall into the sea, he will hold me in every possible way. We either arrive together on the shore or we die together. I didn’t want to arrive there alone.”
They made it safely and, two weeks and numerous countries and refugee camps later, arrived in Germany.
“I didn’t feel like I am happy,” Asfour recalls. “I was tired and … processing the whole process of just moving, you know? Because when you take an aeroplane from one country to another, you land and say, ‘oh what a nice country this is’. But when you travel through 12 or however many countries, you don’t believe it’s really happening. So I had to pinch myself to see that this is happening. It’s not a dream.”
For Salim, however, the two-month journey had taken its toll. His body gave in. “Once we got to a refugee camp in Munich, I got really sick. I think my whole body broke down after we got to Germany because I knew that we’d arrived at our destination [and] I don’t give a fuck afterwards what’s going to happen. So I completely broke down.”
The couple settled into their new lives. In 2017, in response to a homophobic post by a Syrian-based Facebook page he followed, Salim created his own website, LGBT Arabic. This was for queer people in and from Arab countries, many of which still have repressive anti-homosexuality laws.
The site’s Facebook page kicked off its first campaign, “We are everywhere — you are not alone”. It asked queer people in the Arab world to post pictures of themselves “to show every member of the LGBT community in the Middle East who is feeling lonely that we are literally everywhere”.
The campaign was so successful that it received close to 500 photographs, including from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Jamaica, Russia and the United States.
As the page grew, Salim enlisted help and now works with a small team of volunteers from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and Tunisia.
“At the moment, our main mission is to translate a lot of scientific stuff about us from English to Arabic.”
Despite having more than 31 000 page likes and 40 000 followers, mostly in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria, generating an income from the site is proving to be tough.
But, being aware of the difference they are making in people’s lives, the team pushes on. Recalling the success of the first campaign, Salim says: “I was really proud. You know, when I started the page, I was living freely. I was with my boyfriend and I was happy. So I was thinking everyone on this planet should have the same privilege that I have at the moment. A lot of people sent me messages that made me cry. I was really touched by how happy people were after just seeing that there are a lot of people that feel the same way they feel and who are supporting them from everywhere. Just that made me feel very happy. I was like, ‘Okay, I own the world now’,” he laughs.
But the joy was short-lived. Unable to deal with the pressures of unemployment and adapting to life in a foreign country, Salim and Asfour split up, four years into their relationship.
Whereas Asfour offers a diplomatic “it just wasn’t working”, Salim blames himself and the effects of the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression he has been diagnosed with. “I became withdrawn, angry and depressed. He couldn’t deal with it.”
For Asfour, too, the split has been hard. “I recently got acceptance letters from three universities, but I couldn’t even feel the joy of that. I am also suffering … My mood changes really fast. When I am at university, I can’t focus … Without home, without my family, without [Salim]. I would say I had a better life in Syria, healthwise. Even though I was living in war. Here, there is no war, but I am still feeling bad. Here, I enjoy the freedom, yes. But at the same time, it’s like you are locked in your own head. So the term freedom, I haven’t really lived that fully.”
Although Salim says he and Asfour “went through a lot of terrible things” on their journey together, he adds: “On the inside, I was really happy. I was really happy, actually. No matter how bad it was, it was good for me [because] I was with the one I love.”
Not even the success of his website, which he finances himself even though he is unemployed, can stem his sadness.
“Obviously, I appreciate everything. All the support makes me happy, yes. But I don’t think it interacts in any way with my personal life. The sad part of me has nothing to do with this. I don’t feel like this part can help it in any way. It can’t take away the sad parts in me. It just can’t.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian