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Life as a transgender refugee in Turkey

A gay pride parade on Istiklal Street in Istanbul, 2014
A gay pride parade on Istiklal Street in Istanbul, 2014 AFP/Ozan Kose
Text by: Anne-Marie Bissada
9 min

Turkey has more Syrian refugees than any other country. But certain refugees, those who are gay or transgender are finding life difficult in Turkey, a notably conservative country.


Sitting in a more liberal part of town in Gaziantep, I’m surrounded by young people chatting away the evening. Girls are engrossed in conversation, men are joking around and couples out on a date, are sharing a dessert.

This café environment is one that can be found just about anywhere in the world. The only difference is here it is set against a background of growing cultural conservatism, especially in the realm of LGBT rights.

And it’s this subtly hostile atmosphere that 27 year-old Ziva, a transgender Syrian refugee, has been living in for over two years.

As he walks into the café to meet me, I'm struck by his piercing green eyes off set by his casual jeans and t-shirt. His demeanor is timid, yet there is a certain defiance and strength that comes through as he begins to tell me his story.

He asks me to refer to him by the name Ziva; the name he has chosen for himself when he finally gets his operation to be a female.

As he orders a drink from our waiter, it’s then that I notice how the server reacts differently and is more reluctant to wait on our table.

It's this type of treatment that Ziva says has made his life in Turkey unbearable since he’s been here. “It sucks,” he says, and goes on to explain that “socially it’s very hard for me to live here. Basically because people don’t welcome me that much, they don’t want people like me that much.”

But life back in Aleppo, in Syria, wasn't any better:

"It was way worse because I suppressed everything back in Syria […]. When I came out to my parents, I was 18 years old. They didn’t welcome the idea, they didn’t like it and it was a disaster. My family; they were always scared because they thought that I was going to act on it."

Because his parents were rather liberal growing up, Ziva says he had assumed that they would be accepting of his situation. But in retrospect, he describes the error of his ways ". . . maybe I was kind of naïve back then, I thought maybe they’d understand; that they’d support me. But they didn’t, so I was scared, I mean if my close family didn’t understand, how [was] I going to [come] out?"

His family's reaction to his openness coupled with the growing daily hazards of life in a war-torn city were beginning to take its toll.

Ziva describes the daily struggle in Aleppo: "I was living on the regime’s side. People might say it’s easier than the liberated side, but, still, we were under siege most of the time. There was a shortage of everything. Also, it was scary, [there] were random check points, you’re [at] the mercy of all these thugs […] who might rob you, might kill you, might abduct you, might do anything to you, in addition to the random shelling. Every day was just about trying to survive the day without being dead."

After finishing his university studies, Ziva got his call for military service. That’s when he knew he had to make an important decision: "you either go for compulsory military service and all that, or run away. I can’t do that, so I picked the easier option, to run away."

When Ziva told his family he was leaving, they decided to stay on in Aleppo. So he crossed over into Turkey alone.

To this day he remains estranged from most of his family, including two of his three brothers. He says he maintains some relationship with his mother, but she still doens't understand or support his situation as a transgender person.

With no friends or family in Turkey, he managed to chase down the one person he knew and from there began to build a life for himself.

But already, at his first job, he encountered problems. He says being a refugee coupled with being ‘different’ from the others meant that "they treated me really bad. They took really good advantage of my situation, you know, it actually reached a point of sexual molestation".

Although his job now is with an international NGO, he still encounters problems among the Syrian expats and Turks.

He's had to move many times since arriving in Gaziantep, after receiving death threats.

It’s for that reason that he keeps a distance from most people; choosing only those who he really trusts to tell about his situation and his problems. In actively maintaining a distance, he admits he spends much time alone, "getting away from people because they will not be able to understand me", adding that those who are close to him, provide the support needed for him to get through the day.

The ultimate goal now is to leave Turkey as well, for a country that will be both sympathetic to him as a refugee and as a transgender person.

"I have no life here. Let's face it I have no future here. I can’t plan for anything, I can’t even afford my medication, I can’t afford anything. The Turkish government will not support me, they don’t support transgender Turkish people. There’s no law to criminalize us, but society rejects us, and the government does not protect those people."

While he continues to work and keep a low profile in an environment that's not always welcoming to Syrian refugees, yet alone transgender ones, Ziva hopes his application for sponsorship by an LGBT organisation abroad will be picked up, so he can finally begin living.

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