Chechnya's LGBT Muslim Refugees Struggle To Cope In Exile

Jan 5, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 8:10 am

Abdul Kadr's wife found out he was gay the night his relatives came to kill him.

She hid him inside the home in Grozny, Chechnya, where they lived with their four young children, and told him she'd stand by him.

"She saved my life," says Abdul Kadr, a silver-haired former businessman in his 40s.

Being married to a woman was how he hid his eight-year relationship with another man, also a married father. It was a way to survive in Chechnya, a largely Muslim southwestern republic of Russia where gay men are reportedly sent to torture camps and even killed.

Abdul Kadr is not his real name. He chose it for himself as protection from what he calls "the long arm of the Chechen secret police," which he fears will reach him even in the Netherlands, where he sought asylum early last year. A recent Human Rights Watch report suggests Chechen authorities are able to track down gay Chechens seeking asylum in Europe.

The Netherlands is one of a handful of countries in Europe offering protection to gay Chechens.

I meet Abdul Kadr outside the Amsterdam train station. He's with Artur, another Chechen who has also chosen a new name out of fear for his safety.

Artur says the Chechen secret police force gay men into outing their friends.

"The police electrocuted my friends, beat them, denied them food and water," says Artur, a mop-haired, 25-year-old former student with bright blue eyes.

The suspected gay detainees "slept on the ground, on concrete, while the drug dealers and terrorists slept in beds," he says.

'They are still afraid'

After spending their entire lives hiding their true selves, Abdul Kadr and Artur still find it nearly impossible to talk about their sexuality, even in a country that in 2001 became the first in the world to allow same-sex marriage.

Abdul Kadr found himself giving monosyllabic answers during a crucial immigration interview.

"I couldn't overcome my fear and give them details, even if it meant my life was hanging by a thread," he says. "I was terrified."

Listening with a grimace on his face is Sandro Kortekaas, who runs LGBT Asylum Support, a volunteer organization that assists refugees in the Netherlands.

Refugees who come from countries that crack down on the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities have rarely spoken publicly about their lives.

"So when you have the Dutch immigration service [asking] you to tell your whole story, and if there is something that is not good, it means they can say, 'Sorry, we don't think you are gay,'" Kortekaas says. "That's horrible."

Abdul Kadr says he would be killed if he's sent back to Chechnya, where President Ramzan Kadyrov claims everyone in the country is heterosexual.

One Chechen who came out publicly as gay sought asylum in Germany but was denied and deported back to Chechnya last September. Movsar Eskarkhanov publicly retracted his claims that he was assaulted for being gay and now blames his epilepsy medicine for his coming out. After returning to Chechnya, he apologized publicly, like others who criticize Kadyrov.

The Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service does not register the sexual orientation of those who apply for asylum, so it's hard to know how many LGBT asylum-seekers have been rejected.

"It can be, for example, that people have not given credible statements regarding their identities or nationalities," says Annick Oerlemans, a Dutch asylum officer. "It's really an individual assessment in every individual case. We have interviews with LGBT asylum-seekers basically every day, I think. And we're actually trained to make people feel as comfortable as we possibly can in order to get them to speak."

An Amsterdam nonprofit, Secret Garden, tries to help LGBT asylum-seekers open up even before those immigration interviews.

Elias Karam, a project manager at Secret Garden, says he works with traumatized refugees who are often self-hating because of the abuse they faced in their home countries.

"When it comes to their homosexuality," Karam says, "they just don't know how to talk. They are still afraid."

Every week, scores of asylum-seekers from the Middle East, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa gather at Secret Garden's old-timey dining hall to meet newcomers and share stories over homemade spicy chicken and fattoush salad.

At one recent meeting, held largely in Arabic and English, a transgender woman from Lebanon admits that she had a panic attack walking outside in makeup and high heels for the first time.

Others talk about beatings, rejection and isolation.

Some have fled Dutch refugee camps after homophobic attacks.

"They sleep in the woods because they are afraid of men from their own countries, who attack them and pee in their beds," says Carla Pieters, a Secret Garden volunteer who hosts LGBT refugees in her Amsterdam home. "They are afraid to trust anyone."

'What we left behind'

Abdul Kadr and Artur, the two Chechens, are working out their own experiences with Kortekaas from LGBT Asylum Support, who communicates with them with the help of a translator from Kyrgyzstan.

Abdul Kadr and Artur are Muslim and say they pray daily. "I'm always fighting with myself over my sexuality," Artur says, "but I still believe God loves me."

Though he and Abdul Kadr no longer live in constant fear, they are lonely, isolated and wary of reaching out to other Russian speakers.

Abdul Kadr is still waiting for a decision on his asylum request. He wonders if the Dutch think it's strange that he wants so badly to reunite with his wife and children.

"She's my best friend, and I can't live without my children," he says. "Gay people can be parents here in Holland."

Artur has received asylum but says he often dreams about something that seems suicidal — returning to Chechnya.

"I was never looking for freedom to be openly gay," he admits, lowering his eyes. "I didn't want my family to have any problems because of me. And now they have huge problems. My mom is literally losing her mind because the police come to our house every day."

He's too afraid to contact his family directly. A friend told him about his mother's nervous breakdown.

"I want to apologize to her because I've ruined her life," Artur says, breaking into sobs.

"It's not your fault," Kortekaas says, patting his back. "Don't punish yourself."

Abdul Kadr looks away and wipes away his own tears.

"We fled Chechnya because we did not want to die," he says. "But we cannot stop thinking about what we left behind."

Rosanne Kropman contributed reporting.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last spring, MORNING EDITION traveled to Russia, and one of the stories we reported on there was about gay men from the Russian republic of Chechnya. They were being hunted down and tortured by authorities. Some had made their way to an LGBT community center in Moscow, and there, one of them - we changed his name to Arnie to protect his identity - told his story through an interpreter about being delivered to his family's home unconscious in a burlap bag or parcel.

ARNIE: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Some guys came to his house and told the relatives, this is your son, he is homosexual. And everyone was shocked. And Arnie's uncle took him out of the parcel, he held his neck and was going to kill him.

GREENE: As you can imagine, many of these men were uncertain about their future. Some have now found refuge in the Netherlands. That's the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage, but it sounds like now their future is uncertain once again. Some of them are facing deportation, as Joanna Kakissis reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN STATION AMBIENCE)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Joanna. Nice to meet you.

I meet Abdul Kadr outside Amsterdam's train station. It's not his real name. He chose it for himself. And we're also distorting his voice for his safety. Abdul Kadr is serious and silver-haired, a married father of four from Grozny, Chechnya. Being married to a woman was how he hid his love affair with a man, also married and also a father. In Chechnya, where gay men are reportedly sent to torture camps, it was a way to survive.

ABDUL KADR: (Through interpreter) When I was with straight people, I totally condemned other gay men. You really have no other choice in Chechnya.

KAKISSIS: But Chechen police started following Abdul Kadr and outed him to his wife and relatives.

KADR: (Through interpreter) My wife found out the day. It was a life or death matter. On the night, the relatives came to kill me. She chose to hide me. She saved my life.

KAKISSIS: He fled to Moscow, where LGBT activists helped him reach the Netherlands last year. It's one of a handful of European countries opening their doors to gay Chechens. Abdul Kadr has befriended another Chechen here, Artur, also a name he chose for himself. Artur is a mop-haired 25-year-old with bright blue eyes. He says the police tortured his friends into outing him.

ARTUR: (Through interpreter) The police electrocuted my friends, beat them, denied them food and water. They slept on concrete while the drug dealers and terrorists slept in beds.

KAKISSIS: Artur and Abdul Kadr worried that Chechnya's secret police may even find them in Europe. But what's been hardest for them, it turns out, is just talking about their sexuality. Abdul Kadr found himself giving monosyllabic answers during a crucial immigration interview.

KADR: (Through interpreter) I couldn't overcome my fear and give them details even if it meant my life was hanging by a thread. I was terrified.

KAKISSIS: Listening with a grimace on his face is Sandro Kortekaas, who runs a volunteer network that helps LGBT refugees in the Netherlands.

SANDRO KORTEKAAS: For all refugees who come from countries where you can't be gay, you couldn't speak to someone about this. So when you have the Dutch immigration service, who ask you to tell your whole story, and if there is something which is not good, it means that they can say, sorry, we don't think you are gay - that's horrible.

KAKISSIS: The Dutch immigration service does not register the sexual orientation of those who apply for asylum so there's no way to know how many have been rejected.

ANNICK OERLEMANS: It's just a really individual assessment in every individual case.

KAKISSIS: Annick Oerlemans is an immigration officer.

OERLEMANS: We have interviews with LGBT asylum-seekers basically every day, I think. And we're actually trained to make people feel as comfortable as we possibly can in order to get them to speak about those things.

KAKISSIS: Elias Karam tries to help asylum-seekers open up even before that immigration interview. He's a refugee himself and works at Secret Garden, an Amsterdam nonprofit that helps LGBT refugees.

ELIAS KARAM: Many of these refugees, in their home country they are not used to talk about sexuality in general. So when it come about homosexuality, about their homosexuality, they don't know how to talk.

KAKISSIS: Karam encourages refugees who come to Secret Garden's weekly dinner meetings to talk to each other. At one recent meeting, held largely in Arabic and in English, a transgender woman from Lebanon admits she had a panic attack walking out in makeup and heels for the first time. Others talk about beatings, of rejection, isolation.

Back at the train station, Abdul Kadr and Artur, the two Chechens, are working out their own experiences. Artur says he often thinks about something that seems suicidal, returning to Chechnya. He breaks down as he explains why.

ARTUR: (Through interpreter) I was never looking for freedom to be openly gay. I didn't want my family to have any problems because of me, and now they have huge problems. My mom is literally losing her mind because the police come to our house every day.

KAKISSIS: Artur recently received asylum. Abdul Kadr is still waiting to find out. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Amsterdam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.